Inventions and Discoveries of the 19th Century #2 – Great Zimbabwe

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“Among the gold mines of the inland plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers there is a fortress built of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them…. This edifice is almost surrounded by hills, upon which are others resembling it in the fashioning of stone and the absence of mortar, and one of them is a tower more than 12 fathoms [22 m] high. The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies court.”

So reads the 1531 description of Great Zimbabwe by the Portuguese captain Vincete Pegado who, while never actually visiting this ruined city himself, probably heard of it from Arabian merchants who had seen it. It was not visited by white men until 1867 when the American-German Adam Render came across it during a hunting expedition. A bit of a bounder, Render ditched his wife and children and took up with the daughter of a tribal chief in the vicinity of Great Zimbabwe where he lived for the rest of his life. When the German explorer Karl Mauch came by, Render took him to see the ruins and Mauch, in his excitement, claimed he had found the lost land of Ophir; that biblical source of King Solomon’s wealth and even suggested that the ruined city had been built as a replica of the Queen of Sheba’s palace in Jerusalem. It was around this time that H. Rider Haggard wrote his bestseller King Solomon’s Mines, a novel of high adventure clearly influenced by contemporary theories of Great Zimbabwe.

It turned out that Great Zimbabwe was built long after the time of King Solomon, around the 11th century in fact. The ruins consist of three areas; the Great Enclosure, the Hill Complex and the Valley Complex. These were built at different times and it is still uncertain if each were the product of successive rulers moving their court to new locations or if all three were in use at the same time perhaps fulfilling different functions. A network of narrow passageways has also intrigued archaeologists who postulate that they may have provided separate paths into the complex for different classes of society.

Great Zimbabwe was an impressive trading center dealing mainly in cattle and gold but Chinese pottery and Arabian coins have been found at the site indicating that the center was part of a far-reaching network. The site was abandoned around 1450 AD.

Archaeologists and scholars who directly followed Mauch may have pooh-poohed the idea that Great Zimbabwe was the legendary Ophir, but they were reluctant to believe that the impressive stone architecture could have been built by Africans. Theories put forward by J. Theodore Brent claim Arabian or Phoenician hands and Robert Gayre even suggested that the Lemba people (claimed by some to be of partial Semitic descent) were the real builders. It is the Shona people who are the strongest candidates for the construction of Great Zimbabwe these days, supported by archaeological excavations conducted by David Radall-Maclver in 1905-06. The Shona are a Bantu-speaking people who founded many kingdoms on the Zimbabwe Plateau in the 11th century.

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