Great Zimbabwe is the name of the stone ruins of an ancient city near modern day Masvingo, Zimbabwe. People lived in Great Zimbabwe beginning around 1100 C.E. but abandoned it in the 15th century. The city was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, which was a Shona (Bantu) trading empire. Zimbabwe means “stone houses” in Shona.

Great Zimbabwe was part of a large and wealthy global trading network. Archaeologists have found pottery from China and Persia, as well as Arab coins in the ruins there. The elite of the Zimbabwe Empire controlled trade up and down the east African coast. However, the city was largely abandoned by the 15th century as the Shona people migrated elsewhere. The exact reasons for the abandonment are unknown, but it is likely that exhaustion of resources and overpopulation were contributing factors.

The archaeological site at Great Zimbabwe consists of several sections. The first section is the Hill Complex, a series of structural ruins that sit atop the steepest hill of the site. This is generally believed to have been the religious center of the site. The Hill Complex is the oldest part of Great Zimbabwe, and shows signs of construction that date to around 900 C.E.

The ruins of the second section, the Great Enclosure, are perhaps the most exciting. The Great Enclosure is a walled, circular area below the Hill Complex dating to the 14th century. The walls are over 9.7 meters (32 feet) high in places, and the enclosure’s circumference is 250 meters (820 feet). The walls were built without mortar, relying on carefully shaped rocks to hold the wall’s shape on their own. Inside the enclosure is a second set of walls, following the same curve as the outside walls, which end in a stone tower 10 meters (33 feet) high. While the function of this enclosure is unknown, archeologists suggest it could have been a royal residence or a symbolic grain storage facility. It is one of the largest existing structures from ancient sub-Saharan Africa.

The third section is the Valley Ruins. The Valley Ruins consist of a significant number of houses made mostly of mud-brick (daga) near the Great Enclosure. The distribution and number of houses suggests that Great Zimbabwe boasted a large population, between 10,000–20,000 people.

Archaeological research has unearthed several soapstone bird sculptures in the ruins. These birds are thought to have served a religious function, and may have been displayed on pedestals. These birds appear on the modern Zimbabwean flag and are national symbols of Zimbabwe.

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe were designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 1986. There have only been a limited number of archaeological excavations of the site. Unfortunately, significant looting and destruction occurred in the 20th century at the hands of European visitors. Although they were all too happy to explore and loot the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, in their racism, European colonists thought the city was too sophisticated to have been built by Africans, and instead thought it had been built by Phoenicians or other non-African people. However, despite the damage done by these colonial looters, today, the legacy of Great Zimbabwe lives on as one of the largest and most culturally important archaeological sites of its kind in Africa.

Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe is the name for the stone remains of a medieval city in southeastern Africa. It is composed of three parts, including the Great Enclosure (shown here). It is believed to have been a royal residence or a symbolic grain storage facility.

Noun

study of human history, based on material remains.

colonist
Noun

member of a colony, usually a founding member.

empire
Noun

group of nations, territories or other groups of people controlled by a single, more powerful authority.

excavation
Noun

area that has been dug up or exposed for study.

loot
Verb

to steal or take something illegally.

mortar
Noun

sticky substance, such as cement, used to bond bricks or stones.

Phoenicia
Noun

(1550 BCE-300 BCE) civilization on the eastern Mediterranean coast built around trade and exploration.

sculpture
Noun

three-dimensional artwork that is carved, molded, or modeled to create its shape.

symbolic
Adjective

serving as a representation of something.