Ever since I can remember my father and I shared a reverent passion for ancient archeology and mysterious ruins. I can remember from my early elementary school years up to my last Jr. high school days, my dad allowing me to stay up late only if I would watch historical documentaries with him.
Together we’d stay fixated on stories about ancient Egypt, Peru, India, and other so-called exotic lands. However, there was one old city that really piqued his imagination more than others, The Great Ruins of Zimbabwe.
The largest and most extensive set of archaeological construction south of the Sahara. Built between the 9th and 12th centuries AD by the powerful kingdom of the Shona people.
Once a hub of international trade and metal-smelting, housing more than 30,000 people, a thriving civilization in the heart of central Africa. Its story, its mysteries lie woefully neglected by most western historians. For years my father and I would discuss, debate, and ponder these mysterious constructions.
During his 75th birthday, I surprised him with a trip to Southern Africa and Zimbabwe. We flew from Atlanta, Georgia to Johannesburg, South Africa. Once arriving in South Africa, we took a train to Harare, Zimbabwe which took over 8 hours. Once arriving in the capital of Zimbabwe, it was very difficult to find a tour bus that traveled to the ruins.
We eventually opted to take a local taxi driver and guide named Jeff. He was amicable, laid-back, and spoke perfect British English. Clearly enunciating every word with ease and nuanced detail. We finally arrive at the Great Ruins of Zimbabwe, three hours later, tired, sore, but excited and deeply intrigued.
Located on the rolling green hills of the Zimbabwe plateau, between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. Constructed with intricate precision without mortar or machines, this commanding ancient monument, though in decay, is still mysteriously impressive. Majestically rising amid the plains, its story seems stolen in time. How did its truth get lost?
Our guide Jeff, who is Shona and works as a history teacher, when not moonlighting as a guide to make ends meet, tells us that Great Zimbabwe’s secrets have been willfully hidden from the world in order to vindicate the old colonial powers of the west. Rediscovered by European powers in 1869.
This was the time in which the great race for Africa or colonial expansion on the continent by European countries. The dominant narrative for colonizing the continent was that Africans were inferior beings incapable of creating or even contributing to history or humanity and therefore could not develop the region on their own. These impressive stone constructions were a huge inconvenience to this racist ideology.
It was unthinkable that an indigenous African culture could create something on the scale and sophistication level of this. In 1905 British born Archaeologist David Randall-MacIver, along with his two other prominent co-workers concluded that the ancient ruins were unequivocally African constructions.
In response, the disillusioned Rhodesian government simply prohibited and closed any further excavations or visits starting in 1965. It was only in 1980 when majority rule and independence finally came to the country, that veil of mystery and the true story of this monumental archaeological achievement could be told.
The site consists of three primary areas. The first is a Hill Complex, made up of an extensive design of ruins atop an elevated 950-foot encampment. It seems to have been a spiritual center, where offerings were made, a large rust-colored boulder is where the royal family would preside before making essential decisions affecting the kingdom.
The second area is made up of the Valley complex, a stretch of stone-designed houses, that expand beyond the base of the hill and seems to drop dramatically into the blue skies over the horizon.
The last and most impressive structure is the Great Enclosure. A huge, double-walled compound, dating back to the 13th century and being the largest standing structure in sub-Saharan Africa. Its outer walls are as wide as a Volkswagen in some places. Extending 850 feet, they are constructed from thousands of specialized cut granite rocks, stacked without mortar. In the middle is a 34-foot-high conical tower that was perhaps used as storage for food or simply as a symbol of Kingship.
My dad turns to me with a look of total awe on his face. Jeff steps in and states, “The very word Zimbabwe is a Shona word: (dzimba-hwe) meaning stone houses and are responsible for giving the entire country its name at independence in 1980. These ruins are tangible evidence that black Africans had created complex civilizations! “
As the sun set over the horizon, huge black ravens glided across the fallen rocks and jagged edges of the walls. We sat there and listened to the eerie silence as the ghosts of Great Zimbabwe were finally able to whisper their truth.
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