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Great Zimbabwe: the city that defied colonial racism

Great Zimbabwe is a remarkable place. Situated in the south-east of the country that bears its name, it is a complex of stone structures that once formed the heart of a vast African empire. The ruins are notable for their extent (there are ruins across a total area of 500 square kilometres, or 200 square miles, but the main city comprises about 720 hectares) and the perfection of their construction. The walls were built using dry stone techniques, meaning that no mortar was used in their construction. Massive walls and towers still stand, more than 900 years after they were built, which is a huge tribute to the skill of their builders. Some of the walls still stand more than 30 feet high, are more than twenty feet thick, and are composed of granite blocks that fit together perfectly.

There is evidence that the site was first occupied as early as 500 AD, as it was high enough above the plains to avoid the ravages of the tsetse fly, which made life intolerable. The structures we can see today were begun in about 1100 AD, and the site was in constant occupation until about 1450 AD, when its occupiers moved away. At its height, the city of Great Zimbabwe was probably home to around 18,000 people, thus making it a major population centre, and there is evidence of a highly organized and developed civilization. 

The site was unknown to the outside world until 1871, when a German geologist, Karl Mauch, came across the ruins. The controversy of Great Zimbabwe then started, because of disbelief that Africans could possibly have built anything so remarkable. To many whites, Africans were inherently inferior human beings who were incapable of creating anything as splendid as this. 

Cecil Rhodes, whose colony of Rhodesia included the area of Great Zimbabwe, was also convinced that the city must have been built by white men, because of his unshakeable belief in the superiority of the white race. He was also convinced that the ruins contained buried treasure, and he set up a company, the Zimbabwe Ruins Company, to dig for the gold and diamonds, with no thought being given to the archaeological evidence that might be destroyed in the process. 

Rhodes was followed by other Europeans who thought similarly, and some even claimed to have found the proof that the structures were not the work of Africans. The British archaeologist Richard Hall investigated the site in 1902, and asserted in his book “The Ancient Ruins of Rhodesia”, that it was built by “more civilized races” than the Africans. By digging down more than six feet and removing everything that was there to be found, he effectively destroyed all the evidence that countered his theory, even stating his aim as being to “remove the filth and decadence of Kaffir occupation”.

So, if Great Zimbabwe could not have been built by Africans, who did the imperialists think was responsible? They knew that no white Europeans had settled in this area, so they went for a candidate from the Old Testament instead, namely King Solomon. Karl Mauch was the first to suggest that this was the palace of the Queen of Sheba, who had famously visited Solomon and marvelled at his riches and splendour. He even detected, in one of the Zimbabwe buildings, a copy of Solomon’s Temple. Others thought that this was where the legendary King Solomon’s Mines must be, and the publication of Rider Haggard’s popular novel of that title, in 1886, did nothing to dispel this illusion, given his placing of the Mines in southern Africa. The implausibility of either Solomon’s wealth, or the Queen of Sheba, coming from a site some 4,000 miles from ancient Israel does not seem to have occurred to anyone at the time. Other theories included that the engineers had come from Portugal, China or Persia.

However,these views were challenged by two British archaeologists. In 1905, David Randal-MacIver gave his opinion that the dwellings on the site were “unquestionably of African origin”. This was virtual blasphemy to the imperialist rulers of the region, and no archaeologists were allowed to return for nearly 25 years.

When archaeology was once again permitted, in 1929, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, who led an all-female excavation, agreed with Randal-MacIver’s view. She used all the available evidence, including the oral traditions of the Shona people, to demonstrate that Great Zimbabwe must have been built by Africans. However, that did not stop the myth of Zimbabwe’s white origin from continuing. When Ian Smith declared, illegally, the independence of Southern Rhodesia with a minority white government, he had the history and guide books rewritten to show black Africans bowing in submission to the white builders of Great Zimbabwe.

Despite systematic efforts to destroy the evidence, it is now abundantly clear that the builders of Great Zimbabwe were the Shona people who settled in the area as long ago as 500 AD. Over time, they built an empire, known as Monomotapa, that covered most of modern Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Their wealth was based on trade, exporting gold, iron, copper, tin, cattle, and cowrie shells, and importing items including glassware from Syria, and Persian and Chinese ceramics. At the time of Great Zimbabwe’s discovery, there was considerable proof of this wealth in the form of items found on the site, but the looting of these treasures and destruction of archaeological evidence makes this less obvious today.

We also know that the Shona empire was powerful and wealthy enough to support a large city at its centre, and the size of the Great Zimbabwe site is itself evidence of this fact. Clearly this was not a city of white people, presumably descended from Solomon and Sheba, living in southern Africa for hundreds of years.

The empire of Monomotapa appears to have abandoned Great Zimbabwe in about 1450, although the empire itself continued to thrive. The reason for abandoning the site is not clear. Perhaps water supply became a problem, or maybe the Shona kings preferred to live in less austere surroundings than a massively fortified palace. Whatever the reason, they left behind a remarkable relic of their ancestors’ ability to build sophisticated structures that later colonizers could not believe were products of African skill and knowledge.

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