Great Zimbabwe Ruins: The Complete Guide

Panorama of ruins and large enclosure of Great Zimbabwe (Unesco World Heritage List, 1986), Zimbabwe

De Agostini/ G. Sioen/ De Agostini Picture Library/ Getty Images

Great Zimbabwe was the Iron Age capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe. Its ruins lie nestled in the country's southeastern hills and are recognized as the most important and extensive stone ruins in sub-Saharan Africa. Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, the site's surviving towers and enclosures are constructed from thousands of stones balanced perfectly on top of one another without the aid of mortar.

The Rise and Fall of Great Zimbabwe

Scientific research has shown that Great Zimbabwe was founded in the 11th century by a lost Bantu civilization, the Shona. Its inhabitants traded gold and ivory to visiting merchants from the Swahili Coast, Arabia and India in exchange for porcelain, cloth and glass. They became increasingly wealthy and the capital prospered, reaching the height of its influence in the 14th century. By this time, more than 10,000 people lived within Great Zimbabwe's impressive stone edifices, which spread across some 800 hectares of land.

The dawn of the 15th century brought about a change in the city's fortunes, however. The hinterland surrounding the settlement was stripped of timber and game and eventually became unable to sustain the capital's expanded population. By 1450, Great Zimbabwe was abandoned in favor of another medieval city, Khami. By the time Portuguese colonialists arrived in the area in 1505 in search of mythical cities of gold, Great Zimbabwe had already fallen into ruin; and yet the quality of its architecture is such that many of its buildings remain at least partially intact today.

Contested Origins

Early European explorers who stumbled upon the ruins proposed a number of different theories regarding their origins. German geographer Karl Mauch hypothesized that the ruins had a Biblical connection to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; while amateur British archaeologist J. Theodore Bent claimed to have found evidence that the site was built by either Phoenician or Arab traders. Bent's excavations were sponsored by imperialist Cecil Rhodes and influenced by the colonial belief that native Africans were too uncivilized to have built such an architecturally advanced city.

These racist beliefs were disproved by the first scientific excavation of the site, which took place in 1905 and unearthed artifacts that were indisputably of Bantu origin. Later research by British archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson confirmed the site's African heritage, which has remained uncontested since the 1950s. Various African tribes claim responsibility for Great Zimbabwe, including the Lemba and the modern-day Shona. Archaeological evidence and anthropological knowledge have led most scientists to support the theory that the site was built by Shona ancestors.

The Naming of a Nation

Colonial attempts to deny Great Zimbabwe's African origins led to the site being adopted by black nationalist groups as a symbol of African achievement and resistance. When Rhodesia was reborn as the independent Republic of Zimbabwe in 1980, its name was inspired by that of the Iron Age capital and kingdom. Soapstone bird carvings found at the site became a national symbol and are still depicted on the Zimbabwean flag today.

The Ruins Today

Today, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe are one of the country's top attractions. They are divided into three distinct groups: the Hill Ruins, the Great Enclosure and the Valley Ruins. The first set of ruins were built atop a hill, forming an acropolis that most archaeologists believe to have housed the city's royal chiefs. The Great Enclosure comprises several community living quarters separated by a series of stone walls that date back to the 14th century. Finally, the Valley Ruins are later, brick homes built as recently as the 19th century.

Before exploring these three unique sites, make sure to visit the Great Zimbabwe Museum. It showcases many of the artifacts uncovered by archaeologists, including Arab coins and porcelain from China that prove the settlement's trade history. Examples of the city's iconic soapstone bird totems can also be seen here. The museum is open daily from 7:45am to 4:45pm.

How to Visit

Great Zimbabwe's closest city is Masvingo, a 25-minute drive away. There are several hotels here, making it a handy base for exploring the ruins. If you want to see the ruins at sunrise and sunset, consider staying even closer; either at the on-site campsite or at nearby Great Zimbabwe Hotel. The latter offers 38 clean and comfortable rooms in addition to a swimming pool, volleyball court, restaurant and parking. If you're traveling independently, you can hire a car and drive to the ruins then join a guided tour (or not) once you get there.

Alternatively, many Zimbabwe tour operators include the ruins as a stop on their itineraries. Check out Best of Zimbabwe, an itinerary offered by budget overland company Nomad Tours; or request the ruins as a stop when planning a custom itinerary with luxury travel company &Beyond.