Great Zimbabwe National Monument

Overview

Introduction

Great Zimbabwe is, quite simply, the most extensive and best-preserved ruins anywhere in Africa south of the Sahara Desert. The ancient African kingdom of Munhumatapa built the series of stone complexes. The 10,000 people who prospered there in the 13th-15th centuries had impressive skills: They built three distinct complexes, using very basic tools and no mortar. Great Zimbabwe is all curved stone walls, huge enclosures and cylindrical structures. The ruins were once inhabited by ancestors of the Karanga subgroup of the Shona people, and what remains was once part of a fortified capital. Walls as thick as 18 ft/6 m at the base and as high as 24 ft/8 m are in almost perfect condition. We strongly recommend hiring a local guide, which can be done at the on-site office, to put it all into proper perspective. Without knowing about the civilization and the purposes of the various areas, it's easy to overlook important details of the construction—there's little left in the way of ornamentation.

We suggest that you start your tour with the Hill Complex while you still have the enthusiasm and vigor for the climb—begin before the day gets too hot. End with the most impressive area, the Great Enclosure (be sure to walk behind it to see the design along the top of the outside wall). Don't forget to visit the on-site museum—it helps put everything together. Highlights of the museum include pottery from China and India (suggesting trade with coastal Arabs and Portuguese) and marvelous green soapstone carvings of birds, which have become the symbol of Zimbabwe (the images are on everything from the flag to the currency). If time permits, visit the adjacent Karanga Village exhibit, which features a full-scale replica of a 19th-century tribal settlement. Some local craftspeople work there and sell their wares. The closest town is Masvingo, about 18 mi/30 km away. The ruins are 180 mi/290 km south of Harare.

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