The Remains of Great Zimbabwe

Highlighting a lesser-known civilization

Some time around 2000, one of us took a college class about the history of southern Africa. It was eye-opening in many ways, including for being a first introduction — at age 19 — to Great Zimbabwe, an imposing ruin in present-day Zimbabwe. Yesterday, The New York Times published an article on the modern political uses of the site, which sparked the memory.

What is Great Zimbabwe? It’s a ruined city and fortress built by the Shona civilization between approximately 1000-1400 CE. It has also formed the basis of legends for and against European colonization.

There’s a body of scholarship about the smaller number of, and (in general) lesser cultural importance given to, enduring physical monuments in Africa as compared to Europe. But what struck us, as American adults looking back on our adolescence, is that it can be helpful to learn about new regions and cultures through the lens of what’s valued in our own. In other words: Americans tend to value imposing historical monuments, so why not use a giant monument in Zimbabwe as an entry point to southern African history?

Here goes:

NOVA features the ruins on a multimedia platform that introduces them as follows:

The first whispered reports of a fabulous stone palace in the heart of southern Africa began dribbling into the coastal trading ports of Mozambique in the 16th century. In his 1552 Da Asia, the most complete chronicle of the Portuguese conquests, João de Barros wrote of “a square fortress, masonry within and without, built of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them.”

De Barros thought the edifice, which he never saw, was Axuma, one of the cities of the Queen of Sheba. Other Portuguese chroniclers of the day linked the rumored fortress with the region’s gold trade and decided it must be the biblical Ophir, from which the Queen of Sheba procured gold for the Temple of Solomon.

There’s also a UNESCO page dedicated to Great Zimbabwe. And here, you can link to a long pamphlet about the site’s history. The above-mentioned New York Times article also has a lot of great embedded links, including a brief about historical preservation of ruins in Zimbabwe.

Maybe your students will enjoy virtually exploring a remnant of southern Africa’s built environment, and be reminded that important civilizational history exists in more places than we often realize.

(Featured photo by João Silva for NYT, taken from the cited NYT article published on 21 Feb 2017)

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