An Ancient African City ~ Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabawe

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.

Great Zimbabwe inside the great enclosure

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.

4_0001

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.

 

Lens-Artists #Cityscapes

Thursdays Special ~ Great Zimbabwe Re-Scanned

Great Zimbabawe

I was very pleased that this Thursday’s Special from Paula is another Traces of the Past challenge. I spent yesterday afternoon attempting to scan these photos of Great Zimbabwe. I’ve shown other versions of these images before – scanned from negatives, but either I or the scanner was on the blink, and I wasn’t very happy with the results. Then the scanner broke altogether (it was a whizzo Nikon one too), and that was that.

So yesterday I had a go with some of the original prints on the flat-bed scanner, which then led to a lot of dust-speck removing  – very tedious.

This is the best I’ve been able to do. The first shot shows the Great Enclosure, and the top of the mysterious stone tower within. The sci-fi plants on the left are giant aloes.

This next shot is taken from the Hill site, where archaeologists have discovered gold and other metal working enclaves.

4_0003

It gives a good sense of the surrounding terrain, although in the heyday of Great Zimbabwe, the environs may well have been a good deal more lush. The citizens’ domestic economy revolved around cattle herding, and indeed, one of the theories for the city’s demise in the C15th is over-grazing. But I’m sure there was more to it than that.

Great Zimbabwe was part of an extensive trade network throughout the period equivalent to Europe’s early Middle Ages. Its  merchants trekked in caravans to the Mozambique coast, taking gold and ivory to trade with Arab dhow merchants of the Swahili seaboard cities. It is very possible, then, that the gold floating around Europe and the Middle East in Crusader times came from Great Zimbabwe. In other words, it was not the remote settlement it may seem today; it was strongly connected to the Old World’s wheeler-dealer networks. Nor was it the only great African city state in southern Africa. So much of the continent’s human history remains to be discovered and told; historian Basil Davidson made a good start, though most of his works may be out of print now. And it was Peter Garlake who wrote the classic work on Great Zimbabwe (1973).

I only wish I’d taken more photos while I was there. We were being distracted by a travelling companion who was intent on not noticing that we were visiting one of the world’s most fascinating archaeological sites. Ah well. Anyway, looking at these photos now, it all looks very dreamlike, and that’s how it felt at the time.

 3

But I’ll leave you with a few hard facts. Great Zimbabwe was built and lived in by Shona people between 1000 and 1500. The enclosure walls, though often monumental, were seemingly never defensive. The entrances are simply open, undefended spaces. The stone came from the nearby granite hills, and was cut and laid without mortar. The walls vary from 4 to 17 feet in width with some reaching over 30 feet in height. It is, in short, a very amazing place, and I have written other posts with more of the history.

But oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if these walls could speak and tell us their stories!

Thursday’s Special

Timbuktu: doorway to the past

Scan-130703-0005 (7)

I haven’t snaffled any of Graham’s photos for a while, but as doors go, both of itself and where it is located, and the fact that a Tuareg pastoralist happened to step into the frame, I thought this was one well worth posting.  It was taken on G’s Africa overland trip during a stopover in Timbuktu.

The plaque above the door marks the fact that French explorer René Caillié once stayed in this house.  The stay was brief, two weeks in April/May 1827, but he had apparently spent many months in preparation, staying with the Moors in Mauretania, learning Arabic, and converting to Islam so he could pass himself off as an Arab. His objective was to win a 10,000-franc reward offered by the Société de Géographie in Paris, and to do this he had to be the first European to see and return alive from Timbuktu. That he lived to tell the tale is recounted in his work Description de la ville de Temboctou. The rest of his life,  however, was sadly foreshortened by tuberculosis. He died in his homeland of Western France at the age of thirty eight.

Timbuktu of course has a long and illustrious history. From 1325 AD it became part of the immensely rich  and highly cultivated Malian Empire under the rule, Musa Keita I, also known as Mansa Musa (c. 1280 – c. 1337). He was probably the richest man who has ever lived, and it was he who developed the town, bringing in architects from Andalusia in Spain, and from  Cairo to build his grand palace and the great Djinguereber Mosque. He also had built in the town the University of Sankore, which attracted scholars from across Africa and Middle East. He brought in lawyers, mathematicians and astronomers to staff it, and so began the growth of the magnificent libraries of Timbuktu, and the town as a centre of learning and commerce.

