Zimbabwe – Been There

The ancient African city lost in legend

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe date back to  the 11th century and once housed at least 10,000 people. "Zimbabwe" means "House of Stones" and this one was called "Great" to distinguish it from the 200 other smaller such complexes in the region. When the black majority took over the former Rhodesia in 1980, they adopted the name for their new country.

Photo by I Van der Harst / Alamy

Zimbabwe – Been There

The ancient African city lost in legend

The abandoned ancient city of Great Zimbabwe not only gave Zimbabwe its name, and the bird emblem for its flag, but also symbolizes its strength. For, no matter how many troubles the country goes through, it somehow survives.

Arne Doornebal
Arne Doornebal Journalist

“The King used to live in this hill complex,” says Linda, who is showing me around Great Zimbabwe. We follow some narrow steps that lead to the top of the hill, barely fitting between the rocks and the high, meticulously made walls, the countless layers of stones fitting together without mortar. It makes me feel very insignificant and think how easy it must have been to defend this hilltop, when such a narrow entrance permitted only one person at the time.

“The kingdom was rich and traded tons of gold,” she says. “When Great Zimbabwe flourished the number of people who lived here is thought to have been as many as 25,000 – the largest settlement in sub-Saharan Africa.” Construction started in about 1150 and carried on for four centuries until the complex was abandoned.

In the distance, a massive conical tower also rises into the sky. It is thought to have been even higher before the top collapsed sometime in the centuries since. Even so, when I raise my arms and jump as high as I can, I am not even near a quarter of its height. “It was either a symbol of power and prosperity, or a watchtower,” Linda says.

The fact is, we still know very little about this city, wreathed in legends of lost European tribes when colonial explorers refused to believe an African civilization could have built it. Portuguese trader Joao de Barros, writing in 1552, says: “When, and by whom, these edifices were raised ... the people of the land are ignorant of the art of writing and there is no record, but they say they are the work of the devil, for in comparison of their power and knowledge it does not seem possible to them that they should be the work of man.”