Every civilization gives what it gives. The one in Zimbabwe has had better days for a long time.
We woke up in Masvingo excited about fulfilling a dream of several years. The driver of the Stalion Hotel tells us that we are supposed to pick up a guide from ZTA, the national tourism authority. When we left, there was no breakfast in the hotel.
Zimbabwe's Civilizational Troubles
We took advantage of the fact that ZTA's local offices were next to a supermarket to overcome the absolute chaos in which the country's economy was going, make some purchases and break our fast. We arrived at the box. Once again, they do not accept the US dollar bills with which we want to pay.
They are prior to 2009 and there is an epidemic of this counterfeit cash. The oldest notes are the most copied.
We pay in euros and receive part of the change in dollars, another part in bonds, a financial trick with which the Harare government sought to contain the increasingly atrocious inflation. The purchases turned out to be so complicated that when we walked out to the parking lot, the driver and Dani had been waiting for us for ten minutes.
We introduced ourselves to the young hostess, settled in the back seat. We head south towards Lake Mutirikwi and the Great Zimbabwe National Monument, one of the most regarded monuments in Zimbabwe.
The magical and enigmatic place that inspired the name of the independent nation, long troubled, that emerged after the bloody Bush War, the civil war that, from 1964 to 1979, pitted two liberation movements (later rivals as well) against white government oppressor of Rhodesia.
Return to the Great Zimbabwe of Bygone Times
We turn off the main road into an alley lined with trees much wider and greener than the vegetation of the surrounding hillside savannah. Dani, take us to the reception building. There awaits us Philip, the young resident guide of the complex. Philip and Dani had known each other for some time.
In the good manner of the Xona and Southern Africans in general, Philip immediately opens an intense session of flirting and flirting with Dani that would only end with the end of the visit.
The host leads the way. It takes us along a steep path that, sometimes wedged between huge polished granite boulders, led to the top of the hill complex, one of the monument's architectural complexes. Unaccustomed to walking, Nadia gasps and complains about the roughness of the route. When it's time to climb to the dizzying top of the fortress, he insists on waiting at its base.
It didn't take long to realize that the privileged view was worth all the effort of the ascent, soon after climbing.
Below, the deepest furrow of a valley spread. Onward, a verdant slope dotted with large boulders. At the already somewhat sloping foothills of this slope stood out the fulcrum of an old round fortress, surrounded by vestiges of what would have been outer walls, in higher times, now adorned by acacias and a colony of excelent aloe haughty.
Mysterious and Exceptional Structures
Philip gives us some of the many historical explanations we needed. When he detects the first of our successive breaks for photography, he intersperses his speech with new processions to Dani who remained at the foot of the great rocks we had conquered, giving her smartphone a finger.
As the name implied, Greater Zimbabwe was the largest of several Zimbabwean (complexes of ruins) scattered across that vast South African plateau.
Not only was it the largest, but it continues to be considered the largest medieval city in all of sub-Saharan Africa, with walls reaching 11 meters high, 250 meters long, made up only of worked stones and piled up, without any mortar.
Despite its impressive size and the obvious power and influence of the civilization that built it, its origin and authorship remains the subject of heated controversy.
The fact that the people who built it did not use written communication meant that testimonies or graphic records were never found.
Those that exist date back to the XNUMXth century, such as those left by Portuguese explorers who began to venture to those parts, coming from the neighboring Portuguese colony of Mozambique.
The Center of a Prolific Fountain of Gold
Greater Zimbabwe is believed to have been erected over the years between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries by the Gokomere (bantus) ascendants of the Xona civilization (Zimbabwe: dzimba = houses and Mabwe = stones is, by the way, a xona term), the predominant ethnicity in the current Zimbabwean nation.
At one point, the city occupied an area of around 80 hectares. It assumed such an impressive size and importance that, during the Middle Ages, it became notorious in Africa, around the Red Sea – from where Arab merchants arrived – and, moreover, also among European explorers.
Archaeological excavations there have revealed gold and coins from Kilwa, a sultanate in the vicinity of Zanzibar. Also beads and porcelain from China.
The most widespread explanation for the emergence of Greater Zimbabwe centers on the abundance of gold and ivory in the region, which justified the aggrandizement of the kingdom that held those lands, the construction of a throne-fortress at the height of royalty and the protection of the veins that enriched her.
At its zenith, it was inhabited by almost 20.000 inhabitants, the humblest ones housed in conical huts with thatched roofs. After a long time exploring the details of the acropolis of the hill complex, the oldest, we return to its base.