Since that time, thousands of manuscripts had been gathered and cared for by individual Timbuktu families, and treasured as priceless family heirlooms. It is reckoned there are some 300,000 works held in such private family collections. They include not only theological texts, but works on geography and astronomy. Most are in Arabic script, but some are written in African languages of the region.

There was also in Timbuktu until recently, a state-of-the-art conservation library funded by the South African Thabo Mbeki Foundation. This held many thousands of manuscripts, and when Islamist terrorists invaded the town and torched the centre in 2013, it was feared that these works of international importance had been destroyed. However, the people of Timbuktu had seen the destroyers coming and, desperate to save their heritage, had been smuggling the works to safety in cars, carts and canoes, often hidden under crates of vegetables. It was a daring mission, and you can read  more of their brave endeavour in the BBC story HERE.

And so this brings me back to the title of this piece: doorway to the past, and to the question I feel bound to ask myself: Just how much of the history of the African continent has either been destroyed – wilfully by invaders, including slavers and European colonists, or lost through the relentless shifting of the Sahara’s sands, and other forms of climate change. The stories we mostly hear out of Africa are of conflict, corruption and poverty. Stories that celebrate the creativity, durability, ingenuity, culture and wisdom  of African peoples are not news. Perhaps we should remind ourselves that most of us in Europe were living in mud huts through the centuries when the great African kingdoms were thriving. Perhaps we should remember, too, that civilizations come and go, and our own Western Civilization is not immune from departure.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Door

Basket case? Tales of bravery and betrayal

 

100_6059

100_6050

These glorious Nubian mats adorn my kitchen. They decorate our every day, their colours radiating like mini-suns however dull the weather. It is hard to imagine, then, that there is a dark tale behind their creation, a tale of statelessness and discrimination.

The makers of the mats are women from the Nubian community of Kibera, in Nairobi (Kenya). They, their parents and grandparents before them, were born in this quarter of the city suburbs. This has been the case since the early 1900s, when British colonial authorities gazetted an area of land for settlement by Sudanese Nubian soldiers of the British Army, men who had first been recruited during the 1890s when Britain was trying to establish control over the peoples and territories of East Africa.

This next photo thus shows another form of decoration – a Nubian KAR officer’s chest adorned with medals that attest to years of brave service in the cause of the British Empire.

kenyas-nubians-officer-mw19-910[1]

Copyright Kenya Nubian Council of Elders

This photo was taken in 1956, during the British colonial era. The officer is showing his invitation to a garden party at Nairobi’s Government House. The gathering was in honour of the visit to Kenya by HRH Princess Margaret of England (Kenya’s Nubians: Then and Now, Open Society Foundations).

*

The Nubian people (also known in the distant past as Kushites) have a long, long history, their homeland once stretching along the upper reaches of the River Nile in North Sudan and into southern Egypt. Much of their territory was taken in the 1960s for the building of the Aswan Dam by the Egyptians, and this was another cause of displacement. But way back in time, the Nubians were a people to be reckoned with. The earliest evidence of a metropolitan culture  (the Kingdom of Kerma) has a date contemporary with neighbouring Ancient Egypt.  Nubia was the gateway to the African hinterland, and a great trading nexus.

Dr Stuart Tyson Smith (University of California, Santa Barbara) says the Kerma culture evolved out of the Neolithic around 2400 BC. The Kushite rulers of Kerma profited from the trading such luxury goods as gold, ivory, ebony, incense, and even live animals to the Egyptian Pharaohs. By 1650 BC, Kerma had become a densely occupied urban center overseeing a centralized state stretching from at least the 1st Cataract to the 4th, rivaling ancient Egypt. Kerma was sacked in c. 1500 BC, when the entire region was incorporated into the Egyptian New Kingdom empire.” 

The Nubians and Egyptians traded, intermarried and warred with one another over many centuries, the Nubians finally ruling Egypt for half a century during the 25th dynasty (c. 750–655 B.C.E.) And though it may be a big surprise for some people to know this, there were Nubian, black African pharaohs, Nubian pyramids, and a Nubian form of hieroglyphics that were later developed into a 23-letter alphabet (yet to be deciphered). Clearly as time went on, Nubian culture was influenced by Ancient Egypt (though why not the other way around?), yet it also evolved in its own very characteristic ways.

