is a tower more than 12 fathoms high. The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies court.”
Vicente Pegado, captain at the Portuguese Garrison of Sofala, in 1531, describing the Great Zimbabwe monuments.
It’s just after sunrise at Great Zimbabwe monuments last Friday. I am climbing the Hill Complex, alone. Apart from the baboons, there is nobody else here. Just me and the sound of baboons munching something nearby.
A rare moment. Each step, each pause, takes me closer to the silence of the imposing rocks. At the top, I am confronted by the massive wall of the Hill Complex, testimony to the architecture and skill of the ancestors gone by. And I struggle to bring the silence of rocks to reconcile with this spiritual presence that is hard and confusing to define.
But it is here all the same. I stand at the entrance and look at the breath-taking panoramic mountain vistas beyond. In me, there is a sense of fear, shame, pride and a desire to connect to a history that has stood here silently for centuries.
I was here at Great Zimbabwe Monument before, as a tourist with some friends from a church group a few years after independence. We came as tourists, something that you did to show that you were civilised enough to travel and see places the way white people did. You travelled to Lake Kariba, then Victoria Falls, where you enjoyed the serenity of the mighty Zambezi River and then to Hwange National Park. Then you got on the bus to Masvingo and Great Zimbabwe ruins.
You marvelled at the architecture and listened to the great story of the Karanga people, who built Great Zimbabwe. You felt proud. However, because you are Zezuru, Tonga, Kalanga, Ndebele, Ndau or Manyika, you somehow do not pause to think you, too, belong to the ancestry of Great Zimbabwe.
What you do not know is that more than 500 years ago, the sub-dialects were not what they are now. We were all Africans and still are, despite linguistic differences.
I took the tourist journey to Great Zimbabwe 25 years ago. That was just before I made the Diaspora journey to run away from the proximity of village poverty in Hwedza where I had grown up.
I yearned to eat and digest everything European and live in London, Melbourne and Los Angeles. And I did. I went to many tourist places including ancient ruins in Crete, the temples of India, Thailand and other places.
In 2007, after a five-day conference designing a strategy to end world poverty with a team of American consultants in an exclusive resort outside Lima in Peru, we decided to take a trip to Machupicchu, the 15th century ancient city built by the indigenous Inca of Peru in Latin America.
We climbed right up to the ancient ruins, on top of the Andes Mountains near the upper Amazon basin. I listened to the tour guide tell us about the wonders of this ancient civilisation believed to have been a sanctuary or temple for high priests and the “Virgins of the Sun”.
He said during the violent Spanish colonisation, the Inca secretly kept the knowledge of their ancient city away from the Spanish. One day, as late as 1911, the city was “discovered” by Hiram Bingham, an American Yale professor. Since then, thousands of tourists have been thronging to see Machupicchu.
I stood there among other tourists, thinking how much Machupicchu was similar to Great Zimbabwe because the architecture is made without mortar and the granite stones are quarried and cut with such meticulous precision. During question time, like a good attentive tourist, I commented that back in my country called Zimbabwe we have similar ruins.
In fact, our country was named after the ruins, which means the House of Stone. An old English man quickly came over and hugged me like I was his long lost relative. He said he had been to Great Zimbabwe with his wife three times since Zimbabwe gained independence. “Like Machupicchu, your country holds treasure. Great Zimbabwe is an amazing spiritual place.”
Then he took me aside and over coffee he went on to tell me about the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure and the Valley and one of the eight soapstone birds found at Great Zimbabwe including the Monolith with Bird and Crocodile which is dated around 1400-1499. Here I was, at Machupicchu in Peru, knowing very little of the monument and the Zimbabwe bird, our national heritage and the symbol of our national flag. Ah, the shame and the realisation of not knowing where you come from.
There was an excuse to my shame and ignorance. Let me explain. Back in the days of Rhodesia when we lived under a racist colonial system, the history teachers said Great Zimbabwe was built by the Phoenicians.
We believed them. Then the missionaries kept reminding us that before the London Missionary Society, the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, the Berlin Mission and the Jesuit Zambezi Mission and all the others came to Africa, we were savage primitives caught in “unbridled lust and all the pernicious influences of heathen life”. Without Jesus, there was no history. Only darkness.
The stories of white men’s involvement in the building of Great Zimbabwe had long circulated as written by the Portuguese captain quoted above. When the Portuguese traders arrived at Great Zimbabwe in the 16th century, they believed it to be the biblical city of Ophir, the legendary home of the Queen of Sheba, that African woman who travelled to Israel to see Solomon with all her gold and finery.
Their romance was well captured in the biblical Song of Solomon. But others said these impressive stone structures are the work of Egyptians, Phoenicians or the Christian king of lands beyond the Islamic realm. These speculations stayed for 400 years.
Meanwhile, Great Zimbabwe, the mystery of the silent stones, remained, hiding the history of our past, for there was nothing written. We did not write. We only told stories from generation to generation. The Europeans were not listening.
