While Sub-Saharan Africa was home to many advanced cultures prior to the arrival of either the Arabs or the Europeans, they were for the most part pastoral in nature, and left little in the way of architecture in general, let alone military structures. One of the outstanding exceptions is the Great Zimbabwe Enclosure. This small walled city/royal residence was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, one of the great Southern African realms of the Middle Ages. The Great Zimbabwe Enclosure is the largest masonry structure built in Sub-Saharan Africa prior to the Colonial era, making it one of the most historic ancient fortifications on the continent. Great Zimbabwe is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Kingdom of Zimbabwe came into existence some time in the late 12th century. It was founded by migrants from the Kingdom of Mapungubwe who came to prospect the area’s rich gold deposits, which was in high demand by Arab traders along the Swahili Coast. The newly arrived workers brought with them construction techniques borrower from the Arabs, and began to establish permanent brick-built towns in the area, the first such towns in Sub-Saharan Africa.
As the population of the region, a number of smaller towns began to be consolidated under the rule of Zimbabwe, a small but growing inland realm. The original town of Zimbabwe may have been founded as early as 1100 AD, and the fortifications were almost certainly in existence within the next century. By the mid-13th century, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe was the largest and most powerful inland nation in southern Africa, and its capital of Great Zimbabwe the largest walled city south of Ethiopia. At its height the enclosure and the surrounding area likely boasted more than 10,000 inhabitants.
Sometime in the early- to mid-15th century, Prince Nyatsimba Mutota of Zimbabwe founded a new realm which would come to be known as the Kingdom of Mutapa. Established to support the growing salt trade around the time that the trade in gold was on the wane, the importance of Mutapa grew as Great Zimbabwe diminished. Sometime around 1450, Great Zimbabwe was abandoned by the royal court. It was later absorbed into a series of other kingdoms, but the importance of the site had faded for good.
Amazingly the enclosure remained in good condition. Even more amazing is that, even with the local leaders gone, this excellent site was not kept in use. It was rediscovered by the Portuguese in the 1500s, and has been an archaeological curiosity ever since. Great Zimbabwe was heavily and carelessly excavated in the early 1900s. However, after independence, the site was embraced by the people of Zimbabwe as a symbol of native African culture, and the site was largely restored as a source of national pride. It is now one of the most popular archaeological sites in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Although not large by the standards of medieval Europe or the Middle East, the Great Zimbabwe Enclosure must have seemed absolutely immense to the local tribesmen who paid homage to its king. The main feature is the nearly perfectly circular outer wall which towers nearly forty feet in some places. Considering its age and the fact that it was not constructed with the use of mortar, it is a tribute to its builders that the wall is in as good shape as it is. A single opening in the wall allows entrance into the enclosure.
The interior once boasted an impressive royal residence, some ruins of which are still intact. Portions of the original wall are still standing, as is the enclosure’s tower. The tower, which was likely used as a lookout even though it barely reaches the height of the outer walls, may have also been used for astronomical purposes. Much of the site was ravaged in the early 20th century by archaeologists and treasure hunters. Many of the sites artifacts are now on display in the site museum.
The Great Zimbabwe Enclosure is located inside the Great Zimbabwe National Park, approximately 130 miles of Harare. The park is open daily from 6:00am-6:00pm (8:00am-4:30pm for the museum). Admission is $5.00. Web: www.greatzimbabweruins.com (official website).
As a surviving major, pre-colonial structure in Southern Africa, Great Zimbabwe is more or less unique. However, the Kingdom of Mapungubwe in what is now South Africa also had large stone fortified places, including the ruins of the Mapungubwe Hill Enclosure, a contemporary of Zimbabwe.