For more about the history of this ancient African city see my earlier post Abandoned: Great Zimbabwe
This Sunday over at Travel With Intent Debbie’s one word is ‘views’
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:
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell
Grey days in Africa can be incredibly dull. It is a strange effect: as if the light has been sucked out, but without it actually turning dark. This photo was taken around noon on a July day – Southern Africa’s winter. The sky weighed down in a way that was almost palpable; like walking through a Welsh sea mist, except it was dry; or as if you were looking at the world through gauze.
We had driven down from Lusaka in Zambia to spend a couple of weeks exploring Zimbabwe. The objective was to meet up with two Kiwi friends who were flying into Harare, and take them sightseeing before heading with them (via Victoria Falls) back to our house in Lusaka. The day this photo was taken we had just spent the night in one of the guest bungalows in Hwange National Park, and assembled a picnic of sorts in the Park shop.
Hwange Park has metalled roads which detracts somewhat from the notion of wild Africa, and so whenever a dirt track presented itself we took it. Even so, we saw very little game apart from some kudu. It was mostly dry bush, and more dry bush, which soon grew rather boring. In the end we pulled up by the dwindling waterhole in the photo, and ate our lunch.
The waterhole had been empty when we arrived, and then quite suddenly, as is usually the way with elephants, this small family group appeared. The photo looks like a water colour, or a colour plate in a vintage travel book. I only had my little Olympus Trip, and I often had it on the wrong setting. But the other thing about elephants (and I think this image captures it) is that even when you are there, and can see them with your own two eyes, and are close enough to catch a whiff of their musky hides, it is still hard to believe in them. They come and go like mirages, walking always on the tiptoes, their heels supported by fatty pads that deaden the sound of their footfalls. It is thus very easy to be sneaked up on by an elephant.
Of course if they’ve decided to do a little tree felling, since they like to clear land to encourage their favourite grass to grow, or are seeing off some deemed intruder, then you hear them alright. Indeed, there is nothing quite so alarming as a trumpeting matriarch, clearing a waterhole of potential threats to the family’s infants. On this day, though, all was dreamy peacefulness, and concluded surreally enough in the Game Reserve Hotel at Dete where we were the only guests, and the only food on the menu were pieces of very tough meat that took an hour to chew.
The next day, though, we woke to a new kind of dream – golden sun through a mist of coal dust that hangs like a heat haze over the vast Hwange Coal Field. And so we quickly turned our noses from the industrial smog and headed for the border and Victoria Falls.
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell
For more shades of grey please visit Ailsa at Where’s My Backpack
A big thanks to Yvette who is Paula’s guest over at Thursday’s Special for giving me the chance to post this photo again. Her challenge is street portraits, and this is one of my favourites, taken on a brief trip to Harare in Zimbabwe.
We were living in Zambia at the time, and had driven down to Harare to meet friends who were flying in from the UK to spend two weeks with us in Zim and Zam. At the time, life was a bit tense in Zambia. The first year of multi-party democracy had already yielded one attempted coup. Destabilisation by stirring up a crime wave was part of the strategy. The national football team had been killed in an air crash and left the country devastated (see link * below for this story). There was cholera in the townships and members of the unpaid Zairian army were coming down to Lusaka on looting sprees. It was thus a relief to find ourselves in a city where the atmosphere felt so open after Lusaka. This was in 1993 I might add. I know Zimbabwe’s seen some bad times since, and Zambia’s fortunes have greatly improved. Things can change so rapidly on the African continent.
But it’s the spontaneity of the security guards’ reaction that I love. I’d just crossed the road from the post office, and they were about to start the night shift and waiting for a lift. Smiling faces like these are what I remember most from our eight years spent living in Zambia and Kenya.
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell
Hang-gliding over the hundred metre precipice at Victoria Falls is not to be recommended. Nor had I intended to take the plunge, my ‘sail’ being nothing more than a wet kanga-wrap, held up to fend off a tropical deluge. Somehow, though, circumstances (and a lack of sensible forward planning) had led us to the Falls’ knife-edge just as Zambia’s 18-month drought was ending, and the rains beginning. Even without the hang-gliding it was a heart-stopping moment.
