Khami Ruins Tour
What’s In A Name?
Khami is a corruption of the Kalanga name, nkame, a milker. It is said by some to refer to the former king as a symbolic “milker of cows” in his position as head of the state and its resources.
During the era of the Ndebele State this area was declared a royal hunting reserve, limiting access for those wishing to visit the site for traditional rainmaking ceremonies. Even today most of the Ndebele describe the ruins as umtangala, mere “walls”, but for some, especially the local Kalanga people, the site is culturally very important. It was a spiritual link to the past. Until 2013 a medium lived nearby and for many years until her death she claimed the traditional right to return to live at the heart of the ruins so that she could practise the rites of old. Currently there is no claimant to this spiritual position.
Sadly in the early colonial era Khami was severely damaged by treasure hunters. Some white settlers actually mined the site looking for gold artefacts and many priceless historical items were lost – melted down for bullion so important archaeological information was lost forever. Other visitors dug around hoping to locate evidence to support their belief in an earlier, mythical lost white race who they presumed were the builders. Competent professionals have since laid to rest these misguided beliefs through more scientific and informed studies.
The History of Khami Ruins
Khami Ruins is probably Zimbabwe’s least known of its five designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, yet a visit is a must for all who wish to understand the precolonial history of Zimbabwe.
Recognised internationally as a place of global cultural significance, Khami was once the capital of one of the great precolonial Shona States – the Butua or Torwa Kingdom whose origins date to the fourteenth century.
Taking advantage of the gradual fifteenth century decline of the power base of a competitor, the Great Zimbabwe state near Masvingo, the leadership at Khami seized the opportunity to expand their own empire and the economic opportunities that it presented.
Thereafter Khami was at the heart of a successful state institution for nearly 200 years. Its elite, whose leader is said to have been known as Mambo, monopolised access to the region’s rich grazing lands as well as the regional and international trade in gold, copper and salt, extracted in the mines and pans of Matabeleland and adjacent Botswana.
In AD 1644-1646 a crippling civil conflict saw the legitimate Mambo overthrown by his brother. The deposed sought help from a Portuguese landowner and mercenary based near Gorongosa in central Mozambique. Seisnando Dias Bayão and his mercenary army attacked the Butau capital and Khami which was burnt.
After reinstalling the former Mambo, a new state capital was developed 100km further north at Dangamombe [DhloDhlo].
Today under the custodial management of National Museums & Monuments of Zimbabwe, the 37-hectare estate of Khami World Heritage Site is well worth a visit.
It is only 22km from the city centre along a reasonable road. Its highly decorated stonewalls are spectacular. The site museum was refurbished a couple of years ago, and it is both the reception and an informative facility which provides the visitor a valuable insight into the diverse natural and cultural heritage of the estate.
The largest of the ruined stone-built platforms at the heart of the town comprises of three levels and lies on the very banks of the Khami River.
This was probably the home of the Mambo and select members of his royal entourage. They would have lived in large, dhaka [clay] structures built on the very crest of these artificially constructed hills.
Adjacent to the main platform is another, the so-called Cross Platform.
Once home to one of the senior administrators of the state, the mysterious cross on a large natural boulder is seemingly out of place in an African contexts. It was left by Bayão in 1646 as a symbol of victory following his sacking of the town.
A guided tour of this, the heart of the former capital, can be comfortably undertaken in half a day.
Let us discuss with you the various academic and cultural interpretations that cover this site as we look out over this special landscape.
For those with more time to spare, explore the full extent of the ruined city taking in other platforms once occupied by other members of the ruling elite as well as the religious heart of the town.
This includes the “Precipice Platform” which is one of the longest sections of decorated Zimbabwe-style stone walling in Zimbabwe.
Also don’t miss out seeing the nearby “rock gong” whose metallic ringing was once part of the long-forgotten ritual activities of this settlement.
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