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Great Zimbabwe: at the heart of ancient Africa

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clubofmozambique (2013-04-02) Zimbabwe is a landlocked country that, although it now also seems to be politically locked from the outside, has not always been like that. The country was once at the center of a major international trade route, and the ambiguous relationship it now has with the Western World, in particular with the UK and USA, unfortunately seems to give it nothing more than a bad reputation. Still, and even if not officially acknowledged, Western influence is particularly felt in the country’s top educational system and easily visible in its urban lifestyle.

A historically rich and thriving African country that still holds the continent’s highest literacy rate, Zimbabwe slowly disconnected from most of the West from the moment that, in 1980, the minority government lead by Ian Smith was overthrown by President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU Party who has, surrounded by more or less controversy, won all elections ever since.

Nowadays, and after the infamous hyperinflation of the past – that reached its peak with the printing of a 100 Billion Dollar bill – Zimbabwe has no national currency of its own, borrowing two foreign currencies for its internal daily life. Both US Dollar bills and South African Rand coins are used with the same exchange rate and provide a different experience every time something is bought or sold. Still, and as the Rand coins are somehow scarcer than the US bills, often in the street the change is settled with a pair of small goodies – matchboxes or candies – that fill in the missing cents. In big supermarkets, discount coupons with the same value of the remaining change are given in order to be used in the following days, in a process that does not seem to end, as coupons follow coupons and used discounts in one given moment bring new discounts for the next.

From Mutare, close to the Manica/Chimoio Mozambican border, the shared taxis gather in an improvised station just outside a big modern supermarket. It is always a great contrast when these two worlds meet so closely, as often happens. The artificial bright lights and white floors inside, with individually packed colored shelves and soft air-conditioned temperatures are a clean and organized antithesis of the outside, with non-regulated heat, warm colors and the characteristic hectic, but somehow organized, pace of things. Dozens of taxi-vans are parked along the station, waiting to fill up quickly so they can leave, while many others wait behind them for their turn, in what looks like an assembly line process. The drivers and ticket collectors whistle and loudly advertise where they are heading to, trying to convince passers-by to become passengers and join them on the road, as if after the supermarket one would never know where to go next. Most of the cars connect this medium sized city to Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital and the country’s main metropolis. Harare is also a mandatory stop if continuing all the way to the other end of the country, to Zimbabwe’s most visited and well known wonder, natural border with neighbor Zambia, Victoria Falls – or as the local people much before and considerably better put it in Tonga language, Mosi-oa-Tunya, ‘The Smoke that Thunders’.

Still, it is in Southern Zimbabwe that the ruins of what centuries ago was both the biggest and most famous destination around, eternally lay. Immense granite stonewalls are the surviving foundations of an ancient legendary city, a major commercial stopover vital to the trade routes connecting the Southern African interior with the Middle East, China and India. This is Great Zimbabwe.

Great Zimbabwe is so important that it even named its own country. In the Shona language, the word Zimbabwe means ‘houses of stone’ and ever since Southern Rhodesia (more obviously named after British mining magnate and imperialist Cecil Rhodes) became an independent free estate, in order to celebrate its local history and project the glorious past into the future. What differentiates this Zimbabwe from the many others is really the enormous scale of its construction, its Greatness.

Great Zimbabwe was the largest city around, the political capital and major hub of an Empire that prospered on trade connections overseas. With houses spread over a square mile, the massive stone walls are amazingly built without any mortar to support its stones, served as a palace to the Empire’s ruler and were probably built as an expression of such wealth. But while the vibrant and rich city is now very far away, to the Western World the clear understanding of what it really was and who built it, is still very recent.

Legend has it that the city belonged to the Biblical Queen of Sheba and that is how a Portuguese Captain first documented it (as Symbaoe) in the 16th century. Still, it was the German Karl Mauch who ‘rediscover’ it in the 19th century. Until then, no data seemed to exist about it, as it was part of the vast uncharted’ African territory. Mauch, a self-taught geologist, cartographer and botanist, had always dreamed of exploring Africa. However, coming from a modest family and excluded from the restricted German geographical elite, he never had the funds or supports to do so. Determined to follow this dream, Mauch, at age 27, enlisted as a crew member on a ship sailing for Durban. In 1871, after six adventurous years on the Continent, he stumbled across the ancient Walls. A man of his time, catholic and very European centered, his understanding of Africa was not immune to prejudices, strongly based on legends and myths. He immediately dismissed the possibility of the ruins being a local construction, turning instead to the Bible for answers. There, the story of the Queen of Sheba and the richness of her Kingdom, lost and hidden somewhere in Africa’s interior, fitted again perfectly. This theory found an eager audience in the reigning racist regimes of both Rhodesia and South Africa where such discovery, accrediting the construction of the Walls to a previous outsider white race, was actively promoted by the ruling white minority, who saw it as a divine sign for the rightfulness of their occupation and colonialism.