Four hundred years later, as the missionaries, hunters, explorers, gold diggers and colonialists flooded into present-day Matabeleland and Mashonaland, Karl Mauch, a German geologist, arrived at Great Zimbabwe monuments on Sunday, September 3 1871. In his diaries, he noted that a Karanga tribesman took him there to show him “dzimbahwe”, the scared city of stone where the local people claimed to hear drums played at night. Mauch described the walls as beautifully curved undulating and bearing no mortar.
He looked at the soapstone and iron relics and said only “a civilised white nation must once have lived there.” Then he cut a piece of wood from a tree with red juices, (probably a mubvamaropa tree) and concluded that this tree was unique and it could only have come from Lebanon with the Phoenicians.
After Karl Mauch’s findings, Cecil John Rhodes made a visit in 1890 and told the chiefs that he had come to look for “the ancient temple which once upon a time belonged to white men.” Rhodes then established the Ancient Ruins Company and financed James Theodore Bent from the British Association of Science. In 1892, Bent published The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland in which he said items found within the Great Zimbabwe complex proved that the civilisation was not built by local Africans.
A few years later, Richard Hall was hired to investigate the Great Zimbabwe site. Hall asserted in his work, The Ancient Ruins of Rhodesia, that the civilisation was built by “more civilised races” than the Africans. Hall deliberately dug two meters deep and destroyed archaeological evidence which pointed to the Shona people as builders of Great Zimbabwe.
Hall said he wanted to “remove the filth and decadence of kaffir occupation”.
In 1905, British archaeologist David Randall-Maclver came to Great Zimbabwe and studied the mud dwellings within the stone enclosures. He was the first European researcher to say that the dwellings were “unquestionably African in every detail”. As a result of this bold assertion, Randall-Maclver and other archaeologists were banned from the Zimbabwe site by the colonial government.
After 25 years, archaeologists led by Gertrude Caton-Thompson who had worked for many years in Egypt came and spent two years at Great Zimbabwe. Although a lot had been destroyed and stolen, Caton-Thompson found Persian bowls, Chinese celadon dishes, and Asian glassware. These twelfth to fifteenth century goods were evidence that there was a Shona and Indian Ocean trade link. Gertrude Caton-Thompson also examined the pottery style, wall decoration and the Karanga linguistic data and concluded that the ruins were of Shona origin.
But the Rhodesian government would not accept the findings. To say Great Zimbabwe’s origins were African would fuel a sense of history and national pride in the natives. How then would they justify white superiority if the blacks could boast of a pre-colonial civilisation and an organised state structure going back more than 500 years?
This was dangerous. The Rhodesian government printed official guide books for tourists showing images of Africans bowing down to foreign innovators who were said to have built Great Zimbabwe. For colonialism to survive, the myth of darkness before the white man came had to prevail.
This falsification of history was taught to us in primary schools. Takanyeperwa. It went on until Zimbabwean-born archaeologist Peter Garlake wrote the ground-breaking Great Zimbabwe published before independence. He said that neither the Queen of Sheba, the Europeans nor the Phoenicians built Great Zimbabwe. Garlake confirmed that the ruins were of African origin built between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries by the ancestors of the Shona people.
Like most people educated under the colonial Rhodesian system, we did not know that Great Zimbabwe was the largest single prehistoric structure in sub-Saharan Africa related to similar structures at Mapungubwe across the Limpopo on the South African side. It was one of 300 known stone enclosure sites on the Zimbabwe Plateau and it the largest ancient stone construction south of the Sahara.
The ruins cover nearly 1 800 acres and are divided into three distinct architectural groupings; the Hill Complex, the Valley Complex, and the Great Enclosure. The dry stone walls and earth dagga houses were built over of the African Iron Age, between AD 1100-1500. Construction of the interior of the Great Enclosure began some time in the early fourteenth century and its outer wall was built nearly 100 years later.
The Great Enclosure is most spectacular with an outer wall that is 278 meters long and up to 9,5m high. Inside it is a massive conical tower embodied with spiritual significance.
For 150 years, Great Zimbabwe was centre of the most powerful Munhumutapa state in Southern Africa. At the height of its power, Great Zimbabwe was the centre of a huge empire controlling vast lands between the Zambezi and the Limpopo rivers.
The ancient city of Great Zimbabwe could accommodate up to 20 000 people, royalty and slaves alike. People lived in 10 to 30 people in one family compound. They traded in gold, ivory, copper and bronze. Metal and iron tools came from Hwedza Mountains. The people lived on cattle raising, millet (zviyo) and sorghum (mapfunde) cultivation. Bananas came from Indonesia through trade with the Arabs.
One view of history says Great Zimbabwe began to lose control of the area it controlled from about 1400 when the importance of gold as an export commodity became scarce. There was more trade at Khami in south-west, which presented an economic advantage over Great Zimbabwe. By 1450 Khami had become the most important Zimbabwe capital.
Today, Great Zimbabwe embodies many aspects which are historic, aesthetic, scientific, social, spiritual and cultural. As a national monument, it forces us to construct, substantiate and challenge our personal, cultural and collective memory.
l Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and a cultural critic. She holds a PhD in International Relations.