Stretched across a tree-peppered expanse in southern Africa lies the magnificent ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a medieval stone city of astounding wealth and prestige. Located in the present-day country of Zimbabwe, it’s the sight of the largest known settlement ruins in Sub-Saharan Africa, second on the continent only to the pyramids of Egypt. But the history of this city is shrouded in controversy, defined by decades of dispute about who built it and why. Its name comes from the Shona word madzimbabwe, meaning big house of stone for its unscalable stone walls that reach heights of nearly ten meters and run for a length of about 250 meters.
For its grandeur and historical significance, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986. Back in the 14th and 15th centuries, it was a thriving city. Spread across nearly eight square-kilometers, Great Zimbabwe was defined by three main areas: the Hill Complex, where the king lived; the Great Enclosure, reserved for members of the royal family; and the Valley Complex, where regular citizens lived. Rulers were both powerful economic and religious leaders for the region.
At its highest point, the city had a bustling urban population of 18,000 people and was one of the major African trade centers at the time. What enabled this growth was Great Zimbabwe’s influential role in an intercontinental trade network. Connected to several key city-states along the East African Swahili Coast, it was part of the larger Indian Ocean trade routes. The city generated its riches by controlling the sources and trade of the most prized items: gold, ivory, and copper.
With this mercantile power, it was able to extend its sphere of influence across continents, fostering a strong Arab and Indian trader presence throughout its zenith. Archaeologists have since pieced together the details of this history through artifacts discovered on site. There were pottery shards and glassworks from Asia, as well as coins minted in the coastal trading city of Kilwa Kisiwani over 1,500 miles away.
They also found soapstone bird figures, which are thought to represent each of the city’s rulers, and young calf bones, only unearthed near the royal residence, show how the diet of the elite differed from the general population. These clues have also led to theories about the city’s decline. By the mid-15th century, the buildings at Great Zimbabwe were almost all that remained. Archaeological evidence points to overcrowding and sanitation issues as the cause, compounded by soil depletion triggered by overuse. Eventually, as crops withered and conditions in the city worsened, the population of Great Zimbabwe is thought to have dispersed and formed the nearby Mutapa and Torwa states.
Centuries later, a new phase of Great Zimbabwe’s influence began to play out in the political realm as people debated who had built the famous city of stone. During the European colonization of Africa, racist colonial officials claimed the ruins couldn’t be of African origin. So, without a detailed written record on hand, they instead relied on myths to explain the magnificence of Great Zimbabwe. Some claimed it proved the Bible story of the Queen of Sheba who lived in a city of riches.
Others argued it was built by the Ancient Greeks. Then, in the early 20th century after extensive excavation at the site, the archaeologist David Randall-MacIver presented clear evidence that Great Zimbabwe was built by indigenous peoples. Yet, at the time, the country’s white minority colonial government sought to discredit this theory because it challenged the legitimacy of their rule.
In fact, the government actively encouraged historians to produce accounts that disputed the city’s African origins. Over time, however, an overwhelming body of evidence mounted, identifying Great Zimbabwe as an African city built by Africans. During the 1960s and 70s, Great Zimbabwe became an important symbol for the African Nationalist movement that was spreading across the continent. Today, the ruins at Great Zimbabwe, alluded to on the Zimbabwean flag by a soapstone bird, still stand as a source of national pride and cultural value.