Monday, August 4, 2008

Great Zimbabwe

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe (Bantu for “stone house”) stand about 17 miles (30 kilometers) southeast of the modern provincial capital, Masvingo, and east of the Kalahari Desert between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers. They cover about 200 acres (80 hectares). The largest of about 300 such sites in the region, Great Zimbabwe was once the greatest city in sub-Saharan Africa. Misguided and racist Victorians—and others since—thought Africans incapable of such sophistication, and they therefore incorrectly concluded that ancient Phoenicians, Romans, or Hebrews created the amazing structures. The British archeologists David Randall-MacIver (1905) and Gertrude Caton-Thompson (1929) carried out excavations and discovered that the place was indeed indigenous African in origin. Their conclusions were confirmed by further investigations made by R. Summers, K. R. Robinson, and A. Whitty in 1958. The builders were ancestors of the modern Shona people of Zimbabwe. Even in ruin, Great Zimbabwe has been called “remarkable,” “majestic,” “awe-inspiring,” and “timeless”; when intact, it was an architectural masterpiece. Now known as the Great Zimbabwe National Monument, the site was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1986.

The area was first settled by Bantu-speaking farmers, perhaps in the second and third centuries a.d. A second phase of occupation began about a.d. 330. The grasslands in the foothills of the Mashonaland plateau provided excellent pasture, and between 500 and 1000 the cattle-herding Gokomere people overran and absorbed the earlier inhabitants. Rich local gold deposits were later utilized, and it seems that some stone walls were built toward the end of that period. Scholars remain divided on how the Mwenemutapa of Great Zimbabwe attained their high lifestyle and widespread influence. Some believe that it came from cattle wealth and coastal trade in gold (with contacts as far afield as India and China). Others suggest that a powerful politico-religious ideology “gave them a competitive edge over neighbors” so that they could coerce the human resources needed to build their city. But as yet there is no evidence that their success depended upon a single factor.
Anyway, between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries Great Zimbabwe, capital of the wealthiest society in the region, dominated the area that now encompasses eastern Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, and South Africa.
There were three main groups of buildings: they are now designated the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure, and the Valley Complex. The approximately oval Hill Complex (ca, a.d. 1250) was clearly a defensible retreat. Measuring about 330 by 150 feet (100 by 45 meters), it crowned a steep rocky prominence 260 feet (80 meters) above the valley at the north end of the settlement. It comprised several enclosures connected by a network of narrow walled alleys. Drystone walls of dressed rectangular granite blocks linked the large natural outcrops to fortify a number of areas. The large western enclosure, its 20-foot-high (6.1-meter) perimeter wall nearly 17 feet thick (5 meters), is thought to have been a religious precinct. The smaller eastern enclosure was probably residential, perhaps for the royal court or the chief shaman. At least three routes approached the hill from the west.

Most of the buildings in the Great Enclosure at the southern edge of the site date from the early fourteenth century; its elliptical perimeter wall was first built nearly 100 years later and subsequently restored a number of times. The 16-foot-thick (5-meter), 36-foot-high (11-meter) wall, its drystone faces meticulously built from dressed granite (the core is rubble), contains a space 840 feet (255 meters) in circumference and 330 feet (100 meters) across; there are three unfortified doorways. The enclosure embraced a few elite residences, including the royal compound and an enigmatic 33-foot-high (10-meter) conical tower—a solid, granite affair with a 16-foot (about 5-meter) base diameter. There is also a smaller tower.
The rambling Valley Complex, between the other nodes of the city but closer to the Great Enclosure, dates from the early fifteenth century. It once comprised several stone-walled irregular yards—one writer calls it an “archipelago”—around the houses of more important citizens. However, most families probably lived in densely packed dhaka (mud) huts with thatched roofs, clustered between these “islands.” More small towers, possibly of religious significance, dotted the area. The surviving masonry strongly suggests that the Zimbabweans independently evolved a technology that optimized immediately local resources. Their construction system began as a simple response to necessity and ended with sophisticated work that expressed joy in building, as it employed herringbone, chevron, and other decorative bonding, all made without mortar.

Great Zimbabwe was fully occupied for about 300 years, but by the end of the fifteenth century it lay abandoned. Although grazing land was at first abundant, the poor soil could not have supported crops enough to sustain the city’s increasing population—by the late fourteenth century it may have reached 18,000—so some food necessarily would have been imported. By the fifteenth century Great Zimbabwe’s power had begun to fade, coincident with the rise of Torwa and Mutapa, the neighboring states. The reasons for its demise are unclear, but a familiar pattern is likely. Urban growth overtaxed the immediate environment, and the pressure put on resources by people and herds alike probably led to decline, resulting in social, economic, and political instability, and finally fragmentation. Many cultures have ended thus, not with a bang but a whimper.

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