The prolonged drought across Southern Africa was of course the reason for Team Farrell’s presence in Zambia in late 1992. The Team Leader, Graham, had been seconded to the European Union Delegation to manage maize flour and cooking oil distribution to foodless villages across the nation. We had only been in the country a couple of weeks when G was directed to go down to Livingstone on the southern border to inspect a newly arrived consignment of maize. His boss suggested he should drive down on a Saturday and take me too. Naturally Nosy Writer (that’s me) was only too pleased to head off on a several hundred mile safari.
Looking back, the diplomat’s suggestion that I should go was possibly a kindness in disguise. Nothing was spelled out, since we were newly arrived, and Bernard (aka the boss) did not wish to scare us before we had found our bearings. But security in the capital Lusaka was not good. President Chiluba, the newly democratically elected leader, had been in office for barely a year, this after ousting the incumbent of decades, Kenneth Kaunda.
Later it transpired that Kaunda’s army officer son, Rezi, had been intent on destabilizing the country, and was apparently behind the city’s upsurge in violent crime. On top of that, in neighbouring Zaire (now DR Congo) President Mobutu had not been paying the army, and so gangs of gun-toting soldiers would drive down to Lusaka for a spot of night-time car-jacking and house-breaking. In a nation of impoverished people, the diplomatic quarter was the obvious target. Better, then, that I should not be left alone. Not that I knew this then. Nor had G’s company thought to mention any of this before offering his services to the EU. As they say, ignorance is bliss.
And so one Saturday morning under a wide blue, and seemingly ever rainless sky we set off south. The road, once clear of the city, ran on mile after mile after mile with hardly another vehicle in sight. We passed through landscapes of rolling woodland, the tall-tree miombo which, at first glance seemed more like Europe than Africa. After nine months in Kenya the vistas, too, seemed curiously lacking in drama –until, that is, we reached Livingstone.
Our hotel stood beside the Zambezi, and after tea on the lawn in the English manner it was off to the nearby Falls. The photo above was my first view of them. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh, cry or simply stare open-mouthed. Where was the water?
The drought had much to do with it of course. But the other reason was that Zambia abstracts large volumes of water to run its hydroelectric plant.
The Falls as seen (and ‘discovered’) by David Livingstone.
Engraving from Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa 1857
G told me the best view of the falls was across the border in Zimbabwe, and that if we had remembered to bring my passport we could have walked across. Most frustrating.
Instead, we walked along the path beside Zambia’s waterless gorge. But trailing through dead vegetation while staring at the stark basalt cliff face felt more and more oppressive. It made me think of Tolkein’s Mordor. We gave it up and went back to the hotel.
Our room theoretically had a river view. In reality all we could see was its empty bed, with huge boulders and clumps of palms here and there. But on Sunday afternoon I noticed that people walking across it. “Let’s go,” I said.
The sun was shining when we set off, and soon we were joined by a boy who appeared from nowhere and offered to guide us to the best Falls’ viewpoint. We duly followed, picking our way round oily looking rock-pools, mammoth sized boulders, and piles of fresh elephant dung.
We must have scrambled on for nearly a kilometre when the sky started to turn grey. I began to feel nervous, glancing upstream and expecting a wall of water to come rolling down. Or to walk round a boulder and into an elephant.
And then the rain came down. Fat freezing drops. We made a dash for cover, which happened to be some trees on Livingstone Island, the very spot from where the explorer had first viewed the Falls in 1855. We crouched for ages under dripping trees until at last, thoroughly soaked, G asked the boy if the ‘good view’ was much further. On discovering that it wasn’t we made a final dash. And here it is. The view:
Not much to be seen for the spray coming up, and rain coming down. I took this quick snap, and then held up the sodden cotton wrap that I had been wearing earlier to fend off the sun. As I stood on the knife-edge the sudden gust of wind that filled the wrap was enough to lift me towards the abyss. I stepped back in shock. I’d had more than enough of Mosi-oa-Tunya (the smoke that thunders). So had the boy. Soon he was sprinting away without even waiting for a tip, and that really had me worried. What did he know that we didn’t? We slipped and slid, back the way we had come. More phantom elephants. More imaginary flash floods. More getting lost in outcrops of giant boulders. It seemed a long, long way back to the hotel.
It was not until several months later that we finally got to see the Falls, this time from the Zimbabwe side. On this occasion we only got drenched from the spray, while I took yet another wet and misty photograph, but thankfully avoided all inclination to hang-glide.
copyright 2014 Tish Farrell
Daily Post Photo Challenge: adventure for more bloggers’ photo-adventures
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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