http://www.theculturedtraveler.com/Heritage/Archives/Zimbabwe.htmSub-Saharan Africa probably has no greater a monument to its pre-colonial past than the ruins of Great Zimbabwe*, a massive stone city that impresses on so many counts: sophistication, mystery, wealth and power. The monument is located in southeastern Zimbabwe on a granite plain, about 160 air miles south of Harare, modern Zimbabwe’s capital city.
For 16th-century Portuguese, the first Europeans to see the city, the ruins, strewn over almost 1,800 acres, had to have been the seat of some great power. They theorized that the site might have been the capital of the Queen of Sheba or perhaps the legendary African Christian king, Prester John. Whoever Great Zimbabwe’s ancient monarch may have been, the Portuguese knew they had come upon something grand. The site’s biggest structure, later named the Elliptical Building or Great Enclosure, was a huge oval space formed by a mortarless granite wall up to 32 feet high, 17 feet thick and 800 feet in circumference. Its dimensions and massiveness reminded the Portuguese of the great castle walls of Europe.
The Great Enclosure (which some claim housed a harem) was the second of Great Zimbabwe’s three major sites to be built. Preceding it was the nearby Hill Complex, constructed around 1250 A.D., which included housing and religious structures. A third element, the Valley Complex, was the smallest of Great Zimbabwe’s precincts, and was probably built in the early 15th century.
Amazingly, these first Europeans arrived on the scene probably only a few decades after the city’s demise. It had been built by the Shona, ancestors to Zimbabwe’s Bantu-speaking tribes, between 1100 and 1400 A.D. It was not an uncommon structure for the plains of southern Africa, joining scores of other stone enclosed areas on the Zimbabwean plain.
But it was easily the most massive. No structure as large as it has ever been built south of the Sahara by indigenous people. On a continent that has always been hobbled by disease, the lack of good ports and navigable rivers, and a scarcity of domesticable plants and animals, it is the closest thing to a Chichen Itza, ancient Rome or Great Wall that sub-Saharan Africa has.
When the Shona abandoned the site, sometime in the 15th century, they left behind no written records. So, great mystery surrounded the site from the beginning of its exposure to the outside world. Nobody knows why the Shona built such a great structure at this particular location. The area has poor soils and can support large-scale agriculture only through great effort, yet Great Zimbabwe had a population of 18,000 people at its height – a huge number by historical sub-Saharan African standards.
Debate over why the city came to be centers on religion and gold. Some claim, given the sacred connotations of its name, that Great Zimbabwe was a religious center, inspired by the worship of Mwari, the creator and sustainer of all things. For whatever reasons, very clear to the Shona if not to their successors, Great Zimbabwe’s site made perfect sense despite its drawbacks.
Others say the Shona discovered a huge deposit of gold and constructed Great Zimbabwe as a combination mine, smelter, treasury, fortress and temple.
Another theory, advanced recently by a South African astronomer, has it that Great Zimbabwe was Africa’s version of Stonehenge, a giant observatory aligned with the stars to help in determining dates for worship and agriculture. The same scientist claims that a nearby tower, part of the overall complex, was constructed specifically to observe a supernova around 1300 A.D. As bold as his assertion seems, modern astronomers say there are indications of a supernova appearing in Southern hemisphere skies around that time. The flaring star was not observable by any literate cultures, so it will be hard to ever know if the sophisticated Shona were also adept astronomers.
Whatever its builders’ motivations, Great Zimbabwe became southern Africa’s greatest trading city during its heyday. Archaeologists have found foreign objects from as far away as China, giving support to the idea that the site was a great trading center that was known to Arab and Chinese merchants.
Like its distant Mayan counterparts, no one theory definitively explains why Great Zimbabwe declined just before the era of European exploration. Probably a combination of events became too much for the city to handle: The gold played out; the ecology simply couldn’t sustain the population; merchants began bypassing the city for newer and more convenient trading sites; enemies began raiding and sapping the city’s wealth; the old religion began losing its hold over the people.