Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city in the country of Zimbabwe. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been since 1986. The ruins were once the capital of a mighty empire, and they are an impressive example of ancient African construction.
The Empire of Great Zimbabwe, also known as the Mutapa or Mwene Mutapa Empire, was a kingdom that existed in what is now Zimbabwe and Mozambique between the mid-13th century and the early-17th century. It became a dominant power in the region, in large part due to its lucrative gold trade with the Arab world in the latter-part of the 14th century. Beginning in the 16th century, the European powers began to take an interest in the empire's lands, with the Portuguese encroaching on the area. The Zulu began to encroach around the same time, helping to weaken the empire, which was ultimately conquered by the Portuguese in the 17th century.
At its peak, the city of Great Zimbabwe was a mighty trading hub, housing more than 10,000 people. The empire traded with far-reaching cultures, and the city was the seat of this kingdom. For much of the early history of Western research into the city, various theories were put forward to explain how the structures had been created. Early researchers could not believe that Africans could have created such intricate buildings, and so theories were presented that linked them to early structures in Jerusalem or Phoenicia. Modern research has largely discounted all of these theories, and it seems clear that the city was constructed either by a Bantu-speaking people, most likely speakers of the Shona language.
The densest complex of Great Zimbabwe covers nearly 1,800 acres, or almost 3 square miles (7 sq. km), although ruins range over a larger 200 square mile (500 sq. km) area. The complex contains hundreds of different ruins spread across denser areas, most notably the Great Enclosure, the Valley Complex, and the Hill Complex.
The Great Enclosure is by far the most famous of the complexes within the city, housing more than 300 structures. The large wall of the Great Enclosure is an iconic image that can be found throughout Zimbabwe. Both the Hill Complex and Valley Complex house even more structures and ruins, from different periods throughout the empire's history.
Some people hold that Great Zimbabwe was in fact created by the gods hundreds of thousands of years ago, and that the land retains a cosmic connection to these divine beings. As a result, many people visit the city to meditate and commune with the deeper energy that is said to reside at the place. Others hold that the place was built by aliens and used as a base to mine gold for their needs, and that they retain a special interest in the site. Although these are very fanciful interpretations of the history of the location, it is actually not uncommon to find local tour guides giving this version of the place’s “history.”