Great Zimbabwe

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Great Zimbabwe

Type of Government

Great Zimbabwe was the first significant empire to emerge in South Africa. Named after the immense granite complex that served as its center of power, Great Zimbabwe was ruled by a hereditary monarchy of Shona elite who reached the peak of their power and influence in the mid-fifteenth century. Its ruler governed with the help of a court comprising family members along with military and religious advisors, while distant regions were ruled by governors appointed by the king.


The Great Zimbabwe empire controlled the Zimbabwean plateau situated between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. Inhabited as far back as one hundred thousand years ago, the first ethnically identifiable humans in this area were probably the San, who later migrated to the Kalahari Desert. Around AD 500 the Gokomere began settling in the region. These Bantu-speaking farmers and pastoralists (livestock herders) are the ancestors of the Shona, and their society began to flourish thanks to trade contacts made with communities to the east, through what is present-day Mozambique and up the Indian Ocean coastline. The traders there were also Bantu, but were Muslim and spoke Swahili as a common language, which helped facilitate trade with Great Zimbabwe and several other East African peoples. The Indian Ocean trade dated back to the first century AD, and the network ran from this part of South Africa north to ports on the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and as far east as India’s Bay of Bengal.

Like other early political entities in sub-Saharan Africa, Great Zimbabwe seemed to have arisen thanks to the control it secured over one of the plentiful natural resources of the region. In this case, gold found in the main rivers was its most valuable trading commodity, but it also mined copper and traded in ivory tusks. As the population grew, the Shonas’ agricultural techniques and cattle-breeding skills helped sustain it.

Government Structure

The hereditary monarchy that ruled Great Zimbabwe for several hundred years was based in the massive stone complex of the same name, which extends over some two hundred acres. Archaeologists date its earliest structures to around 1000. The most elaborate structures are known as drystone—a type of mortarless construction that required great skill—using the plentiful granite in the area. They seemed to have been modeled on earlier styles found in the port cities of the coast, which in turn were based on Arabic architectural forms and methods brought to the region by the traders from the Arabian Peninsula.

At the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, the center of power appears to have been situated in what is referred to as the Great Enclosure, named for its massive outer wall, which has a circumference of eight hundred feet and reaches a height of thirty feet in some places. Inside it are the ruins of a conical tower and monoliths that once supported soapstone statues of a particular type of eagle, the baleur (tightrope-walker). The great chiefs who ruled over this were known as mambos and may have secured their hold on their own, and then increasingly gained control over distant Shona groups via the propagation of a cultlike religion, which may have involved the baleur and the cone tower. The mambos of Great Zimbabwe appear to have held some power over provincial chiefs in their dominion by loans of cattle to communities located farther afield from the capital and that may have struggled to feed their populace. The mambos also demanded tribute, or the handover of a specified kind of commodity that, like taxes, came due on a seasonal basis.

Historians surmise that Great Zimbabwe was a highly stratified society, with farmers, livestock herders, artisans, and ordinary laborers fulfilling distinct roles; such clear divisions usually reflected a social order governed by a strong, centralized authority. The Great Zimbabwe ruins include two other defined areas outside the Great Enclosure and are known as the Hill and Valley sections. These feature drystone structures as well as simpler buildings, known as daga, made from mud. At its peak, the entire complex may have been home to as many as twenty thousand people.

Great Zimbabwe’s decline has been attributed to a number of causes, including overpopulation, draught, and the depletion of riverbed gold that had enriched the empire during its headiest period of growth. By the mid-fourteenth century the Great Zimbabwe chiefs began to lose control of their more distant Shona communities, and the empire began moving around and dividing up into smaller groupings. The Great Zimbabwe site appears to have been entirely abandoned by 1500, shortly before the first Portuguese encountered it.

Political Parties and Factions

The exact ancestry of Great Zimbabwe’s ruling elite is unknown, but the first mambo of record is Chikura Wadyambeu (d. c. 1420), a semihistorical Shona figure. His purported son was Nyatsimba Mutota (d. c. 1450), who ruled from about 1420 to 1450 and led an impressive expansion effort that brought all the Zimbabwean plateau and a large swath of present-day Mozambique under Great Zimbabwean rule. His aggression earned him the nickname “Mwene Mutapa” (Great Raider or Great Pillager). Around 1450 he relocated the capital to Khami, perhaps to be nearer to gold deposits. Khami was another stone complex that also featured a walled enclosure for the leadership, his advisers, and family. After this point, the Great Zimbabwe civilization seems to have split into at least two major factions. Portuguese documents record contact with a Mutapa people in the northern part of modern-day Zimbabwe. They were supplanted there in the 1680s by another Shona clan led by the chief Changamire Dombo (seventeenth century).


The city of Great Zimbabwe has occasionally cropped up in references as one of the possible locales of the fabled gold mines of King Solomon (tenth century BC), the Israelite king who ruled a millennium before the site was first inhabited. It was probably a tale used to lure new European settlers to the region. Gold was indeed still plentiful, as were diamonds, and in the 1890s the British entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902) and his British South African Company established a hold on the area and its natural resources. Rhodes was the founder of the DeBeers diamond company, and the territory once controlled by Great Zimbabwe’s mambos was later named Rhodesia in his honor. An influx of white settlers followed Rhodes and came to dominate the land, the resources, and the Shona. Over the next several decades historians posited that the ruins of Great Zimbabwe had been built either by ancient Phoenicians or Arab traders from the coast; the idea that Africans had established an organized civilization and political entity in the area seemed to conflict with the prevailing Eurocentric view that the continent had been little more than a collection of warring ethnic groups before the Europeans arrived.

Rhodesia, along with its neighbor South Africa, remained one of the last white-majority-held areas of Africa. Before the end of its long civil war and the declaration of Zimbabwe as an independent state with a democratically elected black leadership in 1980, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe came to symbolize the rights of Africans to their land. The baleur bird also became an icon in the struggle for self-rule and is featured prominently on the Zimbabwean national flag. In 1986 Great Zimbabwe was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.

Garlake, Peter S. Great Zimbabwe.New York: Stein and Day, 1973.

Huffman, Thomas N. Snakes and Crocodiles: Power and Symbolism in Ancient Zimbabwe. Johannesburg, South Africa: Witwatersrand University Press, 1996.