I am standing arms-akimbo at the southern edge of the Hill Complex at  the ruins of the Great Zimbabwe Monument, squinting into the bright  midday sunshine, marvelling at the full grandeur of the imposing valley  stretching out before me. From this height, five hundred feet above the  valley floor, I absorb the scale and majesty of the Great Enclosure  below: the mediaeval structure that dominates the craggy valley of  savannah grass and scattered mopani trees spreading out against a  backdrop of bare granite hills.
Close up the huge curving stone wall on the northern face of the Great  Enclosure is, in the literal sense, awe-inspiring and overpowering. When  wandering behind it at ground level, I feel as though I am in a  labyrinth, but from high up I can see its elegant elliptical sweep and  wonder at the builders’ grand plan. Over the whole complex there is not a  straight wall or a corner to be seen, nor is there any sign of mortar  holding it all together. A clump of sturdy mopani trees dominates the  eastern quadrant, reaching above the wall and shading the Conical Tower,  the twelve feet tall monument that was the heart of what was surely, in  the medieval times when it was built, a temple fit for royalty.
I turn to my companion David Mukiwa, and unleashing my inner Englishman,  comment on the weather. It is one of those life-affirming spring days  on the African highveld: clear blue sky, warming sun, not its harsh  summer version.
‘Wonderful weather, old chap’.
David smiles and says with exaggerated mockery: ‘Indeed. It is common  knowledge that Zimbabwe has the best climate in the world.’
David is my local fixer; my Zimbabwean guide; he organises my trip,  roots out people to speak to and translates when needed. He is well  educated, methodical and friendly, and most importantly, has a fine  sense of humour. I’m lucky to have him, which I do because there are too  few jobs in his beleaguered country these days.

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The Elliptical Wall of the Great Enclosure seen from the Hill Complex

Most of the valley’s browning, parched grass is cut so as to allow  tourists to meander and avoid stepping on any sluggish puff adders  emerging from winter hibernation to soak up some sun. The short grass  exposes grey slabs of granite rock that those ancient builders had  whittled down to ground level by ingenious alternative use of fire and  water that stripped layer after layer for breaking up into the bricks  making up the mortar-less walls that have survived for more than half a  millennium. These ancients must have been some builders to fashion  masonry of such quality in the walls of the Great Enclosure and those  that cleave to the cliff edge of the hilltop that contains the Hill  Complex, known variously in the past as the Hill ruin, the Acropolis,  the Hill Fortress, or recently Zimbabwe Hill. Evidence suggests this is  where Great Zimbabwe started; the Hill Complex is quite a few years  older than the structures in the valley. It has been built more like a  fortified castle than the elegant Great Enclosure in the valley. It sits  on the largest hill in the district with uninterrupted 360-degree views  from several wall-enclosed ledges.
The Hill Complex is 220 feet long – east to west – and 150 feet wide;  not too far off the size of a regulation football field. It is made up  of two enclosures, a larger one to the west and a smaller one to the  east. The Western Enclosure, sometimes known as the Royal Enclosure, is  the grander one, in fact one scientist has labelled it the Palace: its  western edge is bounded by the largest wall on the Hill, topped with  conical turrets and solid rock monoliths. These monoliths are described  by the modern day Shona people in the area as ‘the horns of the king’:  much like a bull protects his herd with his horns, so a king protects  his people with the spears of his army. The wall is a remarkable feat of  middle ages’ engineering, standing as it does on several uneven but  smooth granite boulders. The original builders introduced wall breaks to  prevent the wall from sliding down the granite slopes. Within this  enclosure excavations have revealed nine to fifteen feet of layers of  hut floors, suggesting it was continuously occupied for quite some time,  while being regularly renewed.
The south wall of this Palace, facing the Great Enclosure below, is  built on a 75-feet high smooth granite rock precipice. The wall is a  touch under 30 feet high though its base is just twelve feet wide. It  tapers to the top. The walls tend to be free standing, butting up  against each other and against granite boulders. Unlike European  architecture of the time, there are no arches, or buttresses. And, I  might have already said this, but remarkably there is no mortar holding  these brick-shaped granite stones in place.
In most of the enclosures on the Hill, the walls incorporate naturally  occurring granite boulders, nudging up next to and over the top of them,  thus making use of and creating a close connection with the landscape,  of which the boulders in particular are seen as sacred in local culture.  The dry stone walls up here on the Hill and in the valley below have  been described as the skeleton of the monument. Apparently, the flesh  was the long-gone dwelling structures made of clay or dhaka. Very few of  these originals remain above ground now. But when the Hill Complex was  ‘discovered’ by Western adventurers 150 years ago the Palace had moulded  dhaka platforms, benches and internal walls. They were largely  destroyed in 1915 by the site managers in the mistaken belief that their  weight would make the dry stone walls unstable. As if, after 500 years!
The Palace is at once inspiring and scrappy. That men could have built  in such circumstances and in such a way – no mortar, perched seemingly  precariously on the edge of a smooth, rounded cliff edge -, and yet it  is now over 600 years old is humbling. But it is scrappy too because  there is no apparent built floor intact, tufts of grass grow here and  there, some internal walls are falling apart. It is like the unkempt  back yard of a stately home. Of course, there is very little of the  original feel left here now. Huts, perhaps with colourful walls  decorated with patterns of yellow and red ochre, that were once dotted  around have long since been whittled away by rain and wind. There were  once majestic Zimbabwe bird statuettes adorning the walls and perhaps  the king’s private altar in the Palace. There were probably more  internal walls.
But I and countless others have been prepared for something special  because of the slog one has getting up the hill along the steep Ancient  Ascent and because of the squeeze through the narrow entrance bounded by  the granite boulder on one side and constructed wall on the other. The  Palace is entered through a lintelled entrance, probably the finest  piece of construction work on the site, and the only original stone  lintel now remaining. There are actually three entrances to the Palace.  One an easier ascent to the west; the other a protected passage that  connected the Palace to what may well have been the wives’ living  quarters in the valley below, and the easier Modern Ascent. Cattle were  also kept up here as symbols of the king’s wealth and prestige. They  must have made their way along the gentler Western route.