The strikingly tall Nubian pyramids below were built at the time when Britain was a land of Iron Age farmers who lived in thatched round houses and constructed hill forts of earthen banks and ditches.

Sudan_Meroe_Pyramids_30sep2005_2[1]

Fabrizio Demartis Creative Commons

The Nubian Meriotic kingdom developed from the 25th Dynasty when Nubia ruled Ancient Egypt. It is named after its capital Meroë (begun c 800 BCE). Over 255 pyramids belonging to the Meroitic period have so far been discovered.

*

But back to more recent times, and the story behind my lovely mats. In World War 1, Sudanese Nubian forces were deployed in  defence of British-ruled Kenya along the border with  German controlled Tanganyika. This East African campaign was a brutal affair, fought over waterless, disease-ridden bush, as British forces attempted to thwart Count Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s ingenious guerrilla tactics, carried out by other Africans – the Count’s highly trained  askaris from German East Africa (now Tanzania).

The British Army, with a few exceptions late in the war, did not allow the native peoples of Kenya to carry arms at this time, so it was the Nubians who were the main combatants. Kenyans were instead conscripted into the Carrier Corps to transport army provisions since mules and horses could not survive in tsetse infested bush country.  Tens of thousands of young men died of starvation and disease in the British cause, their families often never hearing what had happened to their sons. They simply never returned from the war with Jerimani.

(For a vivid fictional version of this conflict see William Boyd’s An Ice-cream War).

In 1912 the British colonial administration in Nairobi gazetted 4,197 acres near the city for the settlement of Nubian soldiers and their families who could not be repatriated to Sudan. The Nubians called this place Kibra, the forest land.

kenyas-nubians-family-formal-mw19-910[1]

Nubian Family c1940s, photographer unknown. Copyright Kenya Nubian Council of Elders. For more wonderful photos see Kenya’s Nubians: Then and Now, Open Society Foundations

*

By this time, all British East African (Kenyan) tribes had been categorized, and the land they occupied, at the point of British incursion, designated as native reserves. Africans were not allowed to have title deeds to their own and and, in theory, European settlers (who did have title to vast acreages) were not allowed to encroach on the reserves.

The Nubians, however,  were specifically categorized by colonial authorities as ‘Detribalized Natives’, and non-natives of British East Africa. This meant they could not claim any rights to have their land made into a reserve, nor could they build permanent structures on the land.  The community, however, continued to provide further generations of soldiers who would serve in the King’s African Rifles. 

During WW2  Nubian soldiers fought for Britain, alongside other black Kenyan recruits, in Somalia, Abyssinia and in the terrifying war against the Japanese in the jungles of Burma. It is another little remembered  fact that the African troops of the King’s African Rifles played a determining role in the winning of the Burma campaign.

By 1955 the Nubian community of Kibra numbered 3,000. Back then it was an attractive rural village, the houses surrounded by large gardens. But in successive decades as Nairobi grew into a city, hundreds of thousands of rural Kenyans, seeking work, invaded Kibra, putting up  shanty dwellings. Kibera, as it is currently known, is now one of the biggest slums in Africa.

Kibera Schreibkraft cc

A cropped image of Kibera, Nairobi. Photo CC 2014 Schreibkraft

Kibera cc Blazej Mikula

Photo: CC Blazej Mikula

*

During colonial times, Kibra land remained the property of the British Crown. At Independence in 1963, ownership of Crown Land passed to the new government, and so became state-owned land. The new state also inherited an administration that was still largely operating under State of Emergency regulations from the 1950s Mau Mau uprising. Being able to prove  who your tribe was and the associated right to domicile were essential proofs of citizenship. The Nubians’ former colonial categorization denied them on both fronts.

From 1963 until 2009, when the Nubian community in Kenya was finally accorded official existence as a Kenyan tribe, the Nubians of Kibera and elsewhere in Kenya had been stateless. While the colonial generation did have identity cards, the post-independence generations could only acquire them, if at all, with great difficulty, and after many years of persistence.

