The road south out of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, is long and dusty. Our guide, Tsuri, drives my wife and I ever southward in the dawn light, before the African sun reaches its full power. We drive past reclaimed white farms and Shona villages and rounded kopje boulders (Dutch for “little head”) set amid maize fields, past rivers and thorn-clad acacias, past vervet monkeys sitting atop fence posts, past small girls offering honey for sale by the side of the road, past the steady stream of buses shuttling Zimbabwe’s diaspora workers home from South Africa.
Our goal is four hours away, an immense stone city once home to a line of powerful and wealthy kings. Great Zimbabwe, as the site is known, is the largest set of stone ruins in sub-Saharan Africa—so large and intricate that when Europeans first began archaeological investigation, they simply could not believe that the ancestors of the local Shona were the builders.
Instead, they revived a Portuguese legend about the biblical Queen of Sheba commissioning the city as a replica of the palace where she once stayed in Jerusalem. This story—backed by the German rediscoverer of the ruins, Karl Mauch—gained power, for the existence of the ruins was an inconvenient truth for Cecil Rhodes and his white-run colony of Rhodesia.
In 1980, when black rule was achieved after a guerrilla war, the new country looked first to these ruins as a symbol of historic pride and power and adopted its name for the new nation. Zimbabwe, in the Shona language, is a contraction of a phrase meaning “houses of stone.”
Mysterious 10 metre high Conical Tower inside the Great Enclosure. Its purpose is unknown. Photo: Doug Hendrie
These days, the country is slowly recovering from the chaos of the early 2000s, when freedom fighter–turned-despot Robert Mugabe upended an entire society. The valueless Zimbabwean dollar has all but been removed in favor of the sturdier greenback. Starvation is rare now. And tourists are slowly returning.
Great Zimbabwe is set amid an arid landscape, all aloes and thorn trees and dust.
The rains are late this year. When this site was chosen, it was ideal for a rapidly emerging power. There was water and decent soil. There was granite and soapstone—vital for the building effort—and below that soil lay the glitter of gold. Though people had lived in the area since the third century, it was not until about the 11th century that the time was right. As Arab merchants moved southward down the Swahili Coast of East Africa, the kingdom of Zimbabwe grew wealthy through trade. Now it was time to build a capital.
Tsuri leads us through torrents of laughing schoolchildren pouring into their country’s top heritage site and up into the land of ancient kings. My wife points out the first sign of ruins: a high hill, wrapped in dry stone walling. Tsuri takes us on the ancient path upward, the path taken by generations of kings and underlings when they ruled this land. Halfway up, he stops abruptly.
“Here,” Tsuri proclaims. “Turn and see.” And behind us, invisible from below, lies the Great Enclosure, an immense stone circle in the distance that once housed the king’s family—his many wives, his children, his servants. The city itself covered 2.78 square miles. At its peak during the 14th and 15th centuries, the kingdom controlled more than 39,000 square miles.