On the southern edge of the Zimbabwe plateau in the watershed between the Zambezi and the Limpopo rivers sits the largest and loveliest archaeological site in sub-Saharan Africa. With its high conical tower, its long, curved stone walls and its cosmopolitan artifacts, Great Zimbabwe attests to the existence of a thriving city that may have dominated trade and culture throughout southern Africa sometime between the 12th and 17th centuries. Its unique architecture and sculpture--particularly the enigmatic birds carved from soapstone--bespeak a rich history, one that archaeologists continue to piece together today. The country of Zimbabwe--formerly Rhodesia, until its independence from England in 1980--was named for this site.
Like many ancient cities, Great Zimbabwe has been shrouded by legend. In the 1500s Portuguese traders visiting Angola and Mozambique--where they established colonies--wrote of a kingdom in the interior of Africa. Their descriptions offered many Europeans the promise of King Solomons mines, for according to the Bible, Solomon would send to Ophir for his gold. In Paradise Lost, John Milton situates Ophir somewhere near the Congo and Angola. This powerful myth of the city of Ophir, populated by Semitic people, shaped the later cultural and historical interpretations of Great Zimbabwe. The fable is, in large part, the reason so many archaeological mysteries remain about the site. Because whereas the story of Great Zimbabwe is ultimately that of early Shona culture and the African Iron Age, it is also a tale of colonialism and of often shoddy, politically motivated archaeology.
CONSTRUCTED BETWEEN 1100 and 1600, Great Zimbabwe seems not to have been designed around a central plan but rather to have been altered to fit its changing role and population. Its scale is far larger than that of similar regional sites--including Danamombe, Khami and Naletale (in Zimbabwe), Domboshaba and Majande (in Botswana), Manikweni (in Mozambique) and Thulamela (in northern South Africa)--suggesting that Great Zimbabwe was the areas economic and political center. Because it is situated on the shortest route between the northern gold fields, where inland rivers were panned for the precious metal, and the Indian Ocean, the rulers of Great Zimbabwe most likely regulated the thriving medieval gold trade.
Great Zimbabwe covers 1,779 acres, and the central area comprises three main built-up areas: the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure and the smaller Valley Ruins. The Hill Complex, dubbed the Acropolis by Europeans, forms the oldest part of the site; evidence hints that farmers or hunters may have encamped there as early as the fifth century. From its position on the rocky, 262-foot-high hill, the Hill Complex's oval enclosure--about 328 feet long and 148 feet wide--would have allowed its inhabitants to see potential invaders. The outer wall, which stands nearly 37 feet high, would also have afforded good protection. Inside the walls, as inside all the other enclosures, stand daga houses, curved, hutlike structures made of Africas most common building material: dried earth, mud and gravel.
Below the Hill Complex sits the most stunning of Great Zimbabwes structures, the Great Enclosure, or Elliptical Building. Called Imbahuru, meaning the house of the great woman or the great house, by the Karanga-speaking people who lived there during the 19th century, the Great Enclosure was built at the height of Great Zimbabwes power. (Karanga is the most common dialect of Shona and is spoken by the inhabitants of south-central Zimbabwe.) The enclosing wall is 800 feet long and stands 32 feet high at some places; an estimated one million blocks were used in its construction. An inner wall runs along part of the outer wall, creating a narrow, 180-foot-long passageway.
The function of the Great Enclosure is not known, although it is thought to have served as a royal palace. Because of the presence of grooves in the walls (perhaps representing the female anatomy) and of phallic structures, some historians have postulated that the compound was used for adolescent initiation rites or for other important ceremonies. It may have also housed the many wives of the ruler. The great conical tower, which stands 30 feet high and is 18 feet in diameter at the base, appears not to have been used for any particular purpose and may have served a merely symbolic function.