This was the dominant theory until the British archeologist Gertrude Caton Thompson and her all women excavating team proved the opposite in 1929. After many years of incessant treasure hunters scavenging the place – strengthen by the idea that there would be gold buried underneath the Walls, another story with Biblical roots, the King Solomon Mines – all the evidences possibly connecting back to the identity of the city’s builders appeared to have been erased forever. But being one of the first archeologists to use aerial observation to study a site, Thompson was able to identify a pass into a not yet explored, and therefore undamaged, area. There, she found hundreds of artifacts untouched by anyone but the original inhabitants. Besides some far Eastern ceramics, everything else was clearly African. Supported by further analysis, she determined that Great Zimbabwe had been a black African city from the 9th to 14th century, a lost civilization begun by Bantu-speaking ancestors of the Shona people. It was a major hub in a huge sophisticated trade system, with far reaching connections. The city linked the trade route that local Africans followed as they carried huge amounts of ivory and gold from the interior of the Continent to the Swahili coast, where they dealt with Arab merchants, middlemen to Indian and Chinese traders. Caton Thompson killed the myth of a lost white civilization. Still, and as expected, the ruling geographical and political elites dismissed her conclusions, but time and further investigations would prove her to be right.

Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is now known that the construction of Great Zimbabwe expanded for more than 300 years and that at one point the city hosted around 15.000 people, as large as any European city at that time, with its stone-houses being the oldest remaining structures existing in sub-Saharan Africa. Besides the gold and ivory commerce, the other main local activity was agricultural trade, in which a large cattle herd moved seasonally across the territory, believed to be the reason behind the existence of many Zimbabwes scattered around the country. Eventually, around the 15th century, the city was abandoned and declined into ruins, most possibly due to over-farming and subsequent water and famine shortages. But despite its abandonment the walls and their undulated narrow streets remained, majestic and eternal ruins of that past time.

The first overview into the entire site is as striking as a later closer observation. What impresses at first is the size of the walls, spread along the plateau and emerging almost naturally from the surrounding savanna. Watching closely, it is possible to admire how they were almost magically raised without any mortar to root them. Constructed from (and sometimes around) massive granite blocks, each unit was individually and meticulously layered on top of another, forming strong and resistant walls that reached up to 11 meters high and 6 meters wide at the base. The ruins are divided into three distinct architectural groups, known as the Hill Complex, the Valley Complex and the Great Enclosure, the latter being the largest, with a circumference of 255 meters and with more than one million bricks used in its construction.

Once a lively bustling city, Great Zimbabwe today is something between a memory and still a mystery. Its adjacent museum helps to better explain the almost forgotten history and art of the place with some artifacts, models and drawings. Surprisingly, at one point, the museum guide leads the way into a semi-hidden room at the end of the hall. Inside, eight pillars hold bird sculptures, standing next to each other in a kind of stage. These are the original and famous Zimbabwean Birds, the most important artifacts found at the site and depicted on Zimbabwe’s national flag and all other kinds of symbolic representations of the country. Carved out of soapstone in a unique and distinctive style, combining human and animal characteristics, they are believed to once have stood proudly on top of the walls, guarding the ancient city and may have symbolized the eight kings who ruled the Empire. The bird itself is a bateleur eagle, a bird with great meaning to the Shona culture, a good omen, symbol of a protective spirit and messenger of the gods. But, unfortunately, all those connotations did not seem to have helped the statues ever since they were found. In fact, the birds were continuously broken, stolen, sold and spread for many years. The last was returned by Germany in 2003, after being sold to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin in 1907, from where it later flew to Russia after the end of the Second World War, remained until after the Cold War, returned back to Germany to now finally rest back at home. Only one bird is missing, ironically still adorning Cecil Rhodes former house, in Cape Town.

Tourism in Great Zimbabwe is not as big as it is, for example, in Victoria Falls. But it is still a major industry with the modern and pleasant infrastructures – hotel, camping place and museum – proving the attention and investment the Walls have recently witnessed. Once a main center of life and commerce, the site is today a place of great tranquility and almost spiritual connection, which makes it somehow unsettling to notice that the only local life remaining is in a touristic reproduction of a Shona village. There, artisans and musicians wait for visitors to earn a few dollars (or rand). A sculptor slowly limes the finishing of yet another soapstone replica of the famous birds, the thousandth, to join the many others on the floor, available in all sizes and prices. Outside another hut, sitting in the shade, a few musicians and dancers explain in a monochord that they will be performing traditional Shona music and dance, and do appreciate some contribution in the end. While two dancers combining modern sport clothes and ancient costumes rhythmically dance facing the expressionless m’bira players, it is impossible not to feel a bit disenchanted with the apparently inevitable fate of tourism. This personification of the ‘typical’ for the outsider is as much out of context as it also probably is the only reason to keep the place going and a few locals around their ancestors place.

Legend has it that peace will never return to Zimbabwe until all the pillaged Zimbabwe Birds have returned to their homeland. Nevertheless, and despite the political image given to it outside, the country and their people do not seem to be under such curse. To wish that the last remaining bird returns back to its original nest is, more than anything else, to hope that the unique legacy and history the country holds can be given justice, and the last stone over so much prejudice finally laid.

Photo and Text by Pedro Branco

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