Great Zimbabwe [Preview]

For centuries, this ancient Shona city stood at the hub of a vast trade network. The site has also been at the center of a bitter debate about African history and heritage

In addition to the Hill Complex and the Great Enclosure, Great Zimbabwe is made up of the smaller Valley Ruins. This series of compounds stands in the valley between the two larger structures. The walls seem to be youngest here, suggesting that these structures were built as the population expanded and Great Zimbabwe needed more residential space.

Great Zimbabwe is unusual not only in its size but in its stonework. Many of the structures are made of rectangular blocks cut from nearby granite outcroppings. The city's name derives from the Shona term dzimbabwe, meaning "houses of stone." The blocks, set in layers without mortar, form stable free-standing, curved walls that are often about twice as high as they are wide. Although round, buttresslike structures rest along the base of many walls, they have no supportive role. Some archaeologists speculate that these curved extensions may have served to soften the approach to a doorway, or to have made passageways more complicated to navigate or perhaps even to have hidden rooms from direct view. They also may have served to control access to some areas, because people could have moved into the area in single file only.

The stonework is, in certain places, astonishingly sophisticated: rounded steps grace some of the entrances, and chevron designs decorate some of the walls. The walls are also punctuated by drains and occasionally by four-foot-wide doorways, some of which had wood lintels.

A Mysterious Culture
OUR KNOWLEDGE of the people of Great Zimbabwe is complemented by what we know about the site of Mapungubwe, which appears to have been the center of Shona civilization around 1000. The largest Mapungubwe settlements, found in the Shashi-Limpopo area, are very similar to Great Zimbabwe. Wealth was apparently based on cattle production, ivory trade and gold. The Mapungubwe culture spread into western parts of Zimbabwe as the presence of Leopards Kopje pottery (in Mapungubwe style) attests. With the rise of Great Zimbabwe, it appears that trade shifted and Mapungubwe declined as an important center, becoming abandoned just as Great Zimbabwe prospered.

Artifacts unearthed at Great Zimbabwe have pointed to the social and cultural organization of the settlement, and they have distinguished it from other Iron Age sites. In particular, a group of soapstone birds, many of them 14 inches high and sitting atop three-foot-tall columns, is unlike any sculpture found elsewhere. Each bird has a different pattern or marking; none is identifiable as a local creature. Because of the regard contemporary Shona people hold for their dead and because some Shona tribes use iron rods to mark tallies of their dead, some archaeologists have speculated that the avian icons indicate aggregates of ancestors used in rituals.

Other artifacts indicate that Great Zimbabwe was well established as a trading community by the 14th century. Objects from distant lands made their way to Great Zimbabwe: Syrian glass, Chinese celadon dishes (mostly from the Ming Dynasty, 1368 to 1644), Persian faience bowls, coral, bronze bells and an iron spoon--a utensil not used by the Shona. There is no blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, which became widespread during the mid-15th century; its absence suggests that Great Zimbabwe's economic importance was less by that time. Indeed, it does appear that the site was largely empty by 1700.

There are several reasons Great Zimbabwe may have been abandoned. By the late 1600s the northern rivers had been panned clean, and the gold trade began to move west. No longer centrally located, the city may not have been able to thrive when revenue and trade dried up. Another possibility is that the population became unsustainable. By some estimates, Great Zimbabwe had between 10,000 and 17,000 residents at its peak--a population equivalent to that of medieval London. (Other estimates are more conservative, placing the populace at a maximum of 2,000.)

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