One of the great archeological marvels and mysteries of Sub-Saharan Africa is the medieval city of Great Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe is thought to have been the capital of a great African kingdom but little about this kingdom is known. Today Great Zimbabwe is the symbol of the modern nation of Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe is a fantastic country to visit. Visiting Great Zimbabwe can be part of a trip to the unforgettable Victoria Falls on the border with Zambia. While Safaris are world-class in Zimbabwe, one is unlikely to find a safari as cheap and spectacular as Etosha National Park in Namibia.

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History And Significant of Great Zimbabwe

According to National Geographic, Great Zimbabwe was "the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, which was a Shona (Bantu) trading empire. Zimbabwe means “stone houses” in Shona."

The construction of this city dates back to the 9th century (and more notably from the 12th century). It continued to flourish until the 15th century when it was abandoned. It is thought that the stone city could have houses up to 18,000 people at its peak.

  • Designated: UNESCO World Heritage Site Since 1986
  • Located: In South-Eastern Zimbabwe Near The Town of Masvingo

It is thought that Great Zimbabwe was the royal palace for a local monarch and was the seat of power of this lost kingdom. The most prominent features of this city are its walls - some of which tower some 10 to 11 meters high. The walls were constructed of dry stone - without mortar.

Great Zimbabwe was part of a large and wealthy trading network - so much so that archaeologists have found pottery from as far away as Persia and China. Arab coins have also been found among the ruins. The Zimbabwe Empire controlled the trade up and down the east African coastline.

But by the 15th century, the Shona people migrated elsewhere and the city was left abandoned. No one seems to know why the city was abandoned but a couple of the leading contributing explanations include overpopulation and the exhaustion of resources.

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The Archeological Site of Great Zimbabwe

There are a number of sections of the Great Zimbabwe archaeological site - the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure, and the Valley Ruins.

The Hill Complex is the oldest part of the archeological site dating from around 900 AD. These ruins are one the steepest hill at the site and are thought to have been a religious center.

  • Hill Complex: Believed to Have Been The Site's Religious Center and The Oldest Part of The Site

The Great Enclosure is what one will see in most of the pictures of the site. It may have been the residences of king or queen and dates from around the 14th century. The enclosure has formidable walls made of stone without mortar. The circumference is 250 meters or 820 feet.

Inside the first set of walls in the Great Enclosure is the second set of walls that follow the same curve and the outer walls. In the center is a 10 meter or 33 foot high stone tower. Not everyone thinks it was a royal dwelling, some think it could have been a grain storage facility. Whatever it was it is one of the largest ancient structures to be found in Sub-Saharan Africa.

  • Great Enclosure: This Is An Impressive Walled Circular Area Below The Hill Complex (Could Have Been a Royal Residence)

While the Valley Ruins may not be as impressive to visitors (they are the ruins of mud-brick homes), they do indicate a large population. The number of ruins here suggests a population somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people.

  • Valley Ruins: Include a Number of Mosty Mud-Brick Houses Near The Great Enclosure

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Discovery And National Icon Today

The earliest known written reference to the site dated from 1531 and was written by the captain of the Portuguese garrison of Sofala in what is today Mozambique. The first confirmed visit by a European was in the late 19th century.

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Unfortunately, much of the ruins have been looted and damaged by Europeans in the 20th century as they explored the abandoned city. Racist ideas led Europeans to conclude that this great city was too sophisticated for it to have been built by Africans.

Early archeologists were under pressure by the government of (what was then) Rhodesia to conclude that it was not built by African people.

Instead, they postulated that the city was built by non-African people - including a far-flung belief that it was constructed by the ancient Phoenicians.

  • Discovered: The Earliest Known Record Of The Site Is In 1531
  • Zimbabwe: Named After The Site

If one looks at the modern Zimbabwean flag, one will see a soapstone bird sculpture on it. The soapstone bird sculptures were discovered here and are now one of the national symbols of Zimbabwe. They may have had a religious function.

It is called "Great Zimbabwe" to distinguish it from the many (as many as 200) smaller sights around southern Africa called "zimbabwes".

Today anyone can book a tour to see Great Zimbabwe.

Next: White Water Rafting With Crocodiles? If You're Visiting Victoria Falls, You Can Do It, Too