This meant they could not be formally employed, open bank accounts, acquire title deeds, participate in the affairs of their country of birth, vote, or even leave their own homes safely, since to be caught without an identity card is a criminal offence.  The only opportunities to earn a living were in the informal sector, and for women, this included/still includes making baskets for sale through non-governmental trading operations, and Nairobi’s tourist curio shops. Hopefully now, with official recognition, the fortunes of the Nubian people will change  for the better, but there is still much ground to make up, and in all senses. For more of these people’s story see the excellent short videos below, and also the full length BBC programme about Ancient Nubia at the end.

In the meantime, back to the beautiful baskets, and a Nubian woman at work. The method of construction involves coiling lengths of papyrus stems or dried grasses then wrapping them round with coloured and natural palm leaf strips. Truly great works of decorative art, and not only that, but life-enhancingly useful too. Expressions of spirit undaunted despite lives of grave hardship unimaginable to most of us?

A-Nubian-woman[1]

Photo: http://in2eastafrica.net/home-stays-growing-ugandas-tourism/

 

Flavia Lanyero 2011 Uganda

Article on Nubians of Uganda: Flavia Lanyero 2011 Daily Monitor

*

text copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

Greg Constanine’s video explains the Kenyan Nubian dilemma

 

This brief film explains the history of Nubian statelessness in Kenya

 

Recent archaeological discoveries of the ‘lost’ Nubian civilization

 

Ailsa’s Challenge: Decoration – Go here for more bloggers’ decorative posts

Abandoned: Great Zimbabwe

Scan-130429-0005

Inside the Great Enclosure of Great Zimbabwe. These magnificent walls have survived for nearly seven centuries, and not a lick of mortar to keep them standing.

Scan-130429-0010

No one knows exactly why this great African city  was abandoned. For some 350 years, until  around 1450 AD,  Great Zimbabwe had been a flourishing merchant centre that drew in from the surrounding country supplies of gold, copper, ivory, animal skins and cotton. The city’s entrepreneurs  then traded these goods on to the Swahili city states of Sofala and Kilwa on the East African coast. (You can read more about the Swahili HERE). In return, the traders brought back luxury goods –  jewellery, decorative pieces such as 13th and 14th century Chinese celadon dishes and Persian ceramics.

aloes and Great Zimbabwe

The city’s ruins cover 80 hectares, its many stone enclosures commanding the southern slopes of Zimbabwe’s High Plateau watershed between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers. The site is well watered with good grazing throughout the year. It is above the zone of the deadly tsetse fly that can infect both cattle and humans with sleeping sickness; and the plateau’s granite scarps provide plentiful building stone and other raw materials. Even so, these favourable circumstances do not explain why this particular settlement rose to such prominence.

For Great Zimbabwe was not a singular phenomenon. Contemporary with it,  and across the High Plateau region, are the remains of at least a hundred other mazimbabwe (houses of stone). Several were large enough to have been the capitals of rival states. Others may have been satellite communities occupied by members of Great Zimbabwe’s ruling lineage.

So who were the city’s builders?

During Zimbabwe’s colonial times, and until independence, the  Rhodesian government actively supressed  evidence that Great Zimbabwe was built by Africans.  Many of the other stone ruins were destroyed or re-purposed by European settler farmers. The official view claimed that the city was Phoenician, and that the Queen of Sheba’s fabled kingdom of Ophir had been discovered. Archaeologists, however, have long demonstrated  that it was the cattle-owning Karanga Shona who built Great Zimbabwe. The first phase of stone building began around 1100 AD. Thereafter, the city’s rising fortunes and successive building phases suggest its increasing control of the ancient High Plateau trade routes to the Swahili cities of Sofala and Kilwa.

Gold was the key commodity, and it is likely that it was Great Zimbabwe’s successful cattle production that provided it with the trading power to secure gold supplies from mines some 40 kilometres away. The more prosperous the city became, the more sophisticated its demonstrations of prestige. In around 1350 AD  the Great Enclosure of finely dressed stone was built. This huge elliptical structure with its mysterious platform and conical tower is thought to be the royal court. There is no indication that the walls were defensive. This was  a regime confident in its power and authority.

IMG_0889

Peter Garlake’s reconstruction of the Great Enclosure Platform from Life at Great Zimbabwe,  Mambo Press 1982

*

Then why did the city decline?

