The ruins of Great Zimbabwe, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, are one of the country’s main attractions located near the town of Masvingo. This ancient city is considered to be the most important historical site in all the southern part of Africa, so a visit is a must if you are in the area.
This small corner of the country was the epicenter of a very powerful empire during the 12th and 15th centuries that controlled much of the commercial traffic in the area. It was a stone city that was built from the 12th century onwards, being one of the only ones in all the southern Africa that used this type of construction. African buildings used to be mud houses, dug underground like the churches of Lalibela (Ethiopia), or made of vegetal materials. Great Zimbabwe, on the other hand, was a well-built stone city.
Origins of the Great Zimbabwe
The origin of this construction seems to be found in the kingdom of Mapungubwe, a state of Bantu origin in the far north of present-day South Africa, near the border with Botswana and Zimbabwe. It arose between the 4th and 13th centuries, creating an urban village surrounded by stone walls. The Mapungubwe complex contained palaces and monumental buildings, where agriculture was practiced and there are indications of a lucrative trade with the Arabs and India. Gold objects and artifacts belonging to this period have been found. Towards the 13th century, the kingdom fell into disrepair and migrated north to Great Zimbabwe.
The splendor of the city
Great Zimbabwe is located between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers, in fertile land where large gold mines were found. In fact, the great and main income of the reign came from the gold mines that were mined in large quantities (an estimated 20 million ounces). Gold was traded in the Swahili ports of Kilwa or Sofala. In return, Arab coins, glass, fabrics, porcelain, Chinese silk were obtained. Pottery of Chinese origin has been found in the complex of Great Zimbabwe. The kingdom was part of a large trading network that reached as far as Arabia, Persia, India, and China. At the height of its splendor, an estimated 18.000 people lived in that city.
Great Zimbabwe, the cradle of the country
Great Zimbabwe is now considered the oldest man-made structure south of the Sahara Desert. This reign was the precedent for the Shona kingdom, one of the most important and modern tribes in Zimbabwe, who are very proud of their past and the history of these ruins. Even today, it is a sacred place and a place of pilgrimage for many local people.
The origin of the current name of the country also comes from these ruins: Zim means big, Bab means house and Bwe means stone. Therefore, Zimbabwe means “the big city of stone” in recognition of one of the most powerful and important kingdoms in South Africa.
How is “The Big City of Stone” divided?
The ruins of Great Zimbabwe are inside an enclosure that can be divided into three parts:
- The Great Enclosure: Here we find an elliptical wall 11 meters high and about 250 meters long. Inside was the palace where the king’s wives lived. The wall, which was built stone by stone, is very well preserved, and the construction stands out for its perfectionism and neatness. With granite stones, narrow corridors to protect yourself from the sun, different rooms, chimneys and different bathrooms, a conical tower more than 9 meters high and several perfectly symmetrical entrance doors; walking through the Great Enclosure and within the surrounding wall is to be transported back centuries when many women lived in this space.
- The Acropolis or The Hill Complex: Just in front of the great elliptical wall, we find the second part of the enclosure elevated on a small hill. This is where the king is said to have lived, and where all the rituals and ceremonies were performed. Situated between granite rocks of various shapes, up there was a good place to protect yourself from the enemy and to talk to the gods. In fact, this is where the totems of the birds of Zimbabwe that represent the connection with the gods were found. It was a place of worship for ancestors where the ceremonial hall was said to be covered in gold. In addition, from up there, the king could easily communicate with his wives through small caves that resonated with the elliptical wall.
- The third part of the city’s areas is the so-called Valley Complex. Its functionality could be that of residence of citizens and nobles, since there were smaller houses here; as well as the workers of the Great Enclosure or the Acropolis.
The presidents of the kingdom were divinely legitimized. The main Shona god was Mwari, the supreme creator god, responsible for rainfall, fertility, and good health. At the top of the hill, eight birds were found carved in stone, which are now considered to be the birds of Zimbabwe. These birds have an eagle shape and human features and represent the connection between the gods and the earth. Today, we can see these birds represented on the country’s flag or on one of their currencies and they are a very distinctive sign of the country.
