Great Zimbabwe Tour
What’s In A Name?
Great Zimbabwe is just that, the largest and most impressive of the many hundred of “madzimbahwe” or stone-walled settlements which are scattered across the interior of central Southern Africa.
The name refers to “houses of stone”, being both a figurative and in many cases, an actual description of the solid nature of the residential settlements of the social elite. These houses of solid rock where statements of chiefly power manifest across the landscape. A hierarchy of such settlements exist in each of the many Shona States that dominated the region from the tenth century to, in some places, the early years of the twentieth century.
They were mainly constructed of granite blocks, with different regional styles evident. In some places sandstone, gneiss and schist were used, but the poor geological structure of these materials never result in as impressive a building as those found in granite areas.
In some places the madzimbahwe were actually built of wood, although still described as “houses of stone”.
The History of Great Zimbabwe
A designated National Monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Great Zimbabwe lies in southern Zimbabwe, 28km southeast of the modern City of Masvingo. The capital of the greatest of the precolonial Shona States, Great Zimbabwe is a must for anyone interested in Africa’s history.
Great Zimbabwe is the largest of several hundred madzimbahwe or stone walled settlements scattered across central southern Africa.
These were the residences of the political elite who once dominated the area. These states arose more than a thousand years ago in response to increasing political centralisation and control over land, natural and agricultural resources and trade.
They were ruled by kings who were advised by their priests and courtiers, protected by well-trained soldiers, served by skilled artisans, enriched by traders from the region and around the world, and fed by local peasant farmers.
There are very few archaeological sites in the world that have attracted such varied and emotive interpretations as Great Zimbabwe.
It flourished from AD 1250 to 1550 with the greatest periods of stone wall construction dating to between AD 1300 and 1450. Its origin and layout is entirely indigenous and any “exotic theories” can be firmly rejected in the light of all evidence. “Alternate origin” interpretations often say more about the author’s racial and religious prejudice than having any grain of historical truth.
The Ancient People
At its zenith up to 10,000 people lived at this site. This would make it the largest urban settlement in sub-Saharan Africa during its time. The resident population was divided into two distinct socio-political strata whose life-styles were markedly different.
There were the ordinary people who occupied a large area to the west of the stone walls.
Little remains on the surface to indicate this extensive residential zone, although archaeological excavations have shown that it consisted of innumerable thatched, thick-walled and closely clustered pole and dhaka [clay] houses.
These people were probably the craftsmen of the state, or were involved with the complex administration that operated at Great Zimbabwe. They were effectively the Middle Class of the society.
They may have grown some of their own food nearby, but given the probable local scarcity of land it is likely that much of their subsistence was drawn from peasant producers further away.
The other social group comprised of the elite – senior administrators, military men, religious officials and the royal family.
This group lived in the areas defined by the stone walls; a highly visible statement of social self-importance. These stone walls were freestanding and were never roofed.
The people lived behind the walls in large pole and dhaka houses, many of which had intricately moulded clay decorations, some of which were covered in thin, hand-beaten, gold foil.
Unlike those who lived outside the stone walls, the elite group lived in comparatively opulent luxury.
They were responsible for the running of the society through their dominance and monopoly over the judicial, political, religious and trade elements of the State.
The layout of the elite sector of the settlement consisted of a number of different functional zones, and our tour will consider various interpretations that have been forwarded by leading academics who have studied the site.
Come with us to explore this extensive ruined complex; the mysterious Hill Complex, the massively built Great Enclosure with its imposing Conical Tower; and many smaller structures that lie between.
For those with time there are many other fascinating heritage sites in and around the nearby town of Masvingo so a short visit may not be enough in itself to understand the spiritual heart of this Zimbabwean landscape.
The region’s unique rock art; early Christian missions such as Morgenster, Chibi, and Gokomere; historical Fort Victoria; the Italian POW chapel; and numerous other sites of precolonial and colonial origin make this an exciting, although often overlooked heritage destination.
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