Stone walled enclosure at Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe’s stone walled enclosure from the hill complex.

Having grown up in Zimbabwe, like many children I went on a school trip to the archaeological site of Great Zimbabwe. I remember little of that trip other than the rain. Well, it was sometime in the first half of the 1970s. A decade later I went on to study archaeology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. And it just so happens one of the professors there was researching this spectacular site, its origins and significance in southern African archaeology.

At that time, the role of Great Zimbabwe in colonial discourse of southern Africa was only just being picked through as professional archaeologists exposed the Eurocentric attitudes of earlier colonial antiquarians. More recent political changes in Zimbabwe the country have not spared the archaeological site from being used in competing claims about that nation’s past.

Having had to read and write so much about the Great Zimbabwe for assignments and examinations, and following this up when I myself taught courses on ‘the politics of the past’ I would dearly like to return to this site. I should, however, accept that perhaps my desire to re-visit Great Zimbabwe is in part at least about wishing to re-visit my youth in that beautiful country.

As the largest single pre-historic construction in Africa, south of the Sahara, Great Zimbabwe has had more than its fair share of unwanted and unwarranted attention. First seen by a European in 1871, it was not until the second half of the twentieth century that archaeological work showed unequivocally that the site was constructed by local Iron Age communities, and not by Phoenicians or other exotic peoples. Given racist views about the people of Africa antiquarians and archaeologists long felt it was an engineering feat locals were simply incapable of pulling off. We now know that this is simply not true, and that the settlement of Great Zimbabwe was the capital city of a ruling elite that had its origins further south in northern South Africa, gaining wealth and power through trade via the east coast of southern Africa.

Getting to Great Zimbabwe is not impossible, but it is not that easy either. Like many things in life, it all depends on how much you are prepared to pay. If money is no object, there are tours that start in Harare (the capital of Zimbabwe) or even in neighbouring South Africa. Hiring a car in Harare is also an option, although still a costly one. The journey can be done by public transport, but it would take much longer. Buses go to Masvingo from both Harare and Bulawayo, as well as Beit Bridge (the border post between Zimbabwe and South Africa). Then it is another bus from Masvingo to Great Zimbabwe (note, Great Zimbabwe is a stop on the bus route as opposed to the destination).

For an amusing but also very informative account of one guy’s independent trip to Great Zimbabwe, with many good photographs, click here.

For anyone who would like to learn more about the origins and indigenous significance of this site, as well as the political significance over the last two hundred or so years, I recommend the following two books:

  • The Silence of Great Zimbabwe: Contested Landscapes and the Power of Heritage by Joos Fontein (2006) is available on both and
  • The Zimbabwe Culture: Origins and Decline of Southern Zambezian States by Innocent Pikirayi and Joseph O Vogel (2001) is available on both and

Great Zimbabwe was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1986 … read more

Conical tower at Great Zimbabwe

Within the great enclosure is the dry-stone conical tower, over 9m high and 5m in diameter.

The hill complex at Great Zimbabwe

On a hill overlooking the great enclosure is an intriguing complex of dry-stone walls, probably an earlier focus of ritual activity on the site.