Figures in Black History
Located in the south central African nation of Zimbabwe are the ruins of monuments and cities built of stone. These ruins extend a radius of 100 to 200 miles, a diameter almost as great as the entire nation of France. Believed to have been built by southern Africans about 600-1,000 years ago they are evidence of a thriving culture in the heart of southern Africa.
Up until recent years, the ruins were believed by Western historians to be the remains of a "mysterious white race" in the heart of Africa. Great Zimbabwe has been ravaged by European treasure hunters and amateur archaeologists. Layer after layer of African artifacts were trashed in order to reach the bottom layer that, it was assumed, would prove that whites had exerted early influence in southern Africa. How many artifacts and important pieces of this ancient culture was lost is unknown. It is only in the last several decades since Zimbabwe became independent in 1980 that archaeologists have begun to take a serious look at ruins of Great Zimbabwe and similar sites representing a dynamic social, economic and political culture in Southern Africa.
It is now generally accepted that the ruins of Great Zimbabwe reflect the culture of the Shona peoples, a Bantu speaking ethnic group, who reside in the region today. The name Zimbabwe comes from the Shona. Roughly translated it can mean "Houses of Stone" and are associated with ruler ship. Upon independence the newly formed state of Zimbabwe took this name for itself. Evidence of what some scholars call Cyclopean Architecture this structure (below) within the Zimbabwe was made by placing stones atop each other without the use of cement.
Earliest habitation of the site was around 400 AD. The site consists of a large main stone enclosure and many other structures built in and around it. Building probably occurred in three phases. Zimbabwe was occupied from the 13th to the 15th centuries by ancestors of the Shona. Most archaeologists agree that the Zimbabwe-type stone structures were intended to be indicators of status for the dwelling places for the elite. Modern day Zimbabwean kings, like their African ancestral counterparts in Mali, the Nile Valley and elsewhere, still possess similar dwellings. The wall of the great enclosure, pictured above, measures 244 meters in length, is 5 meters thick at its greatest point, and is 10 meters high. Interestingly, it is tapered so that it is narrowest at the top, suggesting fairly sophisticated architecture.
Around 1000AD people began to build large stone buildings for their kings, positioning them away from land. Many believe this move may have occurred to escape the dangerous tsetse fly. About 150 of these great ruins similar to Great Zimbabwe exist today. Many of these have been severely impacted and almost demolished, at least 50, as a result of the hunger for gold by Europeans. The population of Great Zimbabwe, previously estimated at 1,000 before the outside dwelling areas were taken into consideration, is now believed to have been as high as 18,000.
Numerous artifacts were looted from Zimbabwe by amateur European archaeologists and fortune hunters. Where many of these items are is uncertain. Some still remain, such as a falcon and crocodile structure that give a glimpse of the cultural beliefs of ancient Zimbabwe. The use of animals in religious symbolism, zootypology, has remained a continuous theme in African spiritual belief systems. Some archaeologists believe that Great Zimbabwe rose as a religious center with Shona religion making a most significant contribution. It is probable that it served as a religious center where Mwari, the supreme Shona god, was reverenced and where cults of the mhondoro (spirits of the ruling dynasty) flourished.
It is also possible that Zimbabwe was a result of surplus wealth from the East African gold trade. External trade existed between Great Zimbabwe and Sofala on the southern coast of what is now Mozambique. Sofala was an important port where goods from India, China and the Islamic world were imported and then sent into the interior, which in turn exported products from inner Africa.
Gold was the most sought after export, but other exports such as copper played a role also. Imports were primarily cloth, glass beads and ceramics. Items found at Great Zimbabwe include a glazed Persian bowl from the 13th or 14th century, Chinese celedon dishes, sherds from a Chinese stoneware vessel, and fragments of engraved and painted Near Eastern glass.
Around the 14th century, Great Zimbabwe was probably in direct contact with the trading cities of the East African Coast. There was a sudden increase in building activity there at that time, as there was in the cities on the East African Coast.
Some believe the decline of Great Zimbabwe during the 15th century was in direct relationship with the decline of coastal cities. Great Zimbabwe declined probably due to a number of factors including environmental degradation and a decline in the gold trade. The legacy of the region however attests to the ingenuity and political strength of its African ancestors, the Shona, and of Africans everywhere.
For More Information See:
Bessire, Mark HC. Great Zimbabwe
Martin, David. Great Zimbabwe: Houses of Stone
Pikirayi, Innocent. The Zimbabwe Culture: Origins and Decline of Southern Zambezian States
Great Zimbabwe http://www.scholars.nus.edu.sg/landow/post/zimbabwe/art/greatzim/gz1.html
A PBS NOVA Special- Why Great Zimbabwe Has NOTHING to Do With Ancient Israel http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/israel/zimbabwe.html
Slide Show of Great Zimbabwe http://www2.mc.maricopa.edu/anthro/lost_tribes/zimbabwe/