The ruined city of Great Zimbabwe is one of the iconic African Iron Age landmarks. The impressive free-stone walls of the Great Enclosure and surrounding structures are located near Masvingo, some 700km southeast of Victoria Falls.
Photo: Ariadne van Vandbergen
There has been much debate about who built Great Zimbabwe, ascribing it to the work of Phoenicians or Indians, but archaeological research has convincingly proved that Great Zimbabwe was an African kingdom that was at its height between the 13h and 15th centuries.
Great Zimbabwe was the centre of an extensive trade network that dominated southern central Africa, an area described aptly by archaeologist Innocent Pikirayi as the ancient entity of Zambezia. Zambezia was not called such in its time, but it is a convenient way of understanding the economic and political relationships of a number of culturally diverse communities that interacted between what is now Zambia, Zimbabwe and the Limpopo Valley of South Africa.
Great Zimbabwe was preceded by Mapungubwe, arguably the first city in Southern Africa, which was built at the junction of the Sashe and Limpopo Rivers, where Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe meet. Mapungubwe was a self-sufficient centre of about 5000 people, who cultivated crops, kept livestock and traded with the San and agents for the Muslim seafarers who regularly plied their trade down the East African coastline.
The decline of Mapungubwe, the rise of Great Zimbabwe and its own decline were probably due to environmental factors. Southern Africa has a long history of climatic uncertainty and shifting patterns. Extensive droughts are believed to have caused the fragmentation of Great Zimbabwe with its people and their descendants.
It appears that there was a trend towards decentralisation of economic power by the 17th century before the disruptions caused by European colonisation and the mass population movements that resulted from Nguni expansionism out of what is now Kwazulu-Natal.
Brett Hilton-Barber and Lee R. Berger. Copyright © 2010 Prime Origins.