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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Interesting The Things Your Stats Tell You

Tish Great Zimbabwe (2)

Actually this is probably just an excuse to post yet again this very old photo of me at Great Zimbabwe. We were living in Lusaka, Zambia at the time, Graham on a year’s attachment to the European Delegation, in charge of food aid distribution. You can read that story at the link.

Towards the end of this posting we drove down to Zimbabwe, and spent a couple of weeks touring around. Back in the 1990s it was a fabulous country to visit. We simply followed our noses, and drove on near empty, but well-kept roads, one of which brought us at last to Great Zimbabwe. We pretty much had the place to ourselves too. It was astonishing.

Anyway my stats of the last few days suggest to me that somewhere in the U.S. a bunch of students has been given a Great Zimbabwe assignment. I know this because they’re all opening a post I wrote 3 years and 2 blog themes ago: Abandoned: Great Zimbabwe. This happens periodically, although sometimes it’s Zimbabwean students searching for material on why the place was abandoned. It’s one of my perennial posts – not so much viral as chronic. Every year the traffic has doubled. Last year 1,311 people dropped in there.

But nothing gets as much traffic as my post on Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton. Caught Inside A Kikuyu Garden. This was also written three years ago, and so far has clocked up 12,715 views. Of course I have no way of knowing if all these people have actually read the piece, but I find it intriguing. I also sometimes wonder what would happen if I had a ‘Karen and Denys’ blog, and didn’t bother to post anything else. Funny old activity – blogging.

This was a good day: Great Zimbabwe

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I’ve posted this photo before, but then it was a very good day all those years ago in Africa. And it’s also good to remember days when I looked a lot younger. (Or maybe not).

As you can see, all was bathed in old-gold light at Great Zimbabwe. The air was dreamily soft – much like a September Indian Summer day in England when all is drowsing except for the buzzing of wasps and bees.

Surprisingly, we had the place to ourselves. There we were, utterly free to wander about, seeking out the spirits of this once thriving African city of cattle herders and gold traders.

I remember pressing my palms on the granite blocks of the Great Enclosure and feeling their warmth, and wondering, too, at the sheer height of the walls that had no mortar to hold them  fast for 700 years. Just imagine the skills needed to build walls like this, and think, too, how the white elite that once ruled Southern Rhodesia attributed this astonishing structure to Phoenicians, Ancient Egyptians, the Queen of Sheba, in fact to pretty much anyone who was not a member of the local Shona people who did construct it.

It was at times like these that I discovered that archaeology was not the benign, gently antiquarian discipline that I had spent three years of my life studying. No indeed. In certain quarters archaeological ‘evidence’ can be grossly perverted to sell false credentials to justify the rule of unjust rulers. I find it both sad and shameful that amongst such self-appointed elites even old stones can become the object of racist bigotry.

But wait. Such thoughts are spoiling the day, and there is still so much to see. There are  mysteries too. Why were these city walls raised up so high when there is no evidence that the entrance gateways were ever closed, or even defendable? What was the purpose of the extraordinary stone tower? Why was this place abandoned, left amid the granite hills as the people simply gathered their cattle and belongings and walked away?

For more of Great Zimbabwe’s history see my earlier post:

Abandoned: Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe general view

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Today Was a Good Day

Scaling the Heights: Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe -Tish inside the walls of Great Zimbabwe

Between the walls of the Great Enclosure. The wall behind me dates from the 1400s, the one in front with its less skilled brickwork dates from the 1200s AD.

For more about the amazing Middle Ages kingdoms of Southern Africa please see:

Abandoned: Great Zimbabwe

 

Scale

 

Abandoned: Great Zimbabwe

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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.

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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.

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

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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

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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.

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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!

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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