Lizzie Williams
South Africa ZA

Lizzie is a reputed guidebook writer and author of the Footprint guides to South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Categories: African Hotspots, Highlight of the Month, Safari History, Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe

One of the most extraordinary man-made remains in Africa, Great Zimbabwe is a mystical city built of granite stones and was thought to be built by the ancestors of modern Zimbabweans.

Houses of stone

Zimbabwe, after which the country was named, means ‘houses of stone’ in the Shona language. The ruins of Great Zimbabwe span out over a 722 hectare area in south-eastern Zimbabwe. Construction began in the 11th century and continued for over 300 years, making the ruins some of the oldest and largest stone structures in southern Africa, which are today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A city of trade

At its peak, the city had approximately 25,000 inhabitants trading in cloth, beads and ceramics from Arabia and China. And they  traded for gold, ivory and copper via traders from East Africa.. Chinese pottery shards, coins from Arabia, glass beads and other non-local items were excavated there. By 1500, the site was inexplicably abandoned. With no record of a written language behind, Great Zimbabwe became one of the truly lost civilizations of the world.

Building construction - whodunnit?

Its massive curving walls comprise millions of granite blocks which fit together without mortar. The building method used only simple tools and technology, but demanded a high level of masonry expertise. So, who built Great Zimbabwe? This is the question that has hung over these mysterious ruins ever since their discovery by German explorer, Karl Mauch in 1871.

There are so many theories – each one linking their construction to a variety of ancient peoples and civilisations. The list includes King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, the Phoenicians and Egyptians to name a few. Very sophisticated constructions. That's why many 19th century colonialists believed that Africans were incapable of building such an intricate set of structures. Or to organise such a complex social system as a great city. The answer, according to the colonialists: a lost ‘white tribe.’

This was possibly the world’s only incident of architectural censorship. In reality, it was an attempt to exploit the African land and stamp their colonial seal on the territory. Because the Shona people built it, Great Zimbabwe became an important symbol of achievement for black Africans. The famous soapstone bird carvings in the ruins are now a national symbol. A newly independent Zimbabwe, circa 1980,  depicts them in its national flag.

Ancient ruins

The ruins have three distinct areas. The Hill Complex on a long, steep-sided granite hill served as a temple. The Valley Complex was where most people lived and the few stone remains could have been entrances to houses.  The Great Enclosure – with its massive conical tower and parallel passage around it – is where the royal family lived. You can walk around the whole complex. There’s also a museum and a campsite/picnic area. The Great Zimbabwe Hotel is a short walk away from the ruins.

Best time to visit

With a pleasant year-round climate, blue skies and pleasant temperatures, there is no bad time to visit Zimbabwe. That said, Great Zimbabwe is an outdoor attraction, so avoid the rainy season (November-March).

Want to visit Zimbabwe?

The breathtaking scenery, exotic wildlife, historical relevance and friendly locals combine to make this a unique safari destination. SafariBookings will be happy to assist you with your travel plans. Contact us!