The Tragic History of Great Zimbabwe:
South Africa’s Fortress Has Many Secrets
By Frank Joseph
History is politics. Nowhere on Earth is this observation more blatant than at the archaeological ruins of a late Iron Age site located in the southeastern part of the African continent. Cultural remains of Great Zimbabwe are littered over 1,784 acres, covering a radius of 100 to 200 miles, but concentrated mostly in three, distinct, architectural groups. They are known as the Hill Complex, where religious gatherings took place; the Valley Complex that served as a population center for up to 18,000 residents; and the Great Enclosure, or king’s private palace, which accommodated between 200 and 300 royal family members, courtiers and slaves.
This last and most famous group is surrounded by well-preserved ramparts, constructed without mortar, as high as 36 feet, and approximately 820 feet in extent. As described by archaeologist, Brian Houghton, “Each layer of stone was recessed slightly more than the previous one to give an extremely stable, inward-sloping structure. Some of the walls are an incredible 20 feet thick… However, display no defensible features, with simple entrances that could be easily overcome in an attack… The stone used was quarried from the nearby granite hills.” (History’s Mysteries, New Page Books, 2010)
An inner stone partition encircling more than 300 structures is somewhat older than an outer wall. Between them stands a 30-foot-tall conical tower, 18 feet wide at its base. Recovered from the enclosure were eight, anthropomorphic bird effigies carved from soapstone (a micaceous schist), averaging 16 inches tall, perched atop as many monoliths under six-feet high. Among elaborately worked ivory, bronze spearheads, copper ingots, wire, and crucibles, excavators found gongs and hoes of iron, together with gold beads, bracelets, pendants, and sheaths. Twenty million ounces discovered at the location represented but a fraction of gold mined from the immediate vicinity, which yielded an abundance of the precious metal sufficient to sustain lucrative, long-distance trade. Chinese pottery shards, coins from Arabia, Syrian glass beads, Persian ceramics, and other non-local artifacts scattered in profusion behind and around the walls attest to the city as an affluent mercantile hub. International commerce was greatly supplemented by regional agricultural abundance, and especially large-scale cattle herding, resulting in the kingdom’s prolonged, increasing prosperity.
During its occupation from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, Great Zimbabwe may have been small and crudely erected compared to contemporaneous cities in Europe, Asia, or the Americas, but it was still the largest population center south of the Sahara Desert during prehistory. After the turn of the fifteenth century, deteriorating climate conditions in South Africa caused unrelieved water shortages. Famine engendered social upheaval, resulting in the king’s overthrow and abandonment of the city before 1450.
Its ruins first came to the attention of the outside world in 1531, when a captain of the Portuguese garrison discovered them at Sofala, a seaport in Mozambique. “Among the gold mines of the inland plains, between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers,” reported Vicente Pegado, “there is a fortress built of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them. This edifice is almost surrounded by hills, upon which do others resemble it in the fashioning of stone and the absence of mortar… the natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe.
In fact, the name clearly contains dzimba, the indigenous Shona term for “houses,” and derives from Dzimba-dza-mabwe, “large houses of stone” in a Shona dialect. As such, “Zimbabwe” is a contracted form of dzimba-hwe, or “venerated houses” in the Shona Zezuru dialect, and is usually applied to chiefs’ houses or graves. The Shona are neighboring Botswana natives. “Great” distinguishes the site from the 200 or so smaller ruins, each known as a “zimbabwe,” spread across the Zimbabwe Highveld.
Pegado wondered if “Symbaoe” was actually the lost Ophir, the overseas source of King Solomon’s wealth cited in the Old Testament. This biblical speculation had gained so much currency in Europe by the middle of the next century that John Milton’s famous poem, Paradise Lost, placed Ophir in south-central Africa. With closure of the Portuguese colony, Great Zimbabwe slipped again into oblivion until it was rediscovered during an 1867 hunting trip, when British imperialist Cecil Rhodes was in the process of transforming southeast Africa into his own state. A few years later, the site’s first archaeologist, James Theodore Bent, an important and well-traveled historian, excavated it. In his The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (Nabu Press, 2010 reprint of the 1891 original. Mashonaland was a region in northern Rhodesia), he argued that Great Zimbabwe was constructed either by ancient Phoenicians, who also raised conical towers, or medieval Arabs. Their Temple of Ma-rib was constructed in Yemen on a similar, oval ground plan.
Karl Gottlieb Mauch, a bible-beating explorer and geographer from Germany, came away after examining the structures during 1871, convinced they had been built to replicate the Queen of Sheba’s palace in Jerusalem. His fantasy spread like wildfire among devout Rhodesian pioneers, who accepted it as an article of faith for more than 100 years.
