Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe zĭmbäbˈwā [key] [Bantu,=stone houses], ruined city, SE Zimbabwe, near Masvingo (formerly Fort Victoria). Its mortarless, curving granite walls and buildings were constructed in 11th–15th cent. by an African people or peoples, most likely the Shona. The city was an influential regional center with a population ranging from 10,000 to as much as 20,000, located on trade routes that reached to the Mozambique coast. The remaining ruins include the Hill Complex, the oldest portion, whose stone walls incorporate boulders; the Great Enclosure, the outer stone walls of which rise as much as 36 ft (11 m); and the Valley Complex, which is marked by the remains of mud-brick dwellings, the most recent of which date to the 19th cent. Mud-brick structural remains are also found in the Hill Complex and Great Enclosure. The granite walls were once richly decorated with stone carvings and gold and copper ornaments.

Archaeological evidence indicates that the site was first occupied by Iron Age peoples in the 3d cent. It was abandoned sometime thereafter until it was reoccupied in the late 9th cent. or early 10th cent. After Great Zimbabwe was discovered by European explorers c.1870 (there may have been Portuguese visitors as early as the 16th cent.), some Europeans asserted it was the biblical Ophir, where King Solomon had his mines. Others assigned its construction to Greeks, Phoenicians, Arabs, Chinese, Persians, or other non-African peoples. From 1890 to 1900 some 100,000 gold mining claims—all barren—were staked out there, and the ruins were extensively plundered by Europeans in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

See G. Caton-Thompson, The Zimbabwe Culture (1970).

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