Great Zimbabwe is the name given to the remains, sometimes referred to as the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, of an ancient Southern African city, located at in present-day Zimbabwe which was once the center of a vast empire known as the Munhumutapa Empire (also called Monomotapa Empire). This empire ruled territory now falling within the modern states of Zimbabwe (which took its name from this city) and Mozambique.
Inside of the Great Enclosure in the ruins of Great Zimbabwe.
The origin of the word Zimbabwe is not known, but there are two schools of thought. It could be short form for "ziimba remabwe", a Shona (dialect: chiKaranga) term, which means "the great or big house built of stones". A second theory is that Zimbabwe is a contracted form of "dzimba woye" which means "venerated houses," a term usually reserved for chiefs' houses or graves. Currently, Great Zimbabwe is an archeological site. The site is also modern Zimbabwe's national shrine where the Zimbabwe Bird (a national symbol of Zimbabwe) was found.
An early European explorer, Viçente Pegado, Captain of the Portuguese Garrison of Sofala, described Zimbabwe thus, in 1531:
Built consistently throughout the period from the years AD 400 to the 15th century, the ruins at Great Zimbabwe are some of the oldest and largest structures located in Sub-Saharan Africa. At its peak, estimates are that the ruins of Great Zimbabwe had as many as 18,000 inhabitants.
Hill Complex at Great Zimbabwe
Built entirely of stone (those parts that survive), the ruins span 1,800 acres (7 km2) and cover a radius of 100 to 200 miles (160 to 320 km). The ruins can be broken down into three distinct architectural groups. They are known as the Hill Complex, the Valley Complex and the famous Great Enclosure. Over 300 structures have been located so far in the Great Enclosure.
The type of stone structures found on the site give an indication of the status of the citizenry. Structures that were more elaborate were built for the kings and situated further away from the center of the city. It is thought that this was done in order to escape sleeping sickness.
What little evidence exists suggests that Great Zimbabwe also became a center for trading, with artifacts suggesting that the city formed part of a trade network extending as far as China.
Nobody knows for sure why the site was eventually abandoned. Perhaps it was due to drought, perhaps due to disease or it simply could be that the decline in the gold trade forced the people who inhabited Great Zimbabwe to look for greener pastures.
Portuguese traders were the first Europeans to visit the remains of the ancient city in the early 16th century. In the 19th century, after the ruins were rediscovered by Adam Renders in 1868 and reported on by Karl Mauch in 1871, they became well known to English readers from J. Theodore Bent's season at Zimbabwe, under Rhodes' patronage. Bent, whose archaeological experience had all been in Greece and Asia Minor, stated that the ruins revealed the Phoenicians as the builders. Even after his account of the Ruined Cities of Mashonaland was published, theories as to their origin abounded, with one element in common: they could not have been built by black people; they must have some Mediterranean or Biblical connection. Mauch had favored the Queen of Sheba legend. Nowadays most archaeologists accept that Great Zimbabwe was probably built by one of the Shona-speaking peoples; the Lemba, a Shona-speaking tribe living along the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa, claim Great Zimbabwe as one of a number of stone cities they profess to have built in east Africa.
The first scientific archaeological excavations at the site were undertaken in by David Randall-MacIver in 1905-1906. During the late 1920s, Gertrude Caton-Thompson proved conclusively the site was of African origin. Since then artifacts and radiocarbon dating have proved that the oldest remains date back to the 11th century.
Some of the famous soapstone bird carvings were taken from Great Zimbabwe around 1890 and sold to Cecil Rhodes, who was intrigued and had copies made which he gave to friends. Most of the carvings have been returned to Zimbabwe, but one remains at Rhodes' old home, Groote Schuur, in Cape Town.
The Great Zimbabwe has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986.