The story of an ancient civilisation

27 Apr, 2020 - 15:04 0 Views
The story of an ancient civilisation An aerial view of the majestic Great Zimbabwe

The Sunday Mail

The Great Enclosure

With Zimbabwe having turned 40 this year, there is no better commemoration than telling the story of the Great House of Stone.

Great Zimbabwe is where the name Zimbabwe came from. Zi – is used in Shona to depict something very big, imba means a house and bwe is a stone. Combined, this spells Zimbabwe – The Great House of Stone.

The Great Zimbabwe National Monument dates back to the 9th century and is protected and preserved under the Unesco World Heritage sites.

The Conical Tower stands at about 11 metres high, and without any mortar

The monument reveals sophistication of the Shona people like no other. It has rich history of military strength through architectural genius and archaeological evidence shows that it had a thriving economy. The ancient kingdom was thriving in the late Iron Age, from about 11AD until 15AD, when it was abandoned. Great Zimbabwe exudes history, culture and mystery.


There has been much debate on who built the Great Zimbabwe monument. People could not believe that Africans or the locals could have built such a magnificent structure. Many theories were put forward to explain the dry stone structure. Some said they were built by the Phoenicians, Egyptians or King Solomon. However, strong archaeological evidence points to the fact that the stone structure was built by the Gumanye, Shona people.

The Gumanye people became wealthy through trade with the East Coast. As their wealth increased, the stone structures called Madzimbahwe became a permanent feature of Shona life and other similar minor structures are found across the country.

Khami Ruins in Bulawayo, Dhlo Dhlo and Naletale in Midlands and Matabeleland North, Ziwa Ruins in Nyanga, Tsindi Ruins in Marondera and many other ruins scattered all over the country. All of these point to the dominance of the Gumanye people in this era and reinforces the fact that the Zimbabwean Shona people built the monument.

Great Zimbabwe exudes mystery, history and magnificence

The Zimbabwe Bird

The Zimbabwe birds are housed in the museum that is at Great Zimbabwe. The museum, by the way, has got amazing artefacts found around the ruins. Cameras and photos are not allowed in the museum so I was not able to take original pictures. In the Bird Gallery in the museum, there are seven soapstone carvings of the bird and one of the birds is a replica, making a total of eight birds.

Bird 1 is an African Fish Eagle, which is the bird that is found on the national flag. The African Fish Eagle was considered a bird of fortune. The reason why it was adopted as the national icon is, because of the eight birds resident at the museum, it is the only bird that never left the country. The bird has also got crocodile features which have a symbolic meaning of the ancestors.

The rest of the birds, Bird 2 to Bird 8 are all bateleur eagles. People at Great Zimbabwe believed that these eagles were divine messengers from the most high, Mwari (God). Bird 8, also known as The Unified Zimbabwe Bird, was taken to Germany, went to Belgium for a while before being returned to Germany and finally back to Zimbabwe.

The Monarchy

The Shona people at Great Zimbabwe were ruled by a king who ruled by the Divine Right of Kings.

It is believed that eight kings ruled Great Zimbabwe and each king was represented by a soapstone carving of a hungwe (fish eagle), largely believed to be the totem of the people. The last bird which is believed to have belonged to the last ruler of Great Zimbabwe, Chibatamatosi, was found in the Valley Enclosure.

The structure, which dates back to the late Iron Age, still stands today, all stone and no mortar

The king lived on the hilltop along with spirit mediums who guided and directed his decisions in ruling.

The king had many wives. The eldest lived in the Great Enclosure. The queen mother was responsible for initiation lessons and ceremonies for young girls which were held in the Great Enclosure.

Also housed in the Great Enclosure is the Conical Tower. It is believed that it was used for religious ceremonies and some say it was a storehouse. In addition to that, it signified the male dominance and patriarchal society.

The Enclosure has the highest walls going up to about 11m tall. Remember, these walls were all built from dry stone, nor cement nor gluing agent was used to keep these walls up.

The Kalanga Village

A replica of a Kalanga Shona village can be found at Great Zimbabwe. The village depicts the home of a wealthy, polygamous man. At the village, you can buy souvenirs made by the local craftsmen. Arts and crafts played a big role in the Shona people’s lives. Not only were they very much involved in it, they were also good at it. Archaeological evidence shows that some of the arts and crafts were used for trade.

So in addition to carving birds out of soapstone, the Shona people were using advanced Iron Age tools in their day-to-day lives. They also made and wore copper bangles. It is said that the people at Great Zimbabwe grew cotton locally and made flax out of it.

The people were very spiritual people.

Interesting facts I learnt were that the huts are round, and not square, to ward off evil spirits. All huts have names and are strategically positioned. For example, the boy’s bedroom is called a gota and it was quite close to the kraal. All the huts have special names and serve different functions.

There is a traditional healer at the Shona village and after a discussion with her, she said that her hut was placed on the western side to ward off evil spirits that were believed to come from the west. So she acted as a barrier protecting the village. Also interesting to note was the tall aloe vera plant that is found around the monument. The traditional healer said this also shielded the village from evil spirits. She went to great lengths explaining the difference between a traditional healer and a witch-doctor – which is a story for another day.

Traditional dancers are also found at the village and you can sing and dance along to their performances. If you have the time, you can chat to the men and women who are well versed in Kalanga Shona culture. So the Shona village helps to paint a vivid picture of life as it was at Great Zimbabwe. Prepare to spend at least 45 minutes at the village learning about the Shona culture and best of all, getting down to the traditional dancers performances.

The Museum

Everything you need to know, including the road to Independence in April 1980 are all found in the museum. As mentioned earlier, no cameras or filming devices are allowed in the museum. There are, however, numerous guides who can take you around the monument and walk you through the museum.

Just outside the museum is a grave where Allan Wilson and 37 others were once buried. The grave looks like a bench, which I sat on unknowingly when I was having my lunch!

Allan Wilson and the other unknown men were later moved to Matopos, the World’s View, next to Cecil John Rhodes.

Valley Side

If you are Zimbabwean, Great Zimbabwe is a must-visit. The rich cultural history of the country is so captivating and leaves you with nothing but pride and fulfilment.

If you are an international tourist, sophistication does not get better than this! Visit Great Zimbabwe and be amazed by the magnificence and excellence of this structure.

Happy Travelling Tomorrow!

Mazwi Shamu is a teacher as well as a travel and tourism blogger and can be reached on [email protected]

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