Why does no one know about Great Zimbabwe?

Despite being the largest ancient city in Sub-Saharan Africa and inspiring the name of Zimbabwe, not many people have heard about it, and even fewer visit it.

Most tourists make a beeline for Victoria Falls and Hwange National Park, neglecting the +/- 1000 year old ruins.

Staring up at the magnificent wall of the Great Enlclosure.

Staring up at the magnificent wall of the Great Enlclosure.

Perhaps its because it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, far away from the other tourist sites. Or maybe (probably, actually definitely) it’s because the stone city was the centre of political controversy for so long and is yet to receive the attention it deserves.

The ruins being so impressive and intricate, when the first Europeans came across them, they could not believe that it was built by the Bantu ancestors of the local Shona people. Rather, it was first speculated that it was the home of Queen of Sheba, or the work of the Egyptians or Phoenicians.

Later, the Rhodesian government put pressure on archeologists to confirm that the city could not have been constructed by the local people. Alternatively, they suppressed findings that suggested otherwise. In fact, right up until Zimbabwe gained its independence (in 1980), the official line of the (white) government was that ‘the structures were built by non-blacks’. The first archeological evidence that it was Bantu in origin was provided in 1905

I was the archaeologist stationed at Great Zimbabwe. I was told by the then-director of the Museums and Monuments organisation to be extremely careful about talking to the press about the origins of the [Great] Zimbabwe state. I was told that the museum service was in a difficult situation, that the government was pressurising them to withhold the correct information. Censorship of guidebooks, museum displays, school textbooks, radio programmes, newspapers and films was a daily occurrence. Once a member of the Museum Board of Trustees threatened me with losing my job if I said publicly that blacks had built Zimbabwe. He said it was okay to say the yellow people had built it, but I wasn’t allowed to mention radio carbon dates... It was the first time since Germany in the thirties that archaeology has been so directly censored.
— Paul Sinclair interviewed for None But Ourselves (via Wiki)
The King's point of view

The King's point of view

We pretty much had the place to ourselves when we visited in September (on a weekend!) with the occasional school or church group passing by. While it was wonderful to explore the ancient city undisturbed, it was tough to hear how the local guides suffered due to low numbers of visitors. A guide could go a week without any work.

So next time you’re in Zimbabwe, you should definitely go. And stay at Norma Jeans if you do.

Some more quick facts about the ruins:

  • Great Zimbabwe is most famous for its Hill Complex, where the King lived and the Great Enclosure, where he kept his wives and boys went to school
  • The King used the amplification effects of a cave in his Hill Complex to call for his wives (or anyone else) down below
  • As you walk up to the Hill Complex, the path gets narrower and narrower until you have to go in single file. This was to prevent the King's enemies from easily ambushing him.
  • It is believed that ’Zimbabwe’ is derived from ‘Dzimba-dza-mabwe’ which means ‘great houses of stone’
  • Depending on who you talk to, back in it’s heyday, the stone city was home to 18,000 - 20,000 people