Great Zimbabwe Ruins

This is Bob’s country.

“Please tell your friends to come to Zimbabwe.”  We heard this several times from Zimbabweans, and after our three (3) day visit we will spread the word.  It is time.  Zimbabwe is ready and welcoming.

The first stop on our tour were the Great Zimbabwe Ruins.  They are fascinating and unique to southern Africa.  They are also the largest ancient stone structure in all of southern Africa.  The Great Zimbabwe Ruins are a World Heritage sight.  These ruins are located near the modern day city of Masvingo.  Masvingo is a three (3) hour drive north/northeast of the Beitbridge border crossing.  The highway was in good shape, though the edge of the tar was crumbling, which left little room for moving over as big trucks barreled towards us.  We encountered only two (2) police checkpoints…no problems.  In fact, at the first checkpoint, we provided transport to a couple of officers who needed a ride to Masvingo.  One of the men was an IT police dept. employee who was carrying a desktop computer in need of repairs. Needless to say, we were waived through the second police checkpoint.

Campsite with "Hill Complex" in background

Campsite with “Hill Complex” in background

The site, itself, is nicely appointed.  There is a nearby upscale hotel. There are self-catering cottages, as well as, spacious campsites.  The ablutions were clean, but the hot water tanks were not functioning, so the showers were cool. But, when its 95 degrees outside, cool is good.  We stayed at a campsite.  A baboon troupe wandered through, but they did not show any interest in our campsite.  (This was quite different from the aggressive little vervet monkeys we encountered in Kruger Park.)  In the evening, a camp security guard approached us and introduced himself.  It was a very comfortable campsite and there was only one other group camping.  The site also had a gift shop where we found some very attractive carved soapstone at great prices….now, how to get it home.   As far as cost is concerned,  we spent about $48.00 on entrance fees, camping fees, and a guided tour.  The two (2) hour tour cost $9.00/person and was well worth it.

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View of the ” Great Enclosure” from the “Hill Complex”

To better understand the Great Kingdom of Zimbabwe we need to go back eight hundred years. What in the world was happening in 1200 A.D.?

Let’s see….Genghis Khan was invading everybody; the Crusades were in full swing; the Inquisition under Pope Gregory IX commenced…amen; and China was trading with Zimbabwe….Wait, what’s that last one?  China was trading with a landlocked area in Southern Africa!?…..your school history books probably didn’t mention this.  A visit to the Great Zimbabwe Ruins (the very ruins that gave the country its name after it was changed from Rhodesia) reveals shards of Chinese porcelain dug up from early excavations…..And no, the shards were not from a careless teetotalling Brit who dropped his cup while peering into the dig.  It seems that from about 1220 A.D. to roughly 1470 A.D. there was an empire in southeastern Africa called The Kingdom of Zimbabwe.  This empire controlled all of the ivory and gold trade in the region.  Arab and Chinese traders came down the coast of Africa and then up the Save River through Mozambique to access the empire. The capital of the Kingdom was what is now called the Great Zimbabwe Ruins.

This narrow walkway inside the Great Enclosure was for the boys. On the other side of the right hand wall was another passageway for the girls.

This narrow walkway inside the Great Enclosure was for the boys. On the other side of the right hand wall was another passageway for the girls.

The Great Zimbabwe ruins are an architectural wonder.  The word Zimbabwe literally means “stone dwelling.”  The perimeter walls are up to 35 feet high and 15 feet thick at the base.  The walls are made of chiseled granite stones.  The stones are stacked like a “brick wall.”  The walls are comprised of an inner wall and an outer wall.  In between the two walls are loose filler stones.  The walls are thicker at the bottom and thinner at the top.  This allows both walls to lean inward, while the filler stones keep the walls pushed outward.  One last detail, the walls were made without mortar.  They are simply stacked rocks.  As a testament to the engineering, the walls have remained standing for over 800 years.  Fortunately, Zimbabwe is not plagued with earthquakes.

[Side note:  During the apartheid government’s reign in Rhodesia, archeologists were censored from factually stating that the stone structures were built by blacks.  It was alright to say that “yellow” people may have built and engineered the walls, but not blacks.  After Mugabe took back the country, the Shona people were quick to correct the censored colonial version.]

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The Great Enclosure. Note the chevron brick pattern. This symbolized abundance.