There are various explanations: the people had let their herds overgraze the land; they had cut down all the trees; there was a prolonged period of drought as may happen in southern Africa. But somehow none of these theories quite explain why, after 350  flourishing years, a community of perhaps 20,000-plus people should simply pack up and leave. Did all these farmers, herders, miners, craftspeople, soldiers, traders, accountants, court personnel and the city’s rulers  leave on a single day, or did the city die slowly?  The archaeological evidence does not say.

But we do know there were disruptive external forces at work. In the 15th century the Portuguese invaded the Swahili coastal city of Sofala. They were on the hunt for gold and so pressed inland with Swahili guides. Their interfering presence drove the trading routes north, giving rise to the Mutapa state. This new state may well have been founded by people from Great Zimbabwe. Certainly by this time the Swahili traders were coming up the Zambezi to trade with the Shona directly, the old trade route through Great Zimbabwe no longer used. At this time, too, we see the beginning of another Shona city state  with the building of the stone city at Khami near Bulawayo in southwest Zimbabwe. In the following centuries this became the centre of the Torwa-Rozvi state whose other major cities during the 16th and 17th centuries included Naletale and Danangombe.

Great Zimbabwe entrance

The Great Enclosure entrance at Great Zimbabwe built c.1350 AD

*

And so into history…

Of course with the Portuguese incursions comes the first documentary evidence. From the early 1500s Zimbabwe’s royal courts enter the historic record in the accounts of the Portuguese conquistadores. In 1506 Diogo de Alcacova writes to his king, describing a city  of the Mutapa state

“called Zimbany…which is big and where the king always lives.”  His houses are “of stone and clay and very large and on one level.” Within the kingdom there are “many very large towns and many other villages.” 

The Portuguese historian Faria y Sousa also describes the King of Mutapa’s great retinue which included the governor of the client kingdoms, the commander-general of the army, the court steward, the magician and the apothecary, the head musician “who had many under him and who was a great lord”. Also noted were the vast territories over which the king ruled, the revenues and subject kingdoms of the king’s several queens.

And suddenly we have a true glimpse of what this land called Zimbabwe might have looked like in the past, a bustling, mercantile, metropolitan culture, supported by gold miners, farmers, cattle herders and craftspeople. And so it remained until well into the 18th century, albeit with a shift of Shona power to the southwest and the Torwa-Ruzvi state as the Portuguese presence caused increasing instability. Then in the 19th century came new invaders – the Nguni, the Ndebele and the British.

This centuries old heritage of royal courts is not a picture that the likes of Cecil Rhodes or, the later Rhodesian government of Ian Smith ever wanted anyone to see. And so in the end this is not so much a story of a city abandoned by its people, but of a people wilfully excluded from their past.  In 1980 when Zimbabwe became an independent state, some of this past was reclaimed: the new state took its name from the first great Shona city, and  adopted for its flag and coat of arms, an image of one of the city’s ceremonial soapstone birds. These are small steps forward, but there is still a long way to go before the world sees the indigenous histories of the Africa continent in their true perspective, and acknowledges their intrinsic cultural worth.

File:Flag of Zimbabwe.svg

There is more about Great Zimbabwe in an earlier post HERE.

References: The classic work on the excavations of the city is Peter Garlake’s Great Zimbabwe 1973. For an overview of the mazimbabwe culture see Innocent Pikirayi’s The Zimbabwe Culture AltaMira Press 2001. For a wider historical perspective Randall L. Pouwels The African and Middle Eastern World, 600-1500 Oxford University Press.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

 

WP Challenge: In the Background (MMBA in Zimbabwe)

Graham at Great Zimbabwe

Weekly Photo Challenge: In the Background

There’s always a lot of background in Africa: MMBA as the colonial British frequently referred to it – Miles and miles of bloody Africa. The origin of this expression is variously attributed to Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Ruark. In any event MMBA is always difficult to capture in a photograph.

The shot above was taken from the hilltop ruins above Great Zimbabwe. The original negative has degraded a little, but the photograph was also taken in winter-time when the landscape of southern Africa anyway takes on the aspect of an ‘old master’ oil painting.

