Header: Ruins of the Temple at Great Zimbabwe. Dated c.a. 1335 C.E., however, older authorities have suggested the ninth and sixth century C.E. Whilst other authorities have even suggested between 2000 and 1100 B.C.E.
Top row: (1) Wall of the Temple at Great Zimbabwe, styled in a chevron pattern. (2) Bantu Bushman. (3) Inside the Temple at Great Zimbabwe. (4) Outer wall of the Temple at Great Zimbabwe.
Bottom row: (1) Children from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, on a school trip to Great Zimbabwe. (2) The Temple at Great Zimbabwe, with the Conical Tower at the centre. (3) Monomotapa woman. (4) Another angle of the outer wall of the Temple at Great Zimbabwe.
“The inside consists of a great variety of sumptuous apartments, spacious and lofty halls, all adorned with a magnificent cotton tapestry, the manufacture of the country. The floors, ceilings [sic], beams and rafters are all either gilt or plated with gold curiously wrought, as are also the chairs of state, tables, benches &c.... In short, so rich and magnificent is this palace, that it may be said to vie with that which distinguishes a monarch of the East.”
Eighteenth century geography publication regarding the magnificent palace ruins at Mount Fura, the immediate successor to Great Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe is home to one of the most superb monuments in sub-Saharan Africa. In this region exists numerous magnificent stone built ruins known as Mazimbabwe, which means Great Houses of Stone in Shona, the Bantu the language of the builders. In fact, in the entire region of Southern Africa there are at least 600 of these wonderful structures in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. Although most are said to date from the Middle Ages some scholars believe that they date very much earlier. In describing these buildings historian Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop commented:
“[T]hey are almost cyclopean structures, with walls several metres thick; five at the base, three at the top, and nine meters in height. Edifices of all types are to be found there from the royal palace, the temple, and the military fortification to the private villa of a notable. The walls are of granite masonry." In addition, the mid-sixteenth century Portuguese writer Joao de Barros “tell us “Symbaoe” (more correctly “Zimbabwe”) in Shona signifies court.”
The largest of these ruins was the Great Zimbabwe which consisted of 12 clusters of buildings spread over three square miles. Furthermore, according to historian Robin Walker and author of the tremendous work When We Ruled:
“Its outer walls were made from 100,000 tons of granite bricks. In the fourteenth century, the city housed 18,000 people, comparable in size to that of London of the same period.
The buildings housed warehouses and shrines. Its industries included 4,000 gold mines, iron smelting, copper and bronze manufacture, and an ivory trade with the Swahili on the East African coast. Among the products imported were stoneware and green glazed dishes from China, coloured glass from the Near East, and glazed and painted bowls from Persia.”
The central enclosure, known as the “Temple”, had walls that were 35 feet high and 17 feet thick in places. These walls formed an irregular eclipse having a maximum diameter of 292 feet and a circumference of 830 feet. As is seemingly typical of ancient structures, the bricks were ingeniously designed to be held together without the use of mortar. According to one of the earliest visitors to the site J. Theodore Bent “as a specimen of the dry builder’s art, it is without a parallel.” Ornamental patterns of chevron and dentelle adorn the tops of some of the walls. With regard to the chevron in particular 250 feet of its length ornaments the outer wall and is perfectly level. There once stood a series of granite and soapstone monoliths at the summit of the wall above the chevron, and at this same location also stood a double row of small granite towers. The floors have drains and are made of crushed granite. Various ruins have check, sloping block and herringbone patterns.
Steps occupy the north entrance and curve inwards in semicircular fashion to lead immediately inside the great Parallel Passage, a distance of 220 feet.
Within the outside walls for an area of three square miles, once stood circular thatched cottages. These structures had walls 12 to 18 inches thick, and made of a mixture of clay and gravel called daga. On these homes Peter Garlake, a former Senior Inspector of Monoliths, remarked:
“[The Cottages] exhibited considerable technical proficiency that achieved almost sculptural effects... The daga structures in the Ruins were in fact structural accomplishments of the same order as the masonry walls ... [Y]et fundamentally they are only developments and refinements of traditions that were almost ubiquitous in the cultures of this area and time. Both reflect a concern for appearance, ostentation, even luxury, achieved regardless of the cost in labour or material.”
As well as cottages, daga was also used to make steps, fireplaces, chairs, bedsteads, and tables, all of which were achieved to an extremely high level of competency and glazed finish. As the scholar Dr Charles Finch stated “this must have had a dazzling aesthetic effect.” Indeed, these cottages were lavishly decorated with carved wooden beams and painted walls. “Among the typical designs were paintings of animals, birds, people, and black and white squares. Some cottages had wooden doors, beautifully carved from selected timbers...Very few of these elaborate door panels survived but some can still be found in very remote regions of the country.”
