Great Zimbabwe is the most famous ancient city in Southern Africa. The ruins are located 150 miles from Harare on a high plateau in the south-east of Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe was once the capital of a powerful kingdom whose hinterland reached across a vast area of the sub-continent. The city was built by ancestors of the Shona people beginning in the 12th century and continuing until the mid 15th century.The ruling elite who lived there appear to have controlled their society through trading gold and the ownership of cattle, which formed the main diet at Great Zimbabwe. Archaeological excavations have unearthed glass beads and porcelain from Persia and China, and gold and Arab coins from Kilwa off the coast of East Africa; finds that testify to the city's place as an important centre in a global trading network.The ruins of Great Zimbabwe fall into three distinct parts, known as the Hill Complex, the Valley Complex and the Great Enclosure and together they cover a bucolic site of eighty hectares.
Great Zimbabwe's most spectacular feature and its most enduring remains are its exquisite stone walls. These dry stone walls were constructed from blocks of granite gathered from the exposed rock of the surrounding kopies. This rock naturally exfoliates into even slabs which can be broken easily into a size convenient for transport and construction. Great Zimbabwe's walls are beautifully constructed, without the use of mortar, each layer slightly narrower than the last to provide great stability. Over time the wall builder's craftsmanship reached new heights with fantastic sinuous curves and bold chevron and chequered wall decorations.
The Great Enclosure is a huge elliptical structure that comprising an inner wall enclosed a series of smaller domestic structures that were made from daga bricks and thatch, the whole surrounded by a more recent outer wall. Inside is a Conical Tower 5.5 metres in diameter and 9.1 meters high built between the two high walls. Archaeology has revealed that the Great Enclosure was occupied from the 13th to the 15th centuries. The spectacular walls of the Great Enclosure were conceived as a powerful symbol of royal power. The Great Enclosure is believed to have been a royal residence, the walls concealing the royal family and symbolizing their power and prestige.
The Hill Ruins are the oldest part of the complex at Great Zimbabwe and were occupied from the 9th to the 15th centuries. They surround and incorporate massive granite boulders with granite walled enclosures of varying size connected by narrow partly covered passages.The West Enclosure is thought to have been a royal residence.While the Eastern Enclosure on which the carvings of the Zimbabwe Birds once stood is believed to have served a ritual purpose.There is a high balcony that overlooks the Eastern Enclosure and a massive granite boulder that in shape resembles a Zimbabwe Bird.
The Valley Ruins scattered across the valley date mainly from the 19th century.
Great Zimbabwe was abandoned around 1450 not as a result of violence or invasion but because the surrounding country could no longer support the population with food and deforestation meant that there was no supply of firewood. Political ascendancy then passed to the city of Khami near Bulawayo. There are more than 300 similar complexes in Zimbabwe but none of them ever reached the scale or the grandeur of Great Zimbabwe.
No one who have ever seen the ruins of Great Zimbabwe can fail to be impressed with their magnificence. When Cecil John Rhodes saw them he saw an indication of the riches that would await the colonial conquerors. The settler regime of Rhodesia disputed that the ruins were built by African people suggesting foreign builders were responsible and censored archaeologists who dared to dispute their racist theory.
To Zimbabwean nationalists the ancient city was a symbol of the great cultural achievement of black Africans.When Zimbabwe became an independent nation in 1980 the new country was named for the site and its famous soapstone birds became the national symbol with a place on the new flag. The Shona word Zimbabwe means the house in stone.