Great Zimbabwe: Largest Sub-Saharian Pre-Colonial Structure

After relaxing for a day at the Ancient City Lodge, I went to visit the Great Zimbabwe Monument site. I had reserved in advance an archaeologist as a guide.

OVERVIEW:

Hill Enclosure
Valley Enclosures
Great Enclosure
Museum
References

HILL ENCLOSURE:

Arriving at the Hill Enclosure, one passes through what was probably an ancient guard station

Climb uphill passing through narrow passages between boulders where defenders could have thrown boulders onto invaders to prevent entry and protect city

At summit, enter past double walls into a clearing where the king’s huts were built (one on top of another over time, possibly demolished as each king died, with new hut built on remains of the old, ending up with the stratified layers several meters deep excavated by archaeologists)

King’s platform short climb above the clearing. Thought to be the chikuva of the Hill Enclosure. A chikuva is traditionally a part of the kitchen far from the entrance where people pray to spirits for protection or good fortune. When a person dies, their relatives lay their body overnight in the chikuva before burial.

One of the famous Great Zimbabwe birds was found in the chikuva, representing what is probably an eagle of as yet unknown species.

Next comes what was probably the homesteads of the king’s closest and most prestigious advisors.

The Recessed Enclosure, named after the recesses in its far wall, is thought to have been the home of the spirit mediums.

A short walk on a downhill path brings you to the Cave where ore was likely stored and where the spiritual leadership likely prepared for rituals. Also, the cave acts as a natural megaphone for communicating messages to the Valley Enclosures and Great Enclosure far below.

Walking uphill along another nearby path, one reaches the Furnace Enclosure used for ore smelting, including iron and possibly gold work.

A bit further uphill is the Ritual Enclosure or Sacred Enclosure. Six birds were found there, then stolen in the late 19th century by a European archaeologist.

Many of the birds have toes that look like human toes.

There were at least two platforms within the Ritual Enclosure, one on each side. Probably two of the birds rested on each platform, facing inwards toward the people sitting around the edge at the rear (downhill side of the enclosure). The king’s advisers and the diviners likely sat on platforms arranged upward on the hill. The king likely presided over the rituals seated on top of a large boulder well above everyone else, a small wall seen on the left side when facing him, probably accompanied by guards.

The ritual likely consisted of drinking beer, chanting, clapping, and dancing until sweaty, which produced states of possession by the spirits.

According to Matenga, three cows were sacrificed: one for the crowd, a second for the spirits, and a third carcass taken to the jungle for the spirit lions. If the carcass was found eaten the next day, it meant the spirits were pleased; otherwise, additional measures might have to be taken to appease the spirits.

Sometimes the purpose of the ritual was to dance for rain.

King’s lineage passed from older to younger brother starting with first wife, then second wife, etc. King usually had over 200 wives living in Valley Enclosures. Continued on to sons if all brothers had served as King.

VALLEY ENCLOSURES:

Thought to be where the king’s wives lived in about 50 households with two to three wives per household.

Judicial court for commoners in one field with appeal only rarely to “supreme court? of King’s council.

Also the location of an enclosure where imported treasures were found, called the Royal Treasury.

GREAT ENCLOSURE:

Theories:

First wife of king may have lived there
Maybe a school of initiation and ethics there
Evidence includes phallic objects found there and a decorated beam with crocodile and other symbols
Children’s play area near front entrance(s)?
OR perhaps the (last?) king shifted residence from the Hill Enclosure to the Great Enclosure

The enclosure has the shape of a womb

The outer and most recent wall of the Great Enclosure curves around like a python biting its tail with the earliest construction at the lower end of the tail and later construction toward the head, including the layer of chevron decoration over the newer part of the outer wall.

MUSEUM:

Power was out at the museum, but luckily I had brought a torch. No pictures allowed. 🙁

Exhibits as far as I remember included:

History of Great Zimbabwe
Models of Enclosures
Crops: sorghum, millet, and one other
Tools: adze, spears, etc.
The Zimbabwe Birds (the piece de resistance!)
The Forge
Cotton and Textiles – Weaving
Trans-Continental Trade
Zoomorphic stool (said to walk around to fetch water on command of magician)

REFERENCES:

Provided by guide:

Hall, Martin. Farming Communities.

Hoffman, Thomas. Snakes and Crocodiles.

Hoffman, Thomas. Symbols of a Nation: Unveiling the Mysteries of Great Zimbabwe.

Matenga, Edward. Bird book (which I purchased there)

Garlake, Peter. Many books.

Mudhenge, Stan. Political History of Munhumutapa.

Pikirai, Innocent. The Archaeology of the Mutapa Empire.

Thanks to Senior Tour Guide Francis Muchemwa, Great Zimbabwe World Heritage Site, P.O. Box 1000, Masvingo, Zimbabwe, tel. +263 039 265084 or 262080, mobile 011 760824, email francismuchemwa@yahoo.com (send copy of book)

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