Among the gold mines of the inland plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers…a fortress built of stones of marvellous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them. This edifice is almost surrounded by hills, upon which are others resembling it…and one of them is a tower more than twelve fathoms high. The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies court.
Captain Vincente Pegado, Portuguese Garrison of Sofala, 1531
This scan of a photograph from our 1993 trip to Zimbabwe looks like one of those hand-coloured postcards from the days before colour film was invented – a fitting medium perhaps for these medieval ruins (and yes it’s probably appeared in earlier posts). Anyway by the time Captain Pegado was reporting from his base in Sofala, Great Zimbabwe had been in decline for a century and more. It was begun in its stone-built phase by the cattle owning Shona people around 1200 CE. In its heyday (mid 14th century) it seems the rulers of Great Zimbabwe were controlling the passage of high value goods (certainly gold and copper, and probably also ivory, slaves, textiles) across the Zambezi valley, and exporting them by caravan to Sofala on Africa’s east coast (present day Mozambique).
By this time, Sofala had long been a trading centre for Zambezi and Limpopo gold, and was subject to the great Swahili city state of Kilwa to the north (present day Tanzania). Thus the merchants of Great Zimbabwe, through their contact with the Arab-Swahili dhow merchants, were part of a trading network that extended across the Indian Ocean to China, and north to the Arabian Gulf and thence into the Mediterranean and Europe where African gold was much in demand during the Middle Ages. This last factor was responsible for tempting the Portuguese around the Cape to come and fetch it for themselves, hence the presence of Captain Pegado in Sofala.
Of course when the ruins of Great Zimbabwe were re-discovered by Europeans in the late 19th century, specifically by one Carl Mauch, it was thought that the city could not possibly be the work of indigenous people. Surely it was the lost kingdom of Ophir whence King Solomon received regular cargos of gold, silver, apes and peacocks. Even in the 1970s when Zimbabwe was still colonial Rhodesia, all the considerable evidence (revealed by a series of archaeologists over previous decades) that showed it was built by the local African people was officially censored by the Smith regime.
Quite apart from perverting the course of scholarship and its all round offensiveness, the stance seems somewhat odd when you discover that Great Zimbabwe was not a ‘one off’. There are scores of similar medieval stone-built complexes across southern Africa, including Chisvingo and others in Zimbabwe. When Great Zimbabwe fell into decline at the close of the 15th century, another centre of power grew up at Khame, near Bulawayo in Matabeleland. It was the capital of a royal dynasty that lasted some two hundred years, all of which is food for thought on days when one cares to re-adjust one’s picture of the history of African peoples before the white folks arrived.
The stone built complex of Great Zimbabwe originally covered 1,800 acres (730 hectares). There were also several enclosures on the hilltop where I’m standing to take this photo, including one that revealed evidence of gold smelting. The gold items found on the site were worked into coiled wire, small rods and discs or cast into beads – all highly portable. Copper was also worked, either cast in soapstone moulds to produce ingots for trade, or made into ceremonial spears (ceremonial because unalloyed copper is too soft a metal to be militarily functional).
Finds that demonstrate the city’s external trading contacts include glass beads commonly used in the medieval Indian Ocean trade, glass shards from vessels made in the Near East (13th-15th century), and pieces of Chinese celadon export ware from the Ming (1368-1644) and earlier dynasties.
The classic work on the excavations is Peter S Garlake’s Great Zimbabwe. It also makes detailed reference to related sites.
43 thoughts on “An Ancient African City ~ Great Zimbabwe”
Thanks for bringing us these amazing cityscapes, Tish!
Sort of an absence of city. Thanks, Sue.
Well, yes, I should have said past cityscapes…..
Thanks for these lovely shots Tish, and for highlighting another example of European arrogance and supremacist ideology — debunked in this case thankfully.
Thanks, Su. Not sure the debunking has debunked quite far enough in some quarters though. It’s amazing how blinkered some people are.
We all have a bias, Tish. I love yours 🙂 🙂 And I could happily spend time in your second photograph.
Cheers, Jo. It was an amazingly strange place – in a good way, but a touch overwhelming too.
Now, if only we could identify those pesky aliens who built the pyramids!
Bet the answer is somewhere in Hitchhiker’s Guide. Bound to be 🙂
Hi, Tish. Great post. Ahh, those colonialists. Such arrogance! I love this: “Of course when the ruins of Great Zimbabwe were re-discovered by Europeans in the late 19th century, specifically by one Carl Mauch, it was thought that the city could not possibly be the work of indigenous people.” The search for gold was also the reason for the European exploration and “discovery” of North and South America.
Indeed. Europeans were definitely besotted with stuff, to the tragic cost of the peoples of the Americas. I don’t think the Portuguese found their Eldorado in Africa, though they completely hijacked the East African dhow trade for some considerable time, and they built a lot of forts.
The search for gold resulted in so many deaths of indigenous people. Greed is good??? (Hardly)
Very interesting, and great photos!
You’re welcome, Tish.
reminds me of the saying that nothing exists until it has been discovered & probably named by a European.
Yep. Depressing, isn’t it.
A great entry for the theme.
Such interesting information and i do love the images. Hope you are keeping warm and that the week ahead is a good one….Janet 🙂
Thanks, Janet. And yes, am keeping warm. Have a good week.
Such an interesting post, Tish.
Glad it hit the spot, Nurul 🙂
I have never heard about this city in Zimbabwe before. What I’ve known is limited to the famous Victoria fall. Now, I know. Thanks for sharing the information, Tish.
It’s an amazing place, Nurul.
The world before the ‘modern era’ and indeed even back to the early Iron age, was a far more cosmopolitan place that we were ever taught.
Absolutely right. I think humanity has always been up for some serious travelling and trading 🙂
Of course the indigenous people couldn’t have created Great Zimbabwe, and the Benin bronzes must have fallen from the sky, because the West Africans couldn’t have made anything that wondrous either, grrrhhhh!
Great photos Tish, I wish I’d gone when I had the chance.
And on this very topic, did you see either of David Olusoga’s episodes in the recent Civilisations series? Such a gentle man who nails things so thoroughly.
Beautiful and sad. Our past is not a good one – and I am afraid there are still many obstacles to make us enlighted.
That is very true, Ann-Christine. We need to put in some hard work (and thought) in quite a few areas.
Wow! Great post!
Many thanks, Kendall.
Amazing the arrogance of the “conquerors” isn’t it?! Interesting take on the challenge-very creative !
Thank you for that thought, Tina. I suppose the ‘conquerors’ always have to find ways to justify their actions.
First I must say I love the new blog layout!
Fascinating piece of African history that does indeed have me re-adjusting my picture of the history of African peoples before the white folks arrived. It reminds me that early European explorers were convinced that Angkor Wat must have been the ancient Romans since they couldn’t believe that it was the work of the Khmer people.
Hello Alison. So glad you like the new layout. It is truly astonishing isn’t it the way Europeans have been so busy setting limitations on other races; and so convinced of our own superiority. Hard to know on what evidence we base this view of ourselves. It rather assumes we believe we have nothing to learn from anyone else.
Yes I do think that assumption was there, and sadly still is it seems to me 😦
What a mind blowing write-up. Well-done, Tish. I just stumbled on your blog and I think I’ll be spending more time here. I blog at https://oldnaija.com where I discuss Nigerian history and culture. You might want to check it out. Thanks.
Nice to meet you, Teslim, and thank you for your kind words. And I have just popped over to your blog. Very interesting. I shall be back.
Thank you. I’ll be expecting your return, Tish.