As ever when Team Farrell go travelling, Team Leader Graham was striking out in front – ‘Our Man in Africa’, while Nosy Writer was busy being nosy and fumbling with the settings on her Olympus Trip. Inevitably, TL ended up walking into NW’s line of sight. Here, though, I’m glad he did. He may be in shadow, but he provides a handy foil for the backdrop. It could be a stage set, couldn’t it? There’s definitely a sense of unreality.

aloes and Great Zimbabwe

And here’s another painterly ‘in the background’ view: the Great Enclosure of Great Zimbabwe with giant aloes in the foreground. Of course, when it comes to the history of this World Heritage site, ‘in the background’ could well have another  and wholly insidious meaning. When geologist, Carl Mauch, first visited the site in 1871 he was convinced that the massive dry-stone granite walls were the remains of the Queen of Sheba’s lost city of Ophir.  (See also my post on The Swahili). For some decades this view persisted. It was not in the interests of pioneer imperialist Cecil Rhodes for it to be known that Africans had a sophisticated historical heritage. He financed the first excavation by James Theodore Bent whose brief was to ‘prove’ that the complex had been built by the Phoenicians or the Ancient Egyptians. In 1928-9 British archaeologist, Gertrude Caton-Thompson refuted this conclusion, pronounced it African-built but “the product of an infantile mind.”

Some people may be surprised to know how often archaeology is used as a political tool, but it was, and still is.

In the 1960s-70s when Zimbabwe, then Southern Rhodesia, was under the white rule of  Ian Smith’s regime, history was again re-written. Any historians who dared to state that Great Zimbabwe was built by indigenous Africans put themselves at risk, and their work was censored. This led to the departure from the country of many prominent Rhodesian archaeologists including Peter Garlake, both an expert on the ruins, and Rhodesia’s then Senior Inspector of Monuments. His excavations in the 1960s, and those of Paul Sinclair in 1986 fully demonstrate that from around 1200 AD to c. 1500 AD when it was abandoned, the Shona-speaking Karanga people built and lived in this extensive settlement.

Estimates for the population over this period range from 5-30,000. It was a wealthy centre for cattle rearing and for cereal and cotton growing. Gold from mines further inland was brought into Great Zimbabwe, its rulers acting as middle-men in the trade that extended to the Swahili city of Sofala on the Mozambique coast.  In return for gold and ivory, the Karanga imported luxury goods – fine textiles, Persian and Chinese wares, including Ming porcelain.

So much for Cecil Rhodes and his racist agenda. Although even in death this man manages to still make his presence felt. He chose to be buried in the Matobo Hills, territory of Ndebele people, and at a place known as Malindidzimu, Hill of Spirits. From here, also known as World’s View, I imagine that he thought he could continue to ‘rule’ Africa. The locals find the presence of his spirit here in their own sacred place quite offensive.

Matobo Hills - view north from Cecil Rhodes grave

View from Cecil Rhodes’ grave in the Matobo Hills, and his stated aim: “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives.”

From his 1877 Confession of Faith

And as an antidote to that dispiriting diatribe here are some more ‘in the background’ views in Zimbabwe:

Great Zimbabwe entrance

Gateway in the Great Enclosure, Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe inside the great enclosure

The mysterious tower inside the Great Enclosure

Great Zimbabwe -Tish inside the walls of Great Zimbabwe

Me looking small and very young inside the Great Enclosure. The walls are dry-stone granite – not a lick of mortar.

Harare soapstone carver

A roadside soapstone artist in Harare. This bust of a Shona elder is a common subject. Zimbabwe has produced some of the world’s outstanding sculptors.

Great Zimbabwe landscape

Looking down on the Great Enclosure. For decades many Europeans refused to believe Great Zimbabwe was an African settlement.

Victoria Falls and buck

Victoria Falls through a misty spray of mighty Zambezi.

Zambia's Victoria Falls looking along knife-edge to Zimbabwe's falls

Victoria Falls from the Zambian side. Most of the water on this side of the Zambezi is abstracted. My wet kanga wrap nearly took me hang-gliding off the knife edge in a rainstorm, but that’s another story.

Hwange - Dete schoolgirls

Dete school girls, with a train in the background!

Hwange - waterhole and elephants 4

And finally, because this is Africa, there has to be shot with some elephants in the background. Taken in Hwange National Park.

© 2013 Tish Farrell