The site of the ruins has three areas that comprised the city: The Great Enclosure, The Low Complex, and the High Complex. The first two areas are in a flat open space at the base of a rocky hill.  The third area is atop the rocky hill.

The first area is the “Great Enclosure” with a thirty-five (35) foot high perimeter wall.  The Great Enclosure is about the size of a soccer field.  This area was reserved for royalty.  The king’s “senior” wives resided here and the area also served as a school for the children of royalty/nobility. Boys and girls were kept separate.  Boys learned how to be men and girls how to be women.  The second area was outside the walled enclosure.  This area was called the “Valley Complex” and it was where the majority of the people resided.  Their homes were round mud walled huts with thatched roofs.  The huts were round because evil spirits were known to hide in corners.  Additionally, the city had a rudimentary sanitation system.  This was a good thing since there were more than 20,000 inhabitants.

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Looking across the Low Complex to the Hill Complex

The final area was atop the rocky hill called the “Hill Complex.”  This was the king’s residence and the king’s court.  The unusual and remarkable features of the Hill Complex are granite stone walls that were built into the gaps between huge rock outcroppings.  This created a fortress on top of the hill.  Entryways into the fortress were walled pathways only wide enough for a single person.  A good strategy to prevent sieging invaders; not that there were many invaders during the 250 year kingdom. The king mostly had to worry about envious enemies from within….an age old truism of human politics.

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Single file passageway on the way to the king’s residence

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Perimeter fortress wall surrounding the Hill Complex

The Great Zimbabwe Kingdom was a remarkable culture.  It originated from an earlier settlement that migrated from Mapungubwe, South Africa.

Our guide in Mapungubwe, South Africa. Here she is explaining the ancient African "board game" called Makala. The board game was located on the plateau where royalty resided....And, yes that is a rifle in her hand. We had to trek through the bush to reach the Mapungubwe ruins.

Our guide in Mapungubwe, South Africa. Here she is explaining the ancient African “board game” called Makala. The board game was located on the plateau where royalty resided….And, yes that is a rifle in her hand. We had to trek through the bush to reach the Mapungubwe ruins.

Mapungubwe is located in South Africa on the border with Zimbabwe.  Its society flourished for close to one hundred years from 1100 AD to 1200 AD.  They then pulled up their stakes and migrated north.  It is hypothesized that the people migrated because the land was too arid and the soil was not sufficiently fertile to sustain the society.  Mapungubwe shared many characteristics with the Great Zimbabwe Ruins.  It had a large rock outcropping; on top of which, the royalty lived.  The common people lived in the valley below.  The people of Mapungubwe also built brick walls without mortar, but the walls were built out of clay and sand as there is no granite in the area.  As a result, the walls eroded over time.  The Mapungubwe people also traded with the Arabs and Chinese.

A 48 ft. tower inside the Great Enclosure.  Its purpose is widely debated.

A 48 ft. tower inside the Great Enclosure. Its purpose is widely debated.

The societal structure of the Great Zimbabwean kingdom was fascinating because it differed from the typical tribal structure and more resembled the three tiered monarchy structure of foreign cultures. i.e. royalty, nobility, and peasants.  This begs the question of how and why this culture evolved to have such a hierarchy.  Some speculate that they were influenced by foreign traders, though this does not seem plausible.  It was more likely a simple evolution of tribal culture that started with a hierarchy, and simply expanded to have three distinct classes as the population grew into the thousands.

The foreign trade was a win/win for both parties.  The Zimbabweans had gold.  And while gold had aesthetic value for them, it lacked utilitarian value.  After all, Its hard to chisel granite or plow a field with gold implements.  The foreign traders bartered with iron tools, which were highly valued to the Zimbabweans.  Thus, for the foreigners one could say it was a trading alchemy.  And for the Zimbabweans, the iron implements enabled them to build their kingdom and effectively feed their significant populace.

Towards the end of the Great Zimbabwe Kingdom’s two hundred and fifty (250) year run, there was a prince named Mutota.  He was sent north to find new salt deposits.  He was a savvy businessman, and he recognized that his kingdom could attain greater wealth if it cut out the middleman.  As it stood, Zimbabwe was mineral rich and, sadly for the elephants, had much available ivory.  Mutota expanded the kingdom across much of Zimbabwe, thereby incorporating the gold mines under his domain.  He later moved the capital 350 km north from Great Zimbabwe to Mutapa. This second kingdom ruled over Zimbabwe from approx. 1430-1760.  Remnants of the expansion are still visible as small brick fortresses built around old gold mines throughout Zimbabwe.

