Great Zimbabwe was once a great city in the south-eastern hills of Zimbabwe near the town of Masvingo between the 11-14th centuries. Great Zimbabwe is also locally known as “Dzimba Dzamabwe” meaning the house of stone or stone buildings. This is where the name Zimbabwe derives from. Historical records show that the Shona people constructed Great Zimbabwe during the late Iron Age under King Munhumutapa.
The ruins of the two main geographical areas of stone wall enclosures are the Hill Complex which is on a long, steep-sided granite hill that rises 262 feet above the surrounding ground; and below this hill are the Valley and the Great Enclosure. The stonewalls which are 19.7 feet thick and 36 feet high, are built of granite blocks without the use of mortar. The building stone was obtained locally from the numerous large granite hills in the area.
There are many theories about who built this city but evidence consistently points to the Shona people. My ancestors, the Karanga are believed to have been part of the groups of people who were at Great Zimbabwe during its hay days.
Back then, the land offered many possibilities: plains of fertile soil to support farming and cattle ranching, mineral-rich territories that provided gold, iron, copper, and tin for trading and crafting. It was a thriving city that attracted foreign traders from Europe and Asia.
I had a sense of belonging as I set off on my walk through the ruins of what was once a great state. Most of the walls are still standing which is quite impressive considering that the city’s collapsed in the 15th century. Women used to carry water on their head and walk up to the hilltop. This was a long walk and the people must have been very fit.
The great enclosure at Great Zimbabwe is considered the largest single ancient structure in sub-Sahara Africa. As children we were told stories about how that this area was for the queen and the rest of the king’s wives. The King, Munhumutapa, was believed to have had 200 wives. The conical tower was believed to be a place of worship for the Shona people. The citizens of the Munhumutapa Empire worshipped “Mwari” – meaning God. In the Shona culture,”Mwari”, was the highest deity and all people needed to go through a spirit medium in order to speak to “Mwari”. This custom is still being practised and was even adopted by the Catholic missionaries. In the Catholic religion, worshippers go through Mary or the saints to speak to God. This made it easy for the missionaries to convert the Zimbabweans because they shared similarities practices. Many Shona people go to church on Sunday and on Saturday they still go and celebrate their ancestors.
The great Zimbabwe ruins are not only an ancient city but the place hosts a lot of ancient spirits that local people still consult. Great Zimbabwe is one of the places where they pay homage to their ancestors. Such a ceremony is called “bira” and it is usually done when there is full moon after 21:00 pm. A goat is usually sacrificed and the blood is used to summon the spirits. The affair is not for the faint-hearted. People dance till the early hours of the following day. The spirits respond to the call and reveal themselves through a medium who speaks on their behalf. It is a bit like going to the lady with a crystal ball and asking to speak to the dead relatives.
You could call it a myth but it is believed that there is an area in the King’s area at the hilltop that European explorers tried to enter but kept on hearing terrifying voices that forced them to give up and to this day that area is closed to the public. My tour guide did not want to spend too much time in this area.
The King had a sister who acted as his advisor. She lived on the hilltop with the King including the soldiers and witchdoctors. It is very interesting that in those days a woman had a say in matters of the state. The woman is portrayed as a powerful and wise woman who never got an eligible bachelor to marry her.
It is rumoured that the King used to stand at the highest point and would call on one of his wives. He also sat on this peak and watched the wives going about with their daily duties. The Queen was also powerful in her own right. She was in charge of the initiation rituals for young girls going into womanhood and made sure that all women fulfilled their duties.
Back then there was a clear division of labour. Men did all the manual work such as cattle herding, farming and other heavy duties around the homestead whilst the wives only did the grinding of maize into flour, making child-bearing pottery, weaving baskets and looking after children. This has since changed in Zimbabwe as in the rest of the world. Women now do the same work as men and both sexes migrate to urban areas looking for paying jobs.
The Great Zimbabwe ruins are a reminder of what the Shona ancestors achieved. Their ingenuity is a real testimony that apart from the pyramids in Egypt, Africa did have wealthy cities that were once well managed. Great Zimbabwe is now a world heritage site and worth visiting.