Great Zimbabwe Ruins

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

The Great Zimbabwe Ruins (sometimes just called Great Zimbabwe) are sub-Saharan Africa's most important and largest stone ruins. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1986, the large towers and structures were built out of millions of stones balanced perfectly on top of one another without the aid of mortar. Great Zimbabwe gave modern Zimbabwe its name as well as its national emblem -- an eagle carved stylishly out of soapstone which was found at the ruins.

The Rise of Great Zimbabwe

The Great Zimbabwe society is believed to have become increasingly influential during the 11th Century. The Swahili, the Portuguese and Arabs who were sailing down the Mozambique coast began trading porcelain, cloth and glass with the Great Zimbabwe people in return for gold and ivory. As the Great Zimbabwe people flourished, they built an empire whose huge stone buildings which would eventually spread over 200 square miles (500 km2). It is thought that as many as 18,000 people lived here during its heyday.

The Fall of Great Zimbabwe

By the 15th Century, Great Zimbabwe was in decline due to overpopulation, disease and political discord. By the time the Portuguese arrived in search of rumored cities built of gold, Great Zimbabwe had already fallen into ruin.

Recent History of Great Zimbabwe

During colonial times when white supremacy was in vogue, many believed that Great Zimbabwe couldn't possibly have been built by black Africans. Theories were bandied around, some believed that Great Zimbabwe was built by Phoenicians or Arabs. Others believed white-settlers must have built the structures. It wasn't until 1929 that archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson categorically proved that Great Zimbabwe was built by black-Africans.

Nowadays, various tribes in the region claim that Great Zimbabwe was built by their ancestors. Archaeologists generally agree that the Lemba tribe is most likely responsible. The Lemba community believe themselves to have Jewish heritage.

Why Rhodesia Was Renamed Zimbabwe

Despite the facts, colonial administrations as late as the 1970's still denied that black Africans were the creators of this once great city. This is why Great Zimbabwe became an important symbol, especially to those fighting the colonial regime during the 1960's through to independence in 1980. Great Zimbabwe symbolized what black Africans were capable of despite denials by white men in power at the time. Once power was rightfully transferred to the majority, Rhodesia was named Zimbabwe.

The name "Zimbabwe" was most likely derived from the Shona language; dzimba dza mabwe means "house of stone".

Great Zimbabwe Ruins Today

Visiting the Great Zimbabwe ruins was a highlight of my trip to that country, and they should not be missed. The skill with which the stones were laid is impressive given the lack of mortar. The Great Enclosure is quite something, with walls as high as 36 feet extending approximately 820 feet. You need a full day to explore the 3 main areas that are of interest, the Hill Complex (which also offers wonderful views), the Great Enclosure and the museum. The museum holds many of the artifacts found among the ruins including pottery from China.

Visiting the Great Zimbabwe Ruins

Masvingo is the closest town to the Ruins, about 18 miles (30 km) away. There are several lodges and a hostel in Masvingo. There are a hotel and a campsite at the Ruins themselves.

To get to Masvingo, either hire a car or catch a long-distance bus. It takes 5 hours from Harare and 3 hours from Bulawayo. Long distance buses between Harare and Johannesburg stop nearby the ruins as well. There is a train station in Masvingo, but trains in Zimbabwe run infrequently and very slowly.

Given the political climate history, make sure it's safe before you visit the Great Zimbabwe Ruins.

Tours that include Great Zimbabwe

To be truthful, I'm not a great fan of stone ruins in general, I think I lack the imagination to see what it once was. But Great Zimbabwe really has a mystical feel about it, the ruins are in good condition and it's very impressive. Take a guided tour when you're there, it'll make everything much more interesting. Alternatively, visit as part of a tour:

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