Great Zimbabwe: An African empire

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Built by the Shona (1100-1500 AD), the empire of Great Zimbabwe, one of Africa’s greatest civilizations like Egypt and Meroe, stood between present-day Zimbabwe, eastern Botswana and south-east Mozambique. The empire’s highly developed architecture overwhelmed discoverers. And much in the same manner as German anthropologist Doctor Frobenius ignorantly mistook the Kingdom of Ife in Nigeria for the lost kingdom of Atlantis in 1911, some Europeans blatantly refused to believe that Great Zimbabwe was built by Africans. Dawson Munjeri, former director of Great Zimbabwe, a World Heritage site, discusses the history of the exceptional Zimbabwe empire.

Great Zimbabwe was the central power of one of the greatest civilizations in Africa between 1100-1500 AD. Standing on a mountain southeast of Harare, Great Zimbabwe was the governing body of the Shona empire. The empire covered present-day Zimbabwe, eastern Botswana and South-eastern Mozambique. Just like the pyramids that bear testimony to a grand Egyptian epoch, the Great Zimbabwe empire is now symbolized by its monumental mortarless granite stone walls. And although hundreds of other ruins dotted over the southern African region (Bumbusi and Manekweni per excellence) reveal the use of motarless walls around the same period, Great Zimbabwe remains by far the most exceptional due to its size.

However, beyond these stately but poorly preserved and looted buildings, a set of social and economic dynamics have caused much controversy. Some Europeans, in fact, could not fathom that such a well oiled society could possibly be African. The story of the refusal to accept Great Zimbabwe’s “Africanness” is strangely similar to that of the German anthropologist who had ignorantly mistaken the Ife kingdom of Nigeria for the lost kingdom of Atlantis in 1911, due to its exceptionally fine artifacts. Munjeri Dawson, former director of Great Zimbabwe, a World Heritage site, throws more light on the history of an extraordinary empire and its importance for present day Zimbabwe.

Afrik-News: How long did the empire of Great Zimbabwe last?

Dawson Munjeri: Many people often refer to the emergence of the monuments and stone buildings, but the Shona had lived there for over 800 years before that. It was only later that they built Great Zimbabwe.

Afrik-News: How was Great Zimbabwe born?

Dawson Munjeri: Towards 1100, the Shona started building the capital of the empire with the local granite on a mountain. For this, they used a very simple technique: they burnt the granite in hot fire before pouring water on them to make them easier to hew. And then they piled the stones on top of each other without any cement, simply because they did not have it. But this method was adapted to the region’s extreme temperature changes and also prevented the construction work from collapsing. To stabilise the structures the bases were larger than the upper parts, a construction technique comparable to the pyramids.

The king’s subjects were easily mobilized to build the Hill complex, the Valley Complexes and the Great wall. The work was enormous in its dimensions: The Great Enclosure had a pyramidal shape. Its outer wall is 250 meters in circumference and over 10 meters high. All of Great Zimbabwe was 27,000 square meters. It took a century to complete the work.

Afrik-News: The fact that the Shona, and more importantly Africans, built the Great Zimbabwe was inconceivable for many …

Dawson Munjeri: There were all sorts of theories about this. Some believed it was people from outside Africa who had built it. It was general belief at the time that it was a B.C. construction engineered by the Queen of Sheba (A biblical queen who tried to seduce King Solomon to find his flaws, ed) … People used a racist approach to prove that Africans lacked the ingenuity to develop this type of architecture. But from the 1910s, archaeological excavations showed that it was indeed the Shona who built it from scratch. Gertrude Caton-Thompson’s work, supported by the British Archaeological Association in 1933, revealed a lot about the period.

Afrik-News: How was the society of the empire of Great Zimbabwe organized?

Dawson Munjeri: Great Zimbabwe was the capital of the empire, which comprises the current Zimbabwe, eastern Botswana and South-eastern Mozambique. Only the king and his relatives lived there. The king lived in the Hill Complex with his counselors, his doctor and spiritual leaders. This place was indeed a place of meditation where people would communicate with their God through the eight soapstone-carved birds. They were not only of artistic value but also acted as messengers. The princes and nobles were grouped in the Valley Complex. The ten wives of the king — their number was important for his image — lived in the Great Enclosure. The king’s subjects lived outside of Great Zimbabwe in houses built in the same style and with the same materials as those of the three large buildings. In all, 20, 000 people inhabited the empire, 5000 of whom lived within Great Zimbabwe.

Afrik-News: The location of the Great Zimbabwe is not an easy construction site for buildings. Why was this place chosen?

Dawson Munjeri: There was a lot of gold in western Zimbabwe which allowed the development of significant trade with the Arabs and the Portuguese. In exchange for their ore, the people of Great Zimbabwe accepted clothes and beads. This place was strategic for the Shona to control trade routes from north to south and from west to east, giving the king considerable power. Moreover, it often rained in the region and the quality of grass was very good for the rearing of cattle. Whoever owned cattle was rich and powerful, and could secure many women or often make offerings to the spirits. The nation also produced millet. It was self-sufficient in food. All these factors enabled the empire to grow powerful.

Afrik-News: How did people live at that time?

Dawson Munjeri: According to archaeological excavations, we know that mortality rate was low in Great Zimbabwe. There was no sign of persecution and massacres because we did not find evidence of mass graves. The king did not treat his subjects badly because to control such a large territory he needed their help to provide information about what was going on in the kingdom to help maintain order. A large number of bones were found. This suggests that people ate a lot of meat and therefore lived quite comfortably. We can also say that there was no slavery, since there were only Shona people and given that one does not reduce a person from his own group to slavery.

Afrik-News: Why did the empire decline in spite of its success?

Dawson Munjeri: Due to the same reasons that made it successful. By keeping increasingly large hordes of livestock that grazed more and more, the environment could not keep up with agricultural demands … People moved away for greener pastures, to Hami, near Bulawayo for example, thus gaining their independence in the process. And because more and more people were leaving there were fewer people to pay taxes to the king, who, in addition to growing poorer, lost his influence. We can say that the Empire died in 1450.

Afrik-News: Does Great Zimbabwe hold any importance after its decline?

Munjeri Dawson: Yes. Those who did not leave continued to pray in the spiritual center of Great Zimbabwe. It is one of the remaining traditions of Great Zimbabwe. During the struggle for decolonization, nationalists came to Great Zimbabwe to pray for the liberation of the country. After independence, they changed the country’s name from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. The name is a mixture of two Shona words — “dzimba dzimabwe”, meaning stone houses, and pays tribute to Great Zimbabwe. Up till today, people still travel there to meditate.

Afrik-News: What remains of Great Zimbabwe today?

Munjeri Dawson: This is the second most important black African civilization after the pyramids, particularly in terms of architecture. But many buildings have been damaged by relic hunters and archaeologists who also came to dig for its treasures. During the digs, they brought down some parts of the wall. Seven of the soapstone bird heads were taken to South Africa whilst the eighth was carried to Germany. This last one was recovered in 2002.

Afrik-News: Is the site a tourist attraction?

Dawson Munjeri: After the Victoria Falls, Great Zimbabwe, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site, is the second largest attraction in the country. And nationals are not left out: it is their preferred destination. On average, the site receives over 200,000 visitors per year. A hotel industry has developed in the vicinity of Great Zimbabwe, but people prefer to camp or rent a lodge. There is a traditional Shona village where visitors are able to learn more about how people lived in the empire.

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