The great Parallel Passage leads on to the most prominent and intriguing part of the ruined complex, the Conical Tower. This curious looking edifice stands at 30 feet high, although it was once higher, and has a base diameter of 18 feet. Next to it lays a much smaller cone structure. According to Walker “the Conical Tower may symbolise a mound of grain and therefore reinforce the role of the king as provider for the people.”
A castle known as the “Acropolis” rests on a 350 feet high hill overlooking the temple. It has huge conical turrets, extremely thick walls, twisting passageways, and narrow entrances, with widths that vary from half a metre to just over a metre. The walls have widths that vary from 12 to 14 feet at the top, and 19 to 22 feet thick at the base. “The site may well have been chosen for security reasons, giving a panoramic view of the city and the surroundings.” Interestingly, there are huge naturally formed stone boulders that the builders cleverly incorporated into the walls rather than clear.
Another part of the complex, the “Eastern Temple” is home to the famous soapstone bird sculptures. These stood at the top of the three feet long columns and were approximately 14 inches long.
Shona (Zimbabwe). The Temple at Great Zimbabwe. The outer wall was made of 100,000 tons of granite bricks and held together without any use of mortar. The standard date for this structure is c.a.1335 C.E. However, older authorities have suggested the ninth and sixth century C.E. Whilst other authorities have even suggested between 2000 and 1100 B.C.E.
Shona (Zimbabwe, Mozambique, etc.). Typical styles of decorative walling used at the Munhumatapan sites. From top to bottom (i) check pattern (ii) dentelle pattern and (iii) chevron pattern. From Robin Walker's, When We Ruled, 2011, p.36.
Great Zimbabwe. The “Eastern Temple” is home to the famous soapstone bird sculptures. These stood at the top of the three feet long columns and were approximately 14 inches long.
In the thirteenth century, or earlier, what later became known as the Munhumutapa Empire was established. The empire encompassed a vast region which included Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa.
The rulers of this powerful empire had complete control of trade in the East African coastal cities, and more crucially the all-important gold mines. Until 1550 the empire’s cultural capital was Great Zimbabwe, but over time the capital was gradually abandoned. “Hundreds of stone built structures associated with this and a successor empire exist in the region. The most notable of these courts were Khami...Naletale and Dhlo Dhlo. Like Great Zimbabwe, they have walls of dressed blocks, but they also have platforms and terraces where the cottages were built.”
Archaeological finds of domestic goods discovered at Khami clearly reveal a cosmopolitan city. “At the Khami Ruins, late sixteenth - or early seventeenth - century Wan Li blue-and-white porcelain, Portuguese, German and North African glazed stonewares and earthenwares, and fragments of Iberian silverware have been found ...”
As with the Conical Tower, Walker also believes that the small towers which cap the outer wall at Naletale “may represent a pile of grain.” Also similar to the Great Zimbabwe these walls are skilfully constructed, and are regularly coursed, and contain decorations of chevron, check, herringbone, dark stone, and panelled herringbone patterns. Various motifs were a common feature of the walls in this region.
The city of Zimbabwe reached its height of wealth and prestige between 1335 and 1450, until the arrival of the Portuguese, after this epoch the city rapidly declined. In closing, however, there is no-doubt that Great Zimbabwe has left an indelible imprint in historical memory. To quote from an eighteenth century geography book regarding the magnificent palace ruins at Mount Fura, the immediate successor capital to Great Zimbabwe:
“The inside consists of a great variety of sumptuous apartments, spacious and lofty halls, all adorned with a magnificent cotton tapestry, the manufacture of the country. The floors, ceilings [sic], beams and rafters are all either gilt or plated with gold curiously wrought, as are also the chairs of state, tables, benches &c. The candle-sticks and branches are made of ivory inlaid with gold, and hang from the ceiling by chains of the same metal, or of silver gilt. The plates; dishes, and bowls belonging to the Emperor's table, are made of a sort of porcelain, curiously wrought on the edges with sprigs of gold resembling those of coral. In short, so rich and magnificent is this palace, that it may be said to vie with that which distinguishes a monarch of the East.”
Robin Walker, When We Ruled, Black Classic Press, Baltimore, 2011.
Images above: (1) Shona children demonstrating Shona Culture. (2) Temple of Great Zimababwe walls with soap-stone-birds. (3) The famous Soap Stone Birds of Zimbabwe, appearing on the national flags and coats of arms of both Zimbabwe and Rhodesia, as well as on banknotes and coins. (4) Two Soap Stone Birds of Zimbabwe.
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