African Architecture: the Legacy of Great Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe is home to one of the most extraordinary monuments in Africa. Built and occupied between the 11th and 15th centuries, the legacy and influences of Great Zimbabwe lives on. The impressive stone walls and surrounding structures are spread across the Southern hills in the country, near Masvingo.

At first glance, one would be quick to surmise that mortar was used to construct the granite walls, only to be amazed to discover that they were actually built without a mound of mortar. The architects of this great ancient city employed a building method called dry stonewalling, which requires great masonry expertise.

Great Zimbabwe’s method of construction is unique in Africa’s architecture. In the words of Zimbabwean archaeologist Peter Garlake, the walls display “an architecture that is unparalleled elsewhere in Africa or beyond.”

THE STRUCTURE OF GREAT ZIMBABWE

The site is divided into three main architectural areas: the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure, and the Valley Enclosure.

The Hill Complex is where the king of the Shona lived. It’s also believed it served as the spiritual and religious centre of the city. The complex sits on a steep-sided hill that rises 80 metres above the ground. It’s the oldest part of the site, with the first stones having been laid there more than 900 years ago. The section is made of rocky outcrops and large granite boulders that form walls of up to 11 metres high and six metres thick.

South of the Hill Complex lies the aptly named and impressive Great Enclosure, the largest single ancient structure in sub-Saharan Africa. This formidable edifice is where the king’s first wife lived. Its outer wall is 250 metres in circumference, with a height of 11 metres. It’s estimated that nearly a million granite blocks were used to construct it. A 55-metre long passage leads to a stone feature called the Conical Tower, with a height of 10 metres and a 5-metre diameter. While the purpose of the Conical Tower is unknown, it’s believed it represented a grain bin, symbolising good harvests and prosperity. A series of clay-hut living quarters and community are also found in the Great Enclosure.

The Valley Enclosure is where the citizens alongside the rest of the king’s wives resided.

BUILDING THE GREAT ZIMBABWE

Great Zimbabwe was built by the ancestors of the Shona, who make up the majority of Zimbabwe’s population. However, the ruins’ origin remained a contentious issue for a long time, with a slew of theories formed as to who built this breath-taking monument.

Great Zimbabwe was first introduced to the wider world in 1871 by Karl Mauch, a German explorer and geologist who refused to believe that indigenous African people were capable of creating such a civilization. The story of his blatant denial is uncannily similar to that of fellow German archaeologist Leo Frobenius, who speculated that the Kingdom of Ife in Nigeria was the lost kingdom of Atlantis.

Perplexed Mauch thought he had stumbled on the legendary capital of the biblical Queen of Sheba in Jerusalem when he encountered Great Zimbabwe. He stated, “I do not think that I am far wrong if I suppose that the ruin on the hill is a copy of Solomon’s Temple on Mount Moriah and the building in the plain a copy of the palace where the queen of Sheba lived during her visit to Solomon.” Mauch further speculated that “a civilized nation must have once lived there.”

Later European visitors came to the conclusion that the ruins’ imposing stone structures were the work of Egyptians, Phoenicians, or even Prester John, the legendary Christian king popular in European chronicles and culture from the 12th through the 17th century.

Such age-old legends and notions, held for almost 400 years, were finally dispelled by the excavations of British archaeologists David Randall-MacIver and Gertrude Caton-Thompson, which acknowledged that Great Zimbabwe was built by Africans.

GREAT ZIMBABWE LEGACY LIVES ON

Apart from the massive stone walls, Great Zimbabwe’s most famous artefacts are the eight birds carved in soapstone that were found in its ruins. Known as the Zimbabwe birds, these sculptures combine human and bird elements, substituting human features like lips and feet for the bird’s beak and claws respectively. The Zimbabwe Bird is today a national symbol and features on the national flag. It also appears on the coat of arms and badges and logos of numerous Zimbabwean institutions and organisations, and previously on banknotes and coins.

While it may appear the monument was named after the country, it’s actually the other way round. The name Zimbabwe is derived from Shona words dzimba dzemabwe, which mean houses of stone. Across the Zimbabwe Plateau, there are remains of at least a hundred other madzimbabwe.

Other objects that were recovered in Great Zimbabwe include soapstone figurines, pottery, iron gongs, elaborately worked ivory, iron and copper wire, iron hoes, bronze spearheads, and copper ingots and crucibles. Gold beads, bracelets, pendants, and sheaths were also found there.

Although Great Zimbabwe was largely abandoned around the 1450s, its cultural and historical significance endures forever. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Great Zimbabwe is one of the popular tourist attractions in the country, with over 200 000 visitors a year marveling at its imposing beauty and learning of the historical events that transpired hundreds of years ago.

Moza Moyo
Moza Moyo is based in Johannesburg and is passionate about telling news stories that change the African narrative. His writing touches on an array of issues and topics, including human interest, business, race, and culture.