Great Zimbabwe - History and Facts | History Hit

Great Zimbabwe

Masvingo, Masvingo, Zimbabwe

The Great Zimbabwe ruins are the remains of an eleventh century Shona city.

Peta Stamper

29 Jun 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe ruins are the remains of an incredible Iron Age and medieval city of the Bantu civilisation in Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe. In fact, Zimbabwe comes from the Shonda word for ‘stone houses’. Today, Great Zimbabwe is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is managed by the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe.

Great Zimbabwe history

Dating back to between the 11th and 15th centuries and spread over nearly 80 hectares, the stone houses o Great Zimbabwe are believed to have been the capital of the Shona people. The area was settled by the 4th century AD as Gokomere and Ziwa cultures farmed the valley and mined for iron.

At its peak, this great city is believed to have had up to 10,000 inhabitants and to have been an important centre for trade networks extending as far as China. The Zimbabwean Empire elite controlled trade up and down Africa’s east coast.

In around 1450, Great Zimbabwe was abandoned as the surrounding area could no longer provide sustenance for its large population. The earliest known written mention of Great Zimbabwe dates to 1531 as the Portuguese garrisoned the coast of modern-day Mozambique.

Excavation began from 1871 and stirred up – racist – controversy over the influences and origins of the structures, although after the 1950s they were agreed African. Great Zimbabwe has continually been appropriated by colonial and nationalist groups to write their own visions of the country.

Great Zimbabwe today

Open between 8am and 5pm Monday to Friday, currently Great Zimbabwe is mainly characterised by impressive stone structures – most distinctly its largely intact stone walls. The Great Zimbabwe ruins are made up of three areas; the Hills Ruins, which are generally considered to have been a royal city, the 11 metre-high Great Enclosure and the Valley Ruins, divided into their different stages of occupation.

The Great Enclosure is the oldest tallest structure south of the Sahara Desert and is believed to have been either a royal residence of impressive grain store. The Hill Complex however is estimated to date back to 900 BC and been the religious centre of Great Zimbabwe.

Getting to Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe is located around 30 kilometres from Masvingo (formerly Fort Victoria) from which you can take a taxi and is a 4 hour drive south of Harare on the road to Johannesburg.