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