The Euro-Centric, and often racist, view of world history tends to ignore, and sometimes actually deny, the existence of ancient highly developed civilizations in Sub-Saharan Africa. With this view the large stone-walled city of Great Zimbabwe is difficult to explain. In the nineteenth and even in the twentieth century, European settlers in southern Africa insisted that Black Africans could not have built the city and attempted to give the Phoenicians credit for it. Archaeology, however, has firmly established that Great Zimbabwe was built by native Africans.
The word "Zimbabwe" comes from the Shona language and means "stone houses" or "venerated houses."
The city of Great Zimbabwe was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe from about 1100 to 1450. The city grew to cover 1,784 acres. The site was a royal palace for the monarch and thus served as the seat of political power. The kingdom encompassed nearly 39,000 square miles between the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers. At its peak, the city had a population of 18,000 to 20,000 people. It would have been the largest settlement in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The wealth of the kingdom was based primarily on cattle, crops, and trade. It was in a key position to control the trade routes between the gold areas to the north and the Indian Ocean to the east. Trade brought goods from China and countries on the Indian Ocean, including glassware, china, and cloth. Great Zimbabwe provided gold, copper, and ivory for the imported goods.
Great Zimbabwe was occupied as early as the 4th century CE by farmer-pastoralists. These early settlers mined and worked iron, but they did not build any stone structures.
The site occupied by the city lies on a steep-sided rocky hill and spreads into an adjacent valley on the southeastern edge of the plateau. Today the ruins include dry-stone walls and numerous earth house remains.
In general, the site was not built to a master plan, but seemed to grow organically. Features were constructed and modified. Over time, the complex changed. Some of the new kings built new residences.
The overall site can be divided into three main areas: the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure, and the Valley Ruins. The dry-stone granite stone walls served to screen off and divide space in the huge settlement.
The Hill Complex was occupied prior to any stone construction. The stone-building phase began about 900 which corresponds to a movement of iron-age peoples from the south. The dry stone walls are the major feature on the Hill Complex. The western wall includes stone conical turrets and some monolithic decorations. The south wall is built on the edge of a stone precipice. This wall is about 33 feet high and is 14 feet wide at the base. In incorporates natural granite boulders into the construction.
The most spectacular structure at Great Zimbabwe is the Great Enclosure which is situated across the valley from the Hill Complex. The Great Enclosure was occupied from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. Its outer wall is 912 feet in length and has a maximum height of 31 feet. It is the largest single prehistoric structure in Sub-Saharan Africa. Inside are a number of stone enclosures, daga (earth) platforms, and an impressive conical tower. The stone tower, constructed without mortar, is about 30 feet high and 18 feet in diameter. The tower was probably a symbol of power and prestige.
The Valley Ruins, which were occupied from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, include several individual enclosures. The daga (earth) houses were as impressive as the monumental stone structures. The houses were often divided into two or more compartments with verandas.
The first Europeans to encounter the ruins refused to believe that they could have been built by Africans, or they chose to believe that they may have been built by Africans but under the direction of outsiders. While archaeologists saw no indication of outside influence in the construction of Great Zimbabwe, Europeans preferred to accept the fictional stories involving Phoenicians or other outsiders as the architects of the great city. There was a popular perception of Black Africans as cannibalistic spear- throwing savages incapable of building cities and creating empires.
In 1905, British archaeologist Randall MacIver concluded that Great Zimbabwe had been built by the ancestors of the modern day African inhabitants of the area. This finding infuriated the local European settlers and no further archaeological excavation was allowed for 20 years.
In 1928, Gertrude Caton-Thompson did a very careful archaeological excavation at the site. She concluded that Great Zimbabwe has been constructed by Black Africans and expressed amazement that any thinking person would consider it to be anything but African. Her findings were greeted with anger by the European settlers who refused to believe that Africans, whom they considered inferior, could have built this great site.
The Rhodesian government refused to accept that Great Zimbabwe could have been a product of African ingenuity, but rather that it had to be the result of outside stimulus. From 1965 until independence in 1980, the Rhodesian Front censored all books and other materials available on Great Zimbabwe.
For Black anti-colonialist groups during the colonial era, Great Zimbabwe became an important symbol of achievement by Black Africans. Reclaiming its history was a major aim for those wanting independence. In 1980 the newly independent country was renamed for the site.
While the white supremacist government of Rhodesia denied the existence of an early Black civilization, Great Zimbabwe has been adopted as a national monument by the Zimbabwean government. In 1986, Great Zimbabwe became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.