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Our highly knowledgeable Zimbabwean guide, Lavmo (sp)

The people of the kingdoms were the Shona.  When Mutota expanded his empire, like all notable emperors seem to do, he expanded with his Shona people.  As the Shona took over Zimbabwe, the lessor tribal peoples were either conquered; or they moved out; or they were integrated in the expansion.  As a result, most present day Zimbabweans share a common Shona ancestry.  (This is very different from South Africa that has many different tribes and 11 official languages.)

A final note on a most remarkable facet of the political structure of the Kingdom.  There was a method of “checks and balances” for the purpose of keeping the king from making egotistical, erroneous decisions.  Whenever the King held court and had to rule on a matter, his decision could then be approved or vetoed by his eldest sister.  Her leverage over the King was the clever part.  It originated from an initiation ceremony that the king underwent when he ascended the throne.  First, he had to go out and capture a crocodile.  He then took the crocodile to a ceremonial hut in the Hill Complex.  That night he laid blankets over the crocodile and had sex with his eldest sister on top of the crocodile.  He then killed the crocodile and removed certain small stones that the croc had ingested during its life.  One of these stones the king swallowed to acquire the power of the crocodile.  This ended the ceremony, but from it derived the sister’s leverage.  For if ever the sister vetoed the king and the king foolishly thought to go against his sister’s veto, she could defame the king through any number of stories about their night together.  Perhaps, the king was not virulent, or maybe he was squeamish around the crocodile.  Any such story would be an embarrassment to the king and diminish his power.  As such, the king wouldn’t dare go against his sister.

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Bobbi and Lavmo at the king’s residence

Although, the sister held a position of power over the king, her life was not all a bed of roses.  First, she had to sleep with her brother….on top of a live crocodile.  Second, she had to remain celibate for the remainder of her life.  Finally, even though she lived with the king atop the rocky outcropping, she lived in a separate area and she lived isolated from the people.  Her position was a bit like the Supreme Court.  She was isolated from political influences [hopefully more so than our own court], she could not be removed from power, and she could interpret the king’s rules with a yea or a nay.  Such a system has stood the test of time and it reveals the advanced political system (with a local twist) of these early Shona people.

One final note of intrigue;  legend has it that in the ceremonial hut where the sister lived there was a fissure in the floor.  This fissure went way down into the rocky outcropping and was part of a cave system.  Some speculate that this was where the king stored his bounty.  During an early exploration/excavation of the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, two European cavers dropped in to explore the fissure.  They never returned.  Later, another party went spelunking into the fissure a short distance but quickly emerged ashen faced.  They swore they heard voices and ancient chants.  Consequently, the fissure’s opening was filled with rocks and sealed…such is the stuff of legends.


  1. Wow, the things I never knew until I started following your blog! What a unique, interesting, educational tour! But, if you’re trying to help the tourism board get me there….how’s the food? 😉

  2. Haha – should’ve known you’d ask that! We camped for the duration of this excursion so can’t speak to Zimbabwean food. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of food available in the grocery store where we stopped. For years, reports from Zim have discussed nothing but hyper-inflation, empty grocery store shelves, and petrol shortages. But the store we visited was well-stocked and had more varieties of produce (and in much better shape) than we get in our tiny store in South Africa. So… to answer your question, at least you could cook well there! :o)

  3. Good to know – last thing I remember hearing was about million dollar loaves of bread… But, do you think I could replicate tonight’s dinner – green chile bacon corn shrimp chowder? 😉 YUM!!! I miss you guys, seems like you were in Firenze a lifetime ago!

  4. So interesting and so well written. A description of an archaeological ruin and its history, with good photos, that belongs in a travel publication. And, to add even more interest, the monarch/sister relationship that influenced governance, ending the blog with the legend. Fascinating!

  5. Fascinating. Thanks for the thorough write-up. The Chinese connection is of special interest due to my trip next Spring to the Silk Road in China. The SR was of course many roads, but who knew one of them led to Zimbabwe?!

    1. Glad to hear the trip is re-scheduled; we were sorry to hear it was delayed.

  6. . . what a brilliant posting – great storytelling about an amazing place and culture. Loved it!

    1. Thanks, Alan. KC in particular was captivated by these ruins; I think he could have stayed another day or two…

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