Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe is the name given to the remains of a Southern African ancient city, located in present-day Zimbabwe which was once the centre of a vast empire known as the Munhumutapa Empire covering the modern states of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

The walls and structures have stood the ravages of time and weather for almost 2 thousand years. Sitting on an open plain surrounded by hills, it was begun in the 13th century by the Shona people and is considered the greatest ancient structure in sub-Saharan Africa. Great Zimbabwe (meaning houses of stone) was finished in the 14th century and housed as many as 20,000 people. This religious center's influence spanned an area from Mozambique, across Zimbabwe, through Botswana and to South Africa.

An early European explorer, Vi├žente Pegado, Captain of the Portuguese Garrison of Sofala, described Zimbabwe thus, in 1531.

"Among the gold mines of the inland plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers there is a fortress built of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them. This edifice is almost surrounded by hills, upon which are others resembling it in the fashioning of stone and the absence of mortar, and one of them is a tower more than 12 fathoms [22 m] high. The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies court."



Stretching over 4km, most of the people at Great Zimbabwe lived outside the perimeter walls. The king lived on a hill in a series of ritual and royal enclosures called the Hill Complex. This was the first set of structures to be completed, therefore the oldest. The Valley Enclosures, where lesser officials would have lived, is a series of walls and platforms, and containing a high conical tower.

The Great Enclosure, thought to have housed the royal family, is the structure most identified with the site. It is 100m across and 255m in circumference and had mortar-less walls rising 11m and in some places, they are 5m thick. Another Conical Tower rises 10m and connects to a 70m long Parallel Passage. This passage is considered the most architecturally advanced structure in Great Zimbabwe with stone tapering to adding stability to the wall. It also includes three rings of decorative chevron patterns.

The entire complex covers almost 1,800 acres. Great Zimbabwe, as well as being a religious center, was also a great trade center and items from China, Persia and India have been found there. Herds of cattle were also kept at Great Zimbabwe and further illustrate the wealth accumulated over the years.

In the end, Great Zimbabwe's success was probably its downfall. By the 15th century, too many people and animals had depleted the natural resources. By the 16th century, Great Zimbabwe was deserted. Nobody knows for sure why the site was eventually abandoned. Perhaps it was due to drought, perhaps due to disease or it simply could be that the decline in the gold trade forced the people who inhabited Great Zimbabwe to look for greener pastures.

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