Great Zimbabwe is called “great” in order to distinguish it from the many smaller zimbabwes, over two hundred of them, which are scattered in an area from today’s Zimbabwe to Mozambique. A “zimbabwe” is a fortress, built of stone, which served as protection against military attacks but also as a residence for the ruling class. The zimbabwes were connected to each other as nodes in a network and it was trade which tied the network together. But it was the Great Zimbabwe that was the greatest of them all. It was the center of an international trading system which connected the inner of Africa, from Congo in the west to Africa’s eastern coast, and then to trading communities all around the Indian Ocean. They even traded with China. The people of Great Zimbabwe were selling all kinds of things, but mainly ivory and gold.
What is most striking about Great Zimbabwe today are its stone walls. It was a strongly hierarchical society with a rigid separation between ordinary people and the ruling elite. The king lived in the fortress, and in the city at its feet there was an estimated 25,000 inhabitants. Yet we actually know quite little about the people who once lived here and how the buildings were used. It seems the construction began in the eleventh-century CE, but that it was abandoned at the end of the fourteenth-century. We do not know why. Perhaps the land could not sustain such a large population or perhaps the gold mines no longer yielded as much wealth.
When Europeans in the nineteenth-century first came across the Great Zimbabwe they failed to accept that it could have been constructed by Africans. The Phoenicians must have done it, they concluded, the Egyptians or perhaps the Arabs. Between 1965 and 1980, when Zimbabwe was run by a small group of renegade white farmers, they even commissioned archaeological research designed to prove that no Africans were involved in its construction. Not surprisingly, when Zimbabwe became democratic in 1980, the Great Zimbabwe quickly became a symbol of the achievements of its people. The country itself was named after the monument and it was depicted on stamps and banknotes. The Zimbabwean flag shows a so called “soapstone bird,” copied from a statuette discovered in an archaeological dig at the Great Zimbabwe.