Great Zimbabwe is one of the wonders of Southern Africa.
It comprises the Great Enclosure whose circumference is 249 m with walls of 10,2 m at their highest, tapering from the base 4,8 m wide to 3 m wide at their summit; a hill known as the Acropolis fortified with a maze of stone walls and rising sharply 96 m out of the valley; and a labyrinth of stone walls known as the Valley Ruins.
The entire area, with its whispers of past might and grandeur, covers 714 ha. Yet the secrets of its history are implacably locked away.
Questioned about Zimbabwe’s origin an African old timer replied: “The walls were built when the stones were soft” – and a frustrated archaeologist might well be forgiven if he accepted this theory for its very simplicity!
Ruins in most other parts of the world have a background of comparative history and archaeological preserves but Zimbabwe is an open field without literature, only limited verbal tradition and minimal residual artifacts. For whoever built and occupied the structures were illiterate and moved away into the Dande of the Zambezi Valley around A.D. 1450.
Further, the whole area was dug and decimated by nineteenth century fortune hunters before Cecil Rhodes declared it sacrosanct. No burial grounds have ever been found near Zimbabwe.
The dry-stone walls are built from slabs varying from 5 cm to 45 cm thick “cut” from granite which, when subjected to heat and blows, cracks horizontally (a method also used in ancient mining). An immense area must have been covered in search of this raw material. An average load in the heat of the African sun cannot have been more than two bricks at a time per man or woman, carried over considerable distances – for these people had no knowledge of the wheel. Yet the massive girdle walls of the Great Enclosure alone are estimated to contain one hundred thousand tons of granite.
The centre of these walls is filled with chips of broken granite but the outer faces are neatly and evenly constructed with, here and there, embellishments of chequered and chevron patterns or courses of darker stone with perhaps a hidden significance. The builders had no knowledge of the arch but sometimes used wooden lintels instead and it is possible to find some of the notches which held them.
Yet the builders constructed rain water drains and even used soak-aways and skilful artificial water-course systems showing an unmistakable knowledge of gradient.
But what are we to make of the little, badly built walls which seem to nestle aimlessly against the massive strength of the outer walls? Are they perhaps inept imitations of the major walls? Do they indicate a decline into decadence of the master builders? Or perhaps later occupations of earlier buildings by Bantu-speaking peoples using stones gathered together by the master builders? Or are they, as modern archaeologists suggest, walls that linked mud huts inside the enclosure? (Foundations of such huts have actually been uncovered, and can be seen in the enclosure).
These unanswered queries lead on to others more basic.
Who were the builders? Where did they come from? Why did they build – for pomp and ceremony – to meet the needs of trade and trade secrecy – for ritual in some dark and lost religion – for fear of beasts, savage marauders or rival tribes?
Why was this prodigal expense of labour not confined to essentials instead of to the constructions of 120 m of apparently meaningless passages within the enclosure? (or, as is now thought more probable, of building an additional mightier wall to enclose earlier structures?) And how was the labour secured or forced – were the workers slaves or simple people enslaved by fear or awe? What were the conical towers – for they are filled with broken rock: were they symbols in a fertility cult replacing or supplementing nature worship? Is there a hint of sun/moon worship in the juxtaposition of the small and large conical towers? Was the Great Enclosure really a temple, or did some mad monarch build simply to add lustre to his name?
Until 1902 the Ruins had minimal protection and, apart from un-numbered ounces of gold removed and melted down, relics were scattered far and wide and it was only after Dr Hans Sauer’s report direct to Rhodes that they were officially protected.
On the evidence of the scientific Carbon 14 method, oral traditions preserved by African peoples and artifacts collected at Zimbabwe, they suggest that the main constructions at Zimbabwe were the work of the Karanga peoples, who migrated to Central Africa in about the twelfth century A.D. Carefully organised into labour groups and directed by a religious and secular chieftainship they used local granite to produce mighty Zimbabwe, before migrating northwards, in about A.D. 1450, and leaving Great Zimbabwe to their Rozvi successors who in turn were later scattered by tribal inroads.
The current conclusion is that where rock was available the Karanga people built in rock but where only daga was to hand they adapted their methods to alternative, materials. Yet the fascination of Zimbabwe remains. The ruins stand with their dark passages and dark past to puzzle and intrigue.