The decline of the kingdom to the present day
The causes of the decline of this vig stone city in the late 15th century are many, though still a mystery. First, one of the causes was the decline in trade compared to places closer to the coast and north such as the coast of Kenya and Tanzania. It is also said that the scarcity of water and the depletion of gold mines led to the migration of a large part of the population, which was severely affected by various epidemics. Other causes are the political instability between the different kingdoms in the area and the arrival of warriors from the expansionist Rozwi Empire who weakened the kingdom.
In 1531, a Portuguese merchant and navigator Vicente Pegado was the first European to see the city and was impressed by the solemnity of Great Zimbabwe. It was not until 1871 that a German encountered that stone city again. It was the time of the colonization and supremacy of Cecil Rhodes (if you want to know more about this British imperialist, you can click here), who decided to plunder much of the ruins. It could not be that the Africans, whom Rhodes himself regarded as idiots, could have built a city like that. Therefore, some legends began to emerge like that the Arabs had built that city or that it was not really the ancestors of the Shonas who lived in that place.
Beginning in 1980, the year of Zimbabwe’s independence from the United Kingdom, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe regained great importance for the local population as a victory for Africanism over colonization. Therefore, it is considered a sacred place for the local people and where many devotees go every year to symbolize the strength of a very important historical reign in Africa.
Fortunately, they are one of the best-preserved ruins in Africa, and if you visit, you can still see much of what was once one of the most important kingdoms on the African continent.
Lake Mutirikwi (Lake Kyle)
Next to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, we find a lake that is very interesting to visit. It is a lake with beautiful views that can be combined with the ruins to make a full day around Masvingo.
Mutirikwi Lake is the largest man-made lake in the country. In 1960, with the construction of the Kyle Dam, the lake grew considerably, and was renamed Lake Kyle. However, many locals still know him as Mutirikwi.
The lake covers an area of approximately 90 square kilometers. There is a road with good panoramic views that runs around the lake, where you will also find different farmers and villages that live near the waters of the Mutirikwi. Some people lives from fishing, and nowadays there are more and more tourist infrastructure to encourage different recreational activities around the lake area.
How to get there?
To reach Great Zimbabwe, the main starting point is Masvingo, 27 km away. You can get to Masvingo in different ways: if you are coming from the west (Bulawayo), you will have to travel for 280 kilometers on the A9, a toll road in very good condition. If you are coming from the north (Harare), you will have to follow the A4 for about 295 kilometers through the towns of Chivhu and Mvuma. This road also has tolls where you will have to pay 2USD per vehicle. If you are coming from the east (Mutare), you will have to follow the A9 for about 300 kilometers. In this case, just before Masvingo you will find Lake Mutirikwi.
From Masvingo to Great Zimbabwe, the road is in very good condition. You will have to leave the city on the A4, and after a few kilometers take a turnoff to the left that will take you to the road that runs along Lake Mutirikwi. About 23 km from this turnoff, you have reached the Great Zimbabwe site. You have to turn right and drive to the front door.
At the front door, you will complete all the registration and payment procedures; and then drive a few hundred meters until you finally reach the car park.
Then, to go to Mutirikwi Lake, you have to follow the road you left behind. This is a circular route through the middle of the Kyle Dam, and after 50 km it ends at the A9, east and 30 km from Masvingo, where you will return to your starting point.
Permits and prices
The price for visiting the ruins of Great Zimbabwe is 18$ per person. This ticket includes a guide who will walk you around the area and tell you the key moments of the reign that was established in this stone city. We went with Myriam, a guide who was very pedagogical and awesome.
For the payment, we paid by credit card (N26) and they accepted it. However, the guide told us that we were lucky because the machine often does not accept foreign cards, and the only way to pay is in cash, that is, in dollars. So just in case, bring cash.
The guide will take you to the car park on the site where you will start walking, mainly through the two best-preserved areas of the ruins, such as the Acropolis and the Great Enclosure. To climb the Acropolis, you will have to climb a small hill by stairs that, as it cannot be otherwise, are also made of stone.
Between the Great Enclosure and the Acropolis, there is a small museum with commercial objects as well as the totems of the represented Zimbabwean birds that is very interesting to see. The entrance is included in the visit.
Great Zimbabwe is considered the capital of the largest prehistoric state in the southern part of Africa and therefore a region where the most powerful kings of the continent lived thousands of years ago. Visiting the history of this place with a guide is an experience we recommend to understand the history and feeling of this country.