Season 2 – Episode 07: The Great Zimbabwe

For our first monument on the African continent we examine the The Great Zimbabwe. This Iron Age city in southern Africa lies mostly in ruins today, but at the height of its power between the 11th and 15th century housed as many as 20,000 people. We’ll discuss what we know about this site today, and how colonialism stands in the way of a more complete picture of its history.

The ruins of The Great Zimbabwe extend over an enormous 80 hectares or 800,000 km², dwarfing the size of modern cities such as Toronto at only 630 km². This massive settlement was a major trade centre for crops, animals, gold, as well as minerals, with ample evidence of their trade routes extending as far as China. It is estimated that over 3 centuries more than 40% of the world’s mined gold came from this area, which is supported by the more than 4000 gold mines and 500 copper mines surrounding the site, in addition to the roughly 2000 goldsmiths, potters, weavers, blacksmiths, and stonemasons living in the area.

The layout and construction of The Great Zimbabwe exhibits an impressive level of architectural planning, and the settlement even had its own drainage system that is largely still functional today, centuries later. It is made up of 3 main zones, the hill complex being the oldest dating back to the 9th century, which was used as the spiritual and religious centre of the city up until the 13th century. The surrounding zone, known as the great enclosure is the most iconic part of the city featuring a huge circular wall made up of cut granite blocks a whopping 5m thick and as much as 11m high. This wall is made up of as many as 900,000 professionally sliced individual blocks held together without any mortar, just sheer gravity and precision. The conical tower at the centre of the great enclosure is constructed with the same high precision methods, and the outer wall is decorated with soapstone sculptures of a bird that is also featured on Zimbabwe’s flag. The final zone, known as the valley complex, was made up largely of living spaces and could be considered the suburbs of the city. This area was home to the thousands of artisans and the trade centres that sustained the city.

By the end of the 15th century the city was largely abandoned, possibly because of soil destruction leading to the supporting agriculture no longer being upkeep. The reasons for this city being abandoned may be lost to time as a result of rampant plundering of the site during the 19th and 20th century by Europeans. For over a century these colonists were in denial about the city being built by the African people, and in addition to attributing the construction to Biblical myths there was active destruction of evidence at the site. These efforts at obstruction of history continued right up until 1979 and included the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia issuing official guidebooks showing images of Africans bowing down to foreigners who had supposedly built The Great Zimbabwe. This came to an end in 1980 when the country gained independence from Britain and was renamed to Zimbabwe in honour of the site. The ruins were named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986 and while the general consensus now is that it was built by the ancestors of the Shona people, much of the history is still unknown, having either destroyed or plundered, or not yet uncovered.

CORRECTION: The audio and show notes for this episode indicate that The Great Zimbabwe extended over 800,000 km², which is incorrect. The Great Zimbabwe extended over 800,000 m²


Image Gallery

Site | Narrow curved passageway | Conical tower | Entrance | Soapstone Birds


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Music by: John Julius –

Edited by: Astronomic Audio

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