Great Surrounding, the heart of the “low” Great Zimbabwe
Then, we took the trail that led to the valley complex that we had seen from a distance, and then to the elliptical Grande Cercado.
We get close to the aloe colony and its euphorbian rivals (muhondes, in Xona dialect), both spread in an area of preambular walls, rounded but worn by time, which now look more like flowerbeds.
A few meters above, we were dazzled by the towering grandeur of the great wall. the hearts of some zeyheri mimusops ancestors seem to peer at us from the top of a stone fence that has been partly tinged yellow by a dense forest of opportunistic lichens. Philip approaches an almost rare outer wall.
Its human smallness helps us to value the civilizational heritage that we were fortunate to appreciate. We didn't take long to move inland.
The Great Enclosure was built during the XNUMXth century in granite blocks. It protected a number of family quarters for families closer to royalty. Their huts were made of granite sand bricks and clay.
They shared a communal area and a connection to a tiny passage that led to a ten-meter conical tower leaning against the wall, still today in the shade of the huge trees that sprout there.
It is not known for sure what its function was. The two most popular theories are quite at variance. One claims to have been a grain reservoir. The other a phallic symbol.
In the town's glory days, the remaining subjects resided in the adjoining valley. They raised cattle, cultivated cereals and tubers. They carried out the gold trade with merchants who arrived mainly from the coast of the Indian Ocean.
Philip tells us that eight soapstone sculptures were found in nearby areas, resting on columns, which depicted figures that combined birds with human features – lips instead of beaks and feet with five fingers. They would be symbols of real power.
Accordingly, after independence in April 1980, they were adopted as a symbol of the new Zimbabwean nation.
From Zenith to Abandonment Witnessed by Portuguese Explorers
But as it emerged, Greater Zimbabwe faded away. In the early XNUMXth century, Portuguese explorers began to venture into the interior of Mozambique in search of riches. The tales of the abundance of gold took us to the old city stops.
In 1506, Diogo de Alcáçova even described the place in a letter he sent to King Dom Manuel as part of such a kingdom of Ucalanga.
In 1531, Vicente Pegado, captain of the Sofala garrison, already described the place as a legacy to the time. By 1450, Greater Zimbabwe is believed to have been abandoned. The lack of written records of the Xona people's background makes it impossible for us to know for sure.
Among the most reliable explanations are the fact that the gold in the mines has run out and has led to a sharp decline in the relevance of the place where, at the same time, the abundant population will have also found themselves in serious difficulties to obtain food in the surrounding region, increasingly deforested.
It is known that when the situation became really serious, an emissary, Nyatsimba Mutota, was sent north in search of sources of salt that would preserve the meat. The urgent abandonment of Greater Zimbabwe, will have favored Khami, a rival and competitor state, today ruins of the Great Zimbabwe genre, albeit without its magnificence.
Later, the Portuguese historian João de Barros, referred to a Mutapa empire that succeeded that of Zimbabwe, with the capital in a different place where the stones that made the construction of Greater Zimbabwe viable did not exist.
Explanations That Don't Mitigate the Enigma
As always in these cases, the more scientists, scholars and treasure looters arrive, the more theories and certainties emerge. In 1871 Karl Mauch, a German explorer and cartographer saw the ruins for the first time.
He didn't wait long to associate them with King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, as other scholars such as the Portuguese writer João dos Santos had already done. This interpretation spread among the white settler community in Africa. It opened a series of others.
Sponsored by Cecil Rhodes, the determined and self-centered mentor of Rhodesia, J. Theodore Bent spent a stint in the ruins, after which he published "The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland".
In his work, he argued that the city was built either by the Phoenicians or by the Arabs. It instigated the prejudice of the racist and pro-apartheid Rhodesian government (and population) that they could never have been built by black people.
The Zimbabwean authorities have always rejected these postulations – and similar ones – which sought to discredit such a remarkable civilization from their predecessors. As a way to liven up the place and illustrate the Xona past, they keep a replica of a Xona village that we found a short distance north of the Grande Fenced.
Its inhabitants show us the prolific craftsmanship of the community. And they show us traditional dances with as much effort as possible, bearing in mind that they do it from sunrise to sunset, whenever new strangers pass by.
We watched the show with the interest it deserved, if only because of its probable descent from the authors of Greater Zimbabwe.
Then we said goodbye to Philip. We leave you to the routine of waiting for visitors to offer your services. And, to the ruins, to the many uncertainties of Zimbabwean history to be cleared up.
More information about Greater Zimbabwe on the corresponding page of UNESCO.