Ruins Of Great Zimbabwe Astounded Early Explorers
By James Donahue
When the first European explorers hacked their way into darkest Africa, in the area now known as Zimbabwe,
they were astounded to find the colossal ruins of an ancient stone fortress that surrounded the remains of a great city.
Believing that the black natives of that part of Africa were too primitive to have ever risen to the
capabilities of erecting such monuments, early theories suggested that the complex was the work of ancient Phoenicians, Arabs,
Romans or possibly the Hebrews.
Portuguese explorer Joao de Barros, who was among the first to record the 1,800-acre site in 1552,
thought it was Axuma, one of the legendary cities said to have existed under the reign of the Queen of Sheba.
De Barros correctly described the structure as "a square fortress, masonry within and without, built
of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them."
It was not until 1932, after the War of Liberation, that archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson excavated
the site and proved that local natives were linked to its construction. In fact, the dig unveiled evidence that the site was
less than 1,000 years old. The new nation was named Zimbabwe after the name of the ancient city.
It is believed that the name Zimbabwe is drawn from a phrase of the native Shona people, dzimba dza
mabwe, which means "houses of stone."
What is spectacular about the ruins is that the great stones comprising the walls and a nearby tower
were quarried from the nearby granite hills. The rock was split along fracture points, giving them a cuboidal shape so they
could be stacked without a need for mortar. The walls, some up to 32 feet in height, are about 17 feet thick in places. Where
walls meet they abut with unbroken vertical joints. In places, workers dressed the stones so well that they are as smooth
as modern brick walls.
The walls appear to be built as a protective enclosure for a city that contained the traditional mud
houses which still are used throughout the area. A clay conglomerate of red gravel, known as the most common building material
used in these homes, is found on the ground within the walls. A city of from 12,000 to 20,000 people once stood within the
The Great Enclosure is believed to be the largest single prehistoric structure south of the Sahara.
The Outer Wall is more than 800 feet long and contains an estimated 182,000 cubic feet of stone. The Great Enclosure circles
a series of smaller stone walls and that conical tower, shaped like a stone beehive. Some believe this was the home of the
ruler of the city.
Great mystery surrounds these ruins, as they do the ruins found in South America, because the builders
strangely disappeared leaving no story as to just who they were, why the cities were built, and why they were abandoned.
While local natives say their own legends claim that their ancestors erected the structures, they
have no stories to tell that explain these mysteries.
Theories range from a wealth gained as a center for farming and perhaps trade lanes that led through
the area from the great gold deposits. Great Zimbabwe was located on the main route between the gold mines and main ports
like Sofala, Mozambique. But the soil is poor and would not have supported agriculture on a scale necessary for such a population.
Other thoughts suggested that the place was a religious center. Stone monoliths and altars found throughout the site support
this as well..
The city appears to have been quickly abandoned sometime in the mid-15th Century. Did this overpopulated
place use up its natural resources, as happened to so many other great cities of the ancient past?