Great Zimbabwe


Great Zimbabwe: History and Discovery

Great Zimbabwe's construction started in the 11th century and continued to be expanded for the next 300 years.

It was a center of trade; objects found inside the ruins suggest that the city had trading links with China and the Arab world. It is most likely that the local population exported ivory and gold which was abundant in the plateau.

Europeans didn't stumble on Great Zimbabwe until 1868, but reports of a city of stone located in southern Africa had appeared in Portuguese writings almost 400 years earlier.

"An inscription is cut in the stone over the entrance, so ancient that no one understands what it means," wrote one Portuguese historian who, no doubt, got his information from bits of coastal gossip that filtered back to Portugal.

Though the inscription was never found, stories like these were enough to link the ruins forever to distant and exotic cultures. Maybe Egyptians had built the city, went the speculation. Or Phoenicians. Maybe it was the location of the biblical King Solomon's mines.

"There was scarcely a people of antiquity whose influence was thought to be absent," one researcher wryly noted.

The first European explorers and prospectors arrived expecting to find great riches. Instead, they found local tribes using the walls of the Acropolis and the Great Enclosure as cattle pens. They ransacked the place anyway searching for treasure.

That made the work of the archeologists who followed more difficult. With the help of radio-carbon dating, they now conclude that Great Zimbabwe was at its height in the 13th and 14th centuries and home to the most powerful ruler in the area.

(Though Great Zimbabwe is the largest and most intact, at least 150 other such sites have been found in Zimbabwe.)

The elite held power through control of the area's gold and copper trade. Foreign merchants brought goods from afar. 

The Indian beads, Chinese porcelain and Arab glassware retrieved from Zimbabwe can be seen at the on-site museum.

The 17th-century records of Portuguese royal secretary Luiz de Figuerido Falcao shed some light on how extensive this trade was. In his accounting of Portuguese imperial wealth in 1607, he reports that the captaincy of Sofala, the nearest port to Great Zimbabwe, was the most lucrative of all Portuguese ports on the Indian Ocean.