See the ancient ruins that gave Zimbabwe its name, a city of such size and sophistication that Europeans tried to deny that that black men had built it.
Zimbabwe is a country awash in natural beauty and wildlife, but at least one of its greatest historic treasures is man-made.
I’m old enough to remember when this nation cast off the name Rhodesia — the name imposed upon it by gold-hungry British colonists — and adopted the name Zimbabwe. But I never knew where the name had come from.
Now, I know. It came from this place. An ancient city of nearly 2,000 acres, with a population that may have been as large of 18,000, built by the Shona people.
It was first built some time around 1200. The country whose adventurers would later colonize this land didn’t even exist yet.
Five hundred years before there was a Great Britain, there was Great Zimbabwe.
The name “Zimbabwe” is believed to be derived from a Shona word meaning “houses of stone.” It was called “Great Zimbabwe” to disinguish it from the many smaller stone settlements that dotted the region, in modern-day Zimbabwe and beyond.
This city stood for 300 years, a city of stone walls and high towers, held together without mortar, built with such skill and sophistication that those same colonists were uncomfortable acknowledging that black men had built it.
In later years, long after Great Zimbabwe had been abandoned and fallen into ruin, the racist white government of what was then Rhodesia made denial of Great Zimbabwe’s black African origins a matter of national policy.
Ian Smith, who led the creation of a white supremacist government in Rhodesia, went so far as to commission a fake history of Great Zimbabwe to make it a creation of whites.
That policy is gone now, as are Smith and his government. And when the country’s new rulers looked about for a new name for this ancient land, they didn’t have far to look.
Today, Great Zimbabwe is a UN World Heritage Site. It has survived centuries of weather, neglect and ill-advised attempts at excavation — not to mention official denial.
This historic site gave the country more than its name. The ancient bird found on the national flag is based on soapstone carvings found at Great Zimbabwe, like the one pictured above.
Ancient ruins like this are a natural draw for anyone with an interest in history or anthropology in general, or just a curiosity about life in the Mother Continent before the European colonists got hold of it.
Do you enjoy a good mystery? You’ll find a good one here. Who were the people who built this place? We don’t have much specific information about them. What caused them eventually to abandon it, long before the Europeans came? We don’t really know that, either.
When I look at a place like Great Zimbabwe, I see neither ruins nor mystery. I see what black men are capable of when we focus our creative energy on a positive purpose.
When I look at Great Zimbabwe, I don’t see a lost past. I see a shining future, waiting for us to reach for it.
What will you see when you visit Great Zimbabwe?
IF YOU GO
Great Zimbabwe is located outside the town of Masvingo, 182 miles south of Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare. It’s about a four-hour drive down Highway A4.
There is lodging nearby, including the Great Zimbabwe Hotel, and several tour companies conduct tours or safaris that include a visit to the ruins.
NEXT: The urban side of Zimbabwe