Great Zimbabwe: The ‘Machu Picchu of Africa’ is an ancient site of mystery and misrepresentation

During one of his expeditions in the Zimbabwe highlands in 1867, Adam Render, a German-American hunter, found something astonishing. He saw a great structure that looked like a fortified city, surrounded by an array of hulking rocks in a barren landscape.

He marvelled at the magnificent ancient city before him. The walls flowed along the contours of curved grounds with nothing but gravity and architectural precision to keep them in place.

It was Great Zimbabwe, in its heydey the second largest city in Africa. More recently, it has been called the Machu Picchu of Africa, in part due to the mystery that surrounds the structure and why its inhabitants abandoned it. In 1986, it was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Render wasn’t the first European to “discover” this place. More than 300 years earlier, several Portuguese sailors couldn’t believe that the native Shona people had built the city themselves, arguing that it must be the work of the devil. Since then, debates have continued about who had really built this magnificent city.

In 1871, German explorer Karl Mauch believed that the ruins were the remnants of the lost biblical city of Ophir, where the gold mined by the Queen of Sheba for King Solomon originated. At that time, few believed that Africans would have the sophistication required to build such a city.

The white minority government of Southern Africa at that time didn’t help with defending the indigenous community. But the indigenous Shonas are now ensuring that the truth of their ancestors is preserved and passed on to future generations.

The Hill Ruin of Great Zimbabwe (Photo: Christian Ender/Getty)

I had watched several documentaries and read much about Great Zimbabwe before embarking on a journey to see it for real. These days it is close to the southeastern city of Masvingo, the Shona word for “fort”.

I was staying south of Masvingo at the Lodge at the Ancient City, which has been built around a granite outcrop similar in style to Great Zimbabwe, and from where you can reach the ruins at dawn, a few miles west. The Lodge has stunning views across the valley of Msasa towards the ancient city, its décor inspired by its royal dwellings.

Accompanied by guide Lovemore Mwayiyana, I set off on a two-hour hike to learn more about the citadel. From below, the Hill Ruin looked like a towering mountain and signposts warning of falling rocks, didn’t exactly quell my fear of heights.

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“The word Zimbabwe is a Shona word meaning house of stone and it is where our country got its name from” explained Lovemore. “There are a few individual houses here in the ancient city that have survived exposure to the elements over the centuries.”

He went on to tell me that excavations have revealed interior furnishings such as pot-stands, elevated surfaces for sleeping and sitting, as well as hearths that belonged to the Shonas who lived in the city at that time.

The Hill Ruin is thought to date from the 11th century, and encompasses a cave that still remains a sacred site for the Shonas. It was once the residence of the ruler and his family, its 30ft walls and bordered by cylindrical towers and monoliths that were once carved with elaborate geometric patterns.

Beyond the Hill Ruin are the Great Enclosure and the Valley Ruins. It is thought that the Enclosure was constructed to accommodate the expanding population although some argue that it was a site for religious rituals.

Some of the well-preserved walls (Photo: Robin Smith/Getty)
Some of the well-preserved walls (Photo: Robin Smith/Getty)

The Valley of Ruins shows evidence of the existence of commercial exchange and long distance trade in the region. Porcelain fragments thought to have originated from China, beads from South Asia and copper ingots from neighbours in the Central African Kingdom and the Zambezi River have been unearthed by archaeologists here.

“Great Zimbabwe is unique, so some visit out of interest of African ancient civilisations. To others, it is a shrine – coming to Great Zimbabwe is connecting to their ancestors,” explained Lovemore.

He is passionate about promoting a better understanding of the ancient city. “People find it hard to believe that Great Zimbabwe was an African civilisation, due to the common belief that the indigenous communities were illiterate at the time. They believed that such architecturally impressive structures could not have been built by such communities without having been schooled in engineering and architecture,” he said.

Another guide, Blessing Masenga who runs Bushmen Safaris and was born in Masvingo, is similarly devoted to preserving the ruins’ history. “These ruins are very important to Zimbabweans because this is where our history comes from.”

Another Masvingo-based guide Ernest Mlambo recalled a school trip to Great Zimbabwe: “We were supposed to sleep in school and the teachers would wake us up early to see visions of milking cows, grains being pounded and daily life in the village. At about sunrise, everything would disappear.

“In our language we call it madzangarazimu which means ‘visions of things that used to happen long time ago’” he told me. He believes the visions are messages from their ancestors to keep the memory of the great city alive.

Conical tower ruins (Photo: Christian Ender/Getty)
Conical tower ruins (Photo: Christian Ender/Getty)

“These stories have been told since way back by our elders, about this great city and how life was it was abandoned in the 15th century,” he added.

Theories point to the decline of trade, exhaustion of gold mines, political instability, food and water shortages as reasons for the kingdom’s decline. However, custodians such as Lovemore, Blessing and Ernest are ensuring that the history of Great Zimbabwe and the achievements of the Shona are safeguarded and that all who come to see the magnificent structure understand its significance.

Lodge at the Ancient City has double rooms from $180 (£150).

Admission to Great Zimbabwe costs $15 (£13).

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