Trying to get off the grid? The largest ancient structure in sub-Saharan Africa Great Zimbabwe is a spectacular UNESCO World Heritage site. Hidden treasures, gold, an ancient civilization and racist archaeologists. This site has it all, and Zimbabwe is even named after it. But where are the visitors?
GREAT ZIMBABWE NATIONAL MONUMENT
The site is divided into 3 areas: the Hill Ruins, the Great Enclosure and the Valley Ruins. We were the only ones visiting! Usually you want all the other travellers to leave, so you can have the place for yourself, but here it was kind of sad and at night – kind of creepy.
THE HILL RUINS
You can’t really see it from the ground, but on top of the rock is an old city.
You can see the ruins of a royal city with different rooms and walls. This was also where 8 pillars with a bird on top was found. They were probably used in rituals, and the bird is now the symbol of Zimbabwe. You find it on the national flag and money.
And old man sat waiting for tourists to guide, and he was quite happy to see us. He didn’t speak any English, but we gave him some money, because.. well.. because!
The great enclosure is really great. You get a great view of it from the hill.
It goes back to the 14th century and is built in granite. Inside is living quarters, a community area, and a narrow passage leading to a high conical tower. This tower is so weird and probably not a defense tower.
We didn’t spend much time here. They are from the 19th century (way to new for me…) and are living quarters with decorations. Porcelain from China was found here proving the rich trade.
A HIDDEN TREASURE
This site is so spectacular many European experts didn’t believe, it was created by Africans. All the way up until the 1970s!
“When African nationalists were demanding independence in the 1960s, the Smith regime actually sanctioned historians to write a fake history on the origins of Great Zimbabwe, denying its African origins. This was not different from the accounts of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century antiquarians, which linked Great Zimbabwe with Phoenicia, with Saban Arabs, with the Egyptians and the rest of the near East.” – Dr. Innocent Pikirayi, lecturer in history and archaeology, University of Zimbabwe.
As this wasn’t bad enough early explorers from Europe also vandalized the place in search of a hidden treasure. Portuguese traders heard about the remains of an ancient city in the early 16th Century and records survive of interviews and notes made by them, linking Great Zimbabwe to gold production and the long-distance trade. The ruins became associated with gold and much early exploration was done by adventurers looking for the hidden treasure. Consequently, the stratification of the Great Zimbabwe site was disturbed and many artifacts of great historical value were thrown away by the treasure hunters. Read more on that story here.
A GOLDEN CITY
“Zimbabwe” means something like “stone houses” and after the country’s independence, it changed the name from Rhodesia ( a white guy named it after himself) to Zimbabwe to connect with this place and its old history.
Great Zimbabwe was the capital of the Queen of Sheba! Well, at least according to legend. But it was definitely the seat of power for the early (relatively early, I know) Monarchs of the country. The ruins of Great Zimbabwe are a unique testimony to the Shona people between the 11th and 15th centuries. By the 15th century around 20.000 people lived here. Almost half the size of London at the time…
The city covers a huge area and was an important trading centre. The richness of the city came from cattle and from trading natural resources like iron, copper and gold from nearby gold mines. Many artefacts have been found here including soapstone figurines, pottery, worked ivory, and copper wire, iron hoes, bronze spearheads, gold beads and sheaths. And most importantly the 8 Zimbabwe Birds – now the symbol of the country.
HOW TO GET THERE & WHERE TO STAY
The infrastructure of Zimbabwe is not what is used to be. Literally, there was a time the tourism was way higher, and several big airlines flew, but after many years of the former president Mugabe and his aggressive politics, it stopped.
This UNESCO site is close to the town of Masvingo. We came from Matobo hills – another UNESCO site – by taxi. This was our primary way of transportation besides bus. But apparently some of the bus routes are also downsizing, so check in advance.
There are 2 places to sleep. We stayed – as the only ones – in some newly build bungalows. It is now Lodge at the Ancient city, but I can see they have upgraded it a bit.
A more fancy place to stay is The Great Zimbabwe Hotel. This is where you pick up the bus. From Great Zimbabwe, you can travel to Matobo Hills (more UNESCO) or the Khami Ruins near Bulaweyo. We went back to Harare, but I would have liked to go south to the river Limpopo (you know: where the elephant got its trunk) near South Africa.
We went in 2013, and our son was about 8 years old. We travelled Zimbabwe for 3 weeks visiting friends in the capital Harare. Back then everyone thought Mugabe would never leave, so things might be changing here 5 years later. But probably not that fast…
Want to get more inspiration on Zimbabwe, check out more on Victoria Falls and top safari in Walking safari & elephants in the pool in Hwange National Park or see all posts about Zim here.
Have you been to Zimbabwe?