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The eastern wall of the Palace bordering the Eastern Enclosure

The adjacent Eastern Enclosure is smaller and with fewer internal  nooks. It is sometimes called the Sacred Enclosure, because of the  assumption that many rituals and sacraments were played out here. It is  perhaps analogous to castles in Europe where a chapel was attached to a  royal residence, but one where the sacred rituals under the auspices of  the monarch were a central element in popular support.
Archaeologists have discovered that the thicker walls, particularly  those that look so immaculate on the outside in the valley, are filled  internally with what we might call builders’ rubble, though it appears  to be deliberately packed rather than haphazardly dumped.
Elsewhere around the valley the masonry is less accomplished. Many of  the short walls that snake around the valley have crumbled and the  bricks in those that remain intact don’t fit as neatly together. These  areas were probably not inhabited by the royals, more likely by servants  to the court and the king’s praetorian guard, or perhaps lesser nobles.
The valley is tranquil, because, unusually for Africa, there are so few  people about. I can see three small groups of tourists wandering around  in the distance down below, stopping often to gaze at the walls,  sometimes to run their hands over them or take photos of each other in  an entrance buttressed by a sturdy flat rock lintel, though probably  unaware that this lintel is not original.
I have seen this view every day since I arrived from London via Harare  and nearby Masvingo a week ago. I have already taken many photos, yet I  take several more shots, hoping that one will somehow capture the  mystery and aura in two dimensions. It doesn’t, of course.
The ruins of Zimbabwe, now grandly called The Great Zimbabwe National  Monument, are World Heritage Listed, regularly monitored by the United  Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s  International Council on Monument and Sites, based in Paris. It has, in  other words, grabbed the world’s attention. But it retains its charm and  mystery because it is isolated and perhaps because it is in the deeply  troubled nation of Zimbabwe. So many of the other World Heritage Listed  sites are overrun by people.
David tells me that at its tourist peak, in the twelve months between  the beginning of July 1998 and the end of June 1999, before events  turned nasty in Zimbabwe, just over 150,000 people paid a visit, which,  as the Monument is closed to the public over the weekend, works out at  just under 500 everyday.
‘Since then evidently many people no longer feel it’s worth the hassle  of a visit. Just over 58,000 came through the turnstile in 2014, less  than 200 on each weekday, spread over the opening hours of 8 a.m. to 5  p.m.’
At any one time many or indeed most of these people will be behind a  wall, giving the impression that it’s just me and a couple of friends  and neighbours wandering around. By contrast, I have shuffled along in  double file behind countless others on the Acropolis in Athens, where  the authorities say one million people come to visit each year.
When Great Zimbabwe was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1986, the  International Council on Monument and Sites said that it was one of the  most important archaeological sites in the whole of Africa and that  there was still much to be known about it. It recommended further  studies be undertaken to improve preservation and to discover more about  its mystical origin. Yet money, a shortage thereof, and politics mean  that still, today, only two per cent of the 1,900-acre site has been  excavated. There may be much still be discovered about the ruins and  heritage of Great Zimbabwe, though perhaps this will be only filling in  details. We already know that in some areas complete walls have been  removed and much else has been destroyed.
I am trying to imagine life in Great Zimbabwe five hundred years ago:  not some sort of broad-brush generalisation, but the detail of it. It is  reckoned that a mighty king ruled a vast kingdom maybe stretching over  much of present day Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Where did he spend his  days? Where did he sit? Who would have been with him? What rituals did  he observe? What did he do for sport? Where did his many, many wives –  perhaps 300 of them – live? What would they be wearing, these  chatelaines of a rich African empire, the first of such a scale south of  the Sahara?
As an Englishman, I have grown up on a steady diet of television  interpretations of the life and times of the medieval monarchs of  England. All the imagining has been done for me. Not so for Great  Zimbabwe: there is a void that I must fill for myself.

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The ancient ascent

This is the first chapter of The Ghosts of Great Zimbabwe: An Imagined Journey

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