Scientific excavations of Great Zimbabwe were renewed during the early twentieth century by David Ran-dall-MacIver, a colleague of the renowned Flinders Petrie and discoverer of some of the earliest evidence for ancient Nubian culture dating back five millennia. The absence of any artifacts of non-African origin at Great Zimbabwe led Randall-MacIver to conclude that the location was entirely and exclusively the work of native peoples; specifically, Bantu-speaking ancestors of the modern Shona. Since his publication in 1906, of Medieval Rhodesia (Routledge reprint edition, 1971), scholarly consensus continues to support his conclusion. It degenerated into a political beanbag 50 years later, tossed back and forth between black nationalists, who took up archaeology as a propaganda weapon, and defenders of the apartheid regime.
Paul Sinclair, an archaeologist stationed at the site during that turbulent period, recalled, “I was told by the then-director of the museums and monuments organization to be extremely careful about talking to the press about the origins of the [Great] Zimbabwe state. I was told that the museum service was in a difficult situation, that the government was pressuring them to withhold the correct information. Censorship of guidebooks, museum displays, school textbooks, radio programs, newspapers and films was a daily occurrence. Once a member of the museum board of trustees threatened me with losing my job if I said publicly that blacks had built Zimbabwe. He said it was okay to say the yellow people had built it, but I wasn’t allowed to mention radio carbon dates.”
Meanwhile, anti-apartheid activists around the world made much of Great Zimbabwe as the glorious achievement of black Africans, and promoted its imagery to signify their struggle against the Rhodesian regime.
“Ironically, for those ‘Afro-centric historians,’ who allege the ruins are a relic and symbol of some glorious past,” wrote John Tiffany in Washington, D.C.’s The Barnes Review (Volume III, Number 4, April 1997), “it appears that the most plausible explanation is that they were actually used as slave prisons. Within them, blacks could be penned up and kept under control when not being used in the nearby gold mines, or for purposes of sale (and probably export) to places where slave labor was needed, such as Iraq.” In fact, Bantu chiefs considerably augmented their wealth with the wholesale business of enslaving and selling their own people, mostly to Arab customers. But only those facts selected as useful to propagandists are ever retained, allowing “Zimbabwe” to replace “Rhodesia” as the proud name of Southeast Africa’s new state in 1980. Marxist leader, Robert Mugabe, then touted the archaeological zone as a form of pre-colonial “African socialism.” Later, he redefined Great Zimbabwe as “the natural evolution of an accumulation of wealth and power within a ruling elite,” to reflect his own unbridled tyranny.
For all the loud importance trumpeted on behalf of Great Zimbabwe before Ian Smith’s white-minority government was overthrown, the site, having served its function as dispensable ideological advertising, fell into virtual oblivion immediately thereafter. Ever since, Houghton puts it mildly, “despite its huge historical and cultural importance, Great Zimbabwe has received precious little government funding in order to facilitate the scientific preservation of its remaining structures and any further archaeological investigations of the site.” In other words, it is falling apart through neglect and the ravages of vandals and souvenir hunters.
Putting all these emotionally charged political considerations aside, difficult as that may be, consensus opinion concerning Great Zimbabwe is not as unshakeable as mainstream archaeologists suggest, beginning with their dating of the site. Time frames could be helpful for learning the identities of the city’s builders and residents. Accordingly, wood from the outer wall was radiocarbon dated to the early fourteenth century, apparently confirming conventional scholars’ belief in native African builders of the ruined metropolis, although skeptics pointed out that the beam could have belonged to a late construction or repair period. But splinter samples from another log used as a lintel over a drain in the Great Enclosure submitted to radiocarbon testing by S.D. Sandes, the warden of Zimbabwe National Park, showed it had been cut between AD 591 and 702. This date range was still some 450 years later than a discovery Bent made during Great Zimbabwe’s first archaeological excavation. As he reported in The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, among the local, medieval Iron-Age artifacts he dredged up from an Umatali mineshaft was a Roman coin minted during the reign of Emperor Antonius Pius, dated AD 138.
According to David Hatcher Childress, President of the World Explorers Club, who personally examined the ruins in the early 1980s, “While critics may maintain that it is a racial slur to say that the Bantus did not build Great Zimbabwe, this is not the case … East Africa was the realm of the Azania, and the inhabitants were Ethiopians and Nilotic, not Bantus … Bantus came from West Africa and migrated down into southern Africa, probably after the building of Great Zimbabwe” (Lost Cities & Ancient Mysteries of Africa & Arabia, Adventures Unlimited Press, 1989).
