The Hill Complex of the Great Zimbabwe

2 March 2012

On Thursday, Phillip and I caught the 3 pm Africa University shuttle bus into Mutare, had a delicious supper prepared by Maggie Freese at her Waldorf Apartment and slept on the floor in our sleeping bags and air mattresses. After breakfast at 5:30 am, we started the 4.5 hour, 300 mile trip past Mashvingo to The Great Zimbabwe.


"Zi-mba-bwe" is Shona for Big-House-Stone or "The Big House of Stone." It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990 because of its cultural significance. Our guide Phillip lead us on a very informative 3 hours walking tour, first to the Hill Complex (which is here called the King's Mountain) and then to a replica of a village and finally to the Great Enclosure.


The Shona King lived atop the mountain in the background.


The Great Zimbabwe served as the capital of the Shona Kingdom from about 1250 A.D. until about 1500.
At its peak, about 25,000 people lived on the site. Over the years the site was abandoned because
the surrounding countryside could not support the food and water needs of so many occupants.





The King' Mountain with a stacked stone wall
of the lower village in foreground.





Access to the King's Mountain was via narrow passageways
that ascending steeply on one side of the mountain.
There were many check points where guards could drop stones
onto the heads of persons considered threats.





A stacked-stone wall surrounded the King's Palace
atop the King's Mountain.

A tiny opening at the base of the wall forces all who enter
to bow as a sign of respect for the King.





Stacked stone fortification





The round structures atop the fortification wall
is believed to represent a granary and was a symbol
of the wealth of the Shona King. The vertical rock
to the right represents the power of the King.






Inside the King's Palace





View of the countryside from the King's Palace.

The Shona King's wealth was derived from cattle, trading precious
metals (iron, gold, graphite) with Europeans along the coast, and agriculture.

The King was considered a mountain.
The death of a King was announced by saying "The Mountain has fallen."

The next king could be the King's son or brother, and there was
much intrigue and murder in the scramble to assume the throne.






Stone walls were assembled without mortar.
For stability, they were made many meters thick at the base
and tapered toward the top.





A view of the Great Enclosure from the King's Mountain

The Great Enclosure was home to the King's many wives.
One King was known to have more than 200 wives.
Since wives were expensive to purchase (their families had to be
paid a lobola (brides' price), having many wives was a clear
indication of the king's wealth.





The Lower Village to the left of the Great Enclosure





Once inside the main wall atop the King's Mountain,
there were still more checkpoints and narrow passages.





Stacked stone walls incorporated natural boulders at the summit of the King's Mountain.

These walls created chambers and courtyard and further restricted access to the King and his attendants.

The King's sister held the highest adivsory position and could divine the future and was the only person
who could consistently manipulate the King's decisions.










Looming boulder





Granite cliffs and boulder





The land of Zimbabwe is known for its natural
"stones-upon-stones" formations. These are the result
of granitic intrusions which remain after the overlying
earth erodes away. These granitic domes then are exposed,
weather, and crack thereby creating boulders precariously
stacked upon boulders. This geological feature is
common thoughout western Zimbabwe.





From near the summit of the King's Mountain

Abudant rain, good soil, a nearby river, the absence of malaria
and protection and defence afforded by isolated peaks make this site
well suited for the center of a Shona kingdom.





Fortification walls





The construction of the walls evolved during
the occupation of the Great Zimbabwe, with later
walls consisting of more carefully fitted stones.





The first white explorers could not believe that black
Africans were capable of such architecture and there
were many who speculated that the site was constructed
by non-native peoples, including the Phoencians.
Others claimed it was a gift of the Queen of Sheba.
All those hypothesis have been discredited.




Lichens on stones

In some locations, a certain combination of sunlight, temperature,
and moisture allows colorful lichens to thrive on the ancient stone walls.




A low cave was the site of smelting of iron.

Iron smelters were greatly respected and were said to have been
taught their craft by the King. To keep control of the secret,
ironworkers were not allowed to marry and have children. Yet
it was considered a great honor to be an iron smelter.





Ruins behind the King's throne





The smooth boulder (right center) is said to be the throne of the King.
Concentric terraces were arranged below him and
guests were seated in order of their prominence.






From his throne, the King had a view of the Great Enclosure
and could summon a wife to join him on his mountain.
The ruins of many homes are situated in the foregrond.






A chamber behind the throne area

Shona people have a great and abiding respect for their ancestors.
This site is considered sacred even today among many Shona people
who believe the spirits of the ancestors are concentrated here.










A vast amount of gold was kept in a Treasury along
with other precious items obtain in trade and tributes
to the Shona King.










Contrasts in contours





The path to the Water Gate

Water and food had to be hauled up the King's Mountain for the
King's and his consults, guards, and servants. Women
brought firewood and vessels of water from the plain below the mountain.





Boulders and stones




Some portions of the King's Mountain are vertical granite
cliffs which eliminate the need for fortification.

This view shows a replica of a Shona village in the valley below.



Next page of Great Zimbabwe photos: The Village and the Great Enclosure


More photos by GR Davis