One of the things we most wanted to do while in Zimbabwe was go to Great Zimbabwe National Monument. The site was home to a great medieval city serving as a link between the Swahili traders in East Africa to the Bantu speaking peoples of Southern Africa. This city is proof of civilization in Africa long before the colonists arrived.
Formerly known as Rhodesia, one might wonder where the name Zimbabwe came from (or the name Rhodesia for that matter!). Zimbabwe actually means house of the large stones. Scattered across Zimbabwe are the ruins from a great Shona kingdom that ruled the area in the middle ages, but most of these ruins are small scale. All of course, but one- the Great Zimbabwe.
Hundreds of years afters the last Shona King stood on his hilltop at Great Zimbabwe, we sprinted up the hillside after our guide, trying breathlessly to keep up. Announcing it was only her second day on the job, she launched into a well rehearsed speech about the site from the King’s former dwelling overlooking the valley. As we moved along the ridge we could see the stone ruins below, barely describable except for the great enclosure and its towers. Home to the King and his 200 wives, Great Zimbabwe was a ritual and royal center for the Shona kingdom. Huge mortarless walls surround the King’s complex and that of the great enclosure (where the first wife likely lived). Constructed in the twelfth century, they are the second oldest ruins in southern Africa and the first we’ve come across in a long while. Structurally not unlike the walls of the great Inca civilization in Peru, the walls are thicker on the bottom and gradually narrow at the top. Unlike the Incan ruins however, the stones used are of normal size and are not tightly interlocked.
Touring the site with a native Zimbabwean, a local expat and another tourist, we were delighted to discover Great Zimbabwe is the archaeological home of the Zimbabwe Fish Eagle- seen on the flag and [now worthless] money of Zimbabwe. The famous bird is actually one of seven found in a ritual space atop the King’s hill, all of which have been recovered and brought back to Zimbabwe. When the King moved the center of his Kingdom further north he abandoned the site, which was left in the care of the local tribal chief.
Interestingly enough the sites caretakers are of the Mugabe tribe, which when asked our guide admitted was not the tribe of the current national leader Robert Mugabe. When the independence movement looked toward the monument for the name of the new country, Mugabe’s political party also looked to the monument for a symbol for the party. They chose the phallic stone tower overshadowing the woman’s compound which was used historically to remind the king’s 200 wives who was in charge…seriously.
Perhaps Mugabe is borrowing the symbolism or perhaps compensating for something else, but whatever the case we all had a laugh. What struck me the most about this site was that I had never heard of it before landing in Africa. Never, ever in my entire life. Traveling Africa has torn open huge holes in my education, and only as we move from country to country on this continent do I realize how little African history and politics I know. Sure we touch on it in high school, but not in any in depth way, so it was really interesting to see these medieval ruins, built along the same time as some of the sites in Peru, and compare the civilizations. For sure the ruins in Peru are more famous, more visited and more photographed, but in Zimbabwe, like Peru, the ruins represent a strong link to their past.