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 high. The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies court.--Viçente Pegado, Captain, Portuguese Garrison of Sofala, 1531
When translated from Bantu, the word Zimbabwe means something akin to “sacred house” or “seat of the king”.
Built consistently throughout the years 400 AD and 15th century, the ruins at Great Zimbabwe are the oldest and largest structures located south of the Sahara desert yet to be discovered on the continent of Africa. At its peak, estimates are that the ruins of Great Zimbabwe had as many as 18,000 inhabitants.
It was traders from Portugal who first came the ruins in the early 16th century. Theories abounded as to the origin of the ruins. There was some speculation that they were actually the home of the Queen of Sheba. Others surmised that the structures could not possibly have bee built by the lowly Africans but instead were the work of either the Egyptian or Phoenicians. Even the Christians tried to take credit for the structures when they claimed that the ruins were the handiwork of Prester John and his cronies as they made their journey to convert the world to Christianity. Alas, it was not to be, the ruins were determined to be of African origin earlier in this century.
Built entirely of stone , the ruins span of 1,800 acres and cover a radius of 100 to 200 miles. The ruins can be broken down into three distinct groups architectural groups. They are known as the Hill Complex, the Valley complex and the Great Enclosure. Over 300 hundred structures have been located so far in the Great Enclosure.
Estimates are that the earliest residents of Great Zimbabwe, the Shona people, started around 400 AD. Construction and occupation of the city continued through the 15th century. The type of stone structures found on the site give an indication of the status of the citizenry. Structures that were more elaborate were built for the kings and situated further away from the center of the city. The thought is that this was done in order to escape the disease incurred by being bitten by the tsetse fly.
What little evidence exists suggest that that Great Zimbabwe also became a center for trading. Artifacts such as Chinese pottery and stoneware, dishes and engraved and painted glass from Europe have been discovered at the site. Unfortunately, over the years, treasure hunters, mostly of European origin, have pretty much trashed the site in their quest for gold and other riches.
As recently as yesterday, new light might have been shed as to the purpose of the city. The arrangement of the walls and the complex diagrams seem to indicate that the monoliths were used to track the movement of the moon, sun, planets and other stars.
It has also been noted that during the winter solstice, several of the monoliths line up with the brightest stars in the Orion constellation. Other markings indicate that the structures were somehow used to predict an eclipse. The most controversial theory is that the largest of the structures, a stone tower, was built to observe a star that exploded sometime around 1300 AD.
Nobody knows for sure knows 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. It’s a pity that nothing more exists to give an indication of what became of the city or its people.