Great Zimbabwe

Aerial view of part of the Great Zimbabwe complex. Photograph by Janice Bell
Aerial view of part of the Great Zimbabwe complex, photograph by Janice Bell via Wikimedia

Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city in Zimbabwe (and in fact has given the modern country its name). Built over centuries beginning in the 9th century, the site was a center of power for the medieval Shona (or Kalanga) kingdom and part of the trade networks that spanned the Indian Ocean. It was abandoned in the 15th century and stands in ruins today, but even in its ruined state it is impressive.

Wall of the great enclosure. Photograph by Jens Klinzing.
Wall of the great enclosure, photograph by Jens Klinzing via Wikimedia

The remains of numerous stone enclosures spread over hundreds of hectares. At its height, Great Zimbabwe may have housed between 15,000 and 20,000 people. The surviving walls reach heights of five meters and are built of stone blocks assembled without mortar. Several different complexes occupy different positions ranging from hills to near the river. The significance of these different complexes remains unclear, but it may indicate that the center of settlement gradually moved over time, away from the more defensible hill sites to the more accessible valley sites, perhaps to better engage with the oceanic trade networks. Ivory and gold were Great Zimbabwe’s major international exports and trade goods from the Arabian peninsula and China have been found at the site.

Interior walkway showing the quality of the stonework. Uploaded by Vinz.
Interior walkway showing the quality of the stonework via Wikimedia

One noteworthy feature of the enclosures is their shape: neither rectangular nor circular but irregular curved shapes adapted to the forms of the landscape on which they sit.

In the colonial period, popular theories held that the site must have been built by ancient European or Asian colonizers. The biblical Queen of Sheba was often mentioned in connection with the site. Although archaeologists realized as early as the early twentieth century that Great Zimbabwe had been built by Africans, the colonial administration in what was then Rhodesia suppressed any such claim. The assertion that Africans were incapable of building such a complex site and needed European guidance to achieve any level of civilization was key to the justification of imperial domination. Colonial authorities could not tolerate any evidence that Africans were capable of creating sophisticated works of art and architecture on their own.

Part of the hill complex seen from the valley below. Photograph by Macvivo.
Part of the hill complex seen from the valley below, photograph by Macvivo via Wikimedia

Thoughts for writers

I have two reasons for sharing a little bit of Great Zimbabwe.

First, it is another example of architecture that does not depend on European examples. When doing our worldbuilding as writers, it is easy to fall back on the things that are familiar: European castles, Egyptian pyramids, Greek temples, and the other things we’ve seen before. Let yourself be inspired by the other amazing things people have built. I’d love to see a city inspired by Great Zimbabwe at its height turn up in a fantasy story, even one not set in an explicitly African-inspired world.

Second, this is another example of how politics can screw up good historical scholarship and so why you need to read broadly and get outside familiar frames of reference. Even today, while the Queen of Sheba is generally left out of it, claims that Great Zimbabwe was built by Arabs or Phoenicians still occasionally creep into popular histories.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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