Conventional archaeologists, convinced the Bantu-speaking forebears of modern southeast African tribes raised it, are contradicted by resident Shona, who profess no knowledge of its construction engineers. Haughton writes that local natives “knew nothing of the site’s history.” As long ago as the early sixteenth century, Moorish merchants visiting the ruins of Great Zimbabwe reported, “When, and by whom, these edifices were raised … there is no record, but they [the Shona] say they [the walls and tower] are the work of the devil, for it does not seem possible to them that they should be the work of man.” This indigenous reaction, some say, underscores the improbability of ancestral Shona as the likely builders of Great Zimbabwe.
The only native oral tradition of the city was published for the first time by Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, a Bantu tribal historian, in Indaba, My Children: African Folktales (Grove Press, 1999), described as “a classic and indispensable resource for anyone interested in the cultural life of Africa and the human experience as it is filtered into myth.” Mutwa relates how a foreign race of visitors known as the “Pink Men” for their red hair and skin, arrived in Southeast Africa during the deep past, when they built Great Zimbabwe, which they originally called Zima-mbje. This tradition is affirmed in 6,000 Years of Seafaring (Hope Associates, 1988), in which author Orville L. Hope writes, “Native historians of Bantu tribes in southern Africa state that Sea People came to the Zambezi River. They are described as having blue, green or brown eyes with long, flowing, black, yellow or red hair. Women and children were with the strange men, making a total of about 200 on board the ship. They all had pink skin … The Pink Men exchanged metal weapons for grain with a witch doctor chief, and encouraged him to conquer neighboring tribes. More Pink Men arrived from overseas. They then burned the witch doctor’s village, and established control over the entire surrounding country.” One of the Pink Men appears to have been actually depicted in an outstanding example of ancient Zimbabwe rock art known as the Great Man of Chamavara. Documented by the renowned Abbé Henri Breuil, the Father of Modern Archaeology, it is the well executed representation of a self-evidently non-African, almost classical Greek male figure wearing a helmet, armor, and pointed shoes—accoutrements that never occurred in local tribal culture.
But the only other site on Earth that most closely parallels Great Zimbabwe makes the precise identity of these “Pink Men” clear. I found it recently while reading another in The Lost Cities series by Childress, this one, Atlantis, Ancient Europe & The Mediterranean. As its title suggests, the book has nothing whatsoever to do with South Africa, but on page 283 f-g, Childress reproduces an illustration of an Iron Age fort on the south shore of Loch Clickimin, southwest of Lerwick, capital of the Shetland Islands, off the northern coast of Scotland. Although today it bears little resemblance to its original condition 2,000 years ago, Clickimin’s faithful reconstruction by Alan Sorrell creates virtually a mirror image of Great Zimbabwe. A Senior Assistant Instructor of Drawing at London’s Royal College of Art, he was an English artist highly regarded for his archaeological illustrations, particularly his painstakingly accurate renditions of Roman Britain.
The conspicuous relationship Sorrell establishes between the Scottish and African sites is supported by several sixteenth-century Moorish accounts of “an inscription above the entrance to Great Zimbabwe, written in characters not known to the Arab merchants who had seen it.” Although no sub-Saharan Africans used a written language, Childress tells how a photograph in Indaba, My Children shows, “the author holding a magic slate that has been handed down for centuries and supposedly tells the history of Zimbabwe and Mutwa’s people. It is unmistakably Ogam on the tablet … ”
Ogam was a written language used by the Picts, a Celtic people who dominated Scotland at the time the Clickimin fort received its broch, or stone tower. Another example of anomalous Ogam, Childress writes, is an “inscription carved on a rock at Driekops Eiland on the Riet River in the Republic of South Africa.” Translated by the New Zealand epigrapher, Dr. Barry Fell, it reads, “Under constant attack, we have quit this place to occupy a safe stronghold.”
A plausible interpretation of the foregoing native-folk and physical evidence is that sometime during the first or second centuries AD, Iron Age Celts—Pictish seafarers remembered by the Bantu as the “Pink Men” for their red hair and ruddy complexion—arrived, in what would much later become Rhodesia, for the area’s rich mineral deposits. There, they apparently built a facsimile of Clickimin, their Shetland home fort in far-off Scotland, christening it Zima-mbje, later remembered as “Zimbabwe.” These early imperialists may have learned about South African gold through the Roman grapevine, as suggested by Bent’s Umatali discovery of a coin minted during the reign of Emperor Antonius Pius, just when Clickimin was at the height of its influence, circa AD 138. Although the Romans never colonized the region, they appear to have at least visited South Africa. And while Celtic seamanship is not generally well known, the Picts were unquestionably able mariners, familiar with long-distance navigation. Their impact on Zimbabwe faded many years before the thirteenth century, when native Africans occupied the long-abandoned city, turning it into a prosperous trading center and the palace of a wealthy royal family.