What is Great Zimbabwe?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

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.

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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.”

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Discussion Comments


@BigBloom: The question is about Great Zimbabwe, a tourist attraction and you are rambling about social unrest? How would you like it if somebody asks “What is the Niagara Falls?”, then I give them an answer such as this “The USA is a place where there is a lot of random gun shootings in schools and public places”?

All countries have their own social problems. Show me a country where there are no social problems. Why do you have to exaggerate and spread falsehoods? Maybe you are one of the people who lost their farms in the 2000 Land Revolution. For your information, Zimbabwe has the lowest crime rate in the SADC region. It is safer than Rio De Janeiro, South Africa, New York and most capitals of the world. You will not see violent crimes that are so typical in the USA and South Africa. They are a rarity here in Zim. It is also a country with the highest number of educated people in Africa, with over a 98 percent literacy rate and over 75 percent of students completing their secondary level education.

Bill Gates, Roman Abramovich (Russian billionaire) and Donald Trump’s sons have visited this beautiful country, so your attempt to paint a dark picture about this country is pathetic.

@Hangugeo112: The Khoisan never built stone houses or any permanent structures. By nature, they are nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in caves. Just go to Botswana and Namibia, and you will see the Khoisan living as they did centuries ago. Great Zimbabwe was built by the Shona people and King Munhumutapa lived there, trading with the Portuguese. Houses of stones were made for royalty while the villagers lived in mud huts.

Archaeological excavations have unearthed remnants of Shona pottery and implements around Great Zimbabwe. Early European adventurers and researchers who explored the area tried to destroy this evidence and instead searched for clues to Eastern civilizations which they failed to find. A lot of destruction was done by these prejudiced researchers in their vain attempt to link Great Zimbabwe with the Queen of Sheba.


Zimbabwe is a place of varying social unrest and a corrupt power struggle in the government between factions. There is much to learn from the issues being faced by various African nations, which are facing problems of every kind, related mostly to the AIDS epidemic, religious war, and corruption. It is to be hoped that someday Zimbabwe will be able to advance again to construct wonderful cities like Great Zimbabwe.


Zimbabwe is in the south of Africa, and has a rich and distinct culture that is quite distinct from cultures elsewhere. The culture is a rich Bantu heritage which stems from Western Africa and whose Shona language is part of the Niger-Congo language family. These people displaced the native Khoi-San people who speak a click language to this day in Botswana. Perhaps it was the Khoisan who built Great Zimbabwe.


It is interesting to see so many structures around the world surrounded by nomadic cultures. It is telling that many empires of the ancient world fell and reverted to the forests, with magnificent structures and cities being left as a testament to the past. In Europe and the US, there aren't many of these ancient structures, but it could be said that someday, we will all revert to an atavistic culture and leave all that we have built as a relic of the past, to be speculated on by future scientists from another region of the world.

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