When it comes to natural and architectural wonders, Zimbabwe is very wealthy. The country is not only home to Victoria Falls, but also to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is the largest ancient ruined city in sub-Saharan Africa. Well-preserved and impressive, here is the story of Great Zimbabwe, plus information on how to visit, in 15 photos.
1. A Shona creation
Although for centuries legends persisted that Great Zimbabwe served as the capital of the Queen of Sheba, in reality it was built by Shona-speaking Bantu people beginning in the 11th century.
2. Impressive in size and scope
Great Zimbabwe was not small either. The city sprawls across nearly 1,800 acres hectares in the lowveld, about 30 kilometers from Masvingo in southeast Zimbabwe.
3. Iron Age founding
The Bantu/Shona people founded Great Zimbabwe during the 11th century’s Iron Age, in an area that had been sparsely populated before. It continued to thrive until 1450.
4. The Golden Age
Great Zimbabwe’s “Golden Age” came at the end of the Middle Ages, during the 14th century, when it was the main city in a gold-rich plateau with a population that exceeded more than 10,000. During this time it was a renowned trading center for not only Africa, but the rest of the world.
5. End of an era
In 1450 the capital was abandoned after the region became unable to sustain itself — the city was overcrowded by this point and the area around it had been devastated by deforestation. People began to migrate to other settlements, and by the 1500s it was abandoned.
6. A legend is born
When European colonists eventually stumbled upon Great Zimbabwe their racist attitudes prevented them from believing it had been built by Africans. And so rumors began that the city was actually the capital of the Queen of Sheba. This legend persisted for centuries.
7. Complex socio-economic community
Archeological finds including pot shards and ironware at Great Zimbabwe, which prove that the city was ahead of its time in terms of being a complex socio-economic civilization that participated in both farming and pastoral activities. It is also believed the community had contact with early Christian missionaries, as a granite cross was discovered here.
8. Archaeological finds
Excavations at the site have uncovered glass beads and porcelain from Persia and China as well as gold and Arab coins from Kilwa, which offer further proof that this civilization traded with other parts of the world.
9. How it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site (reason #1)
According to UNESCO, Great Zimbabwe met the criteria for qualification in three areas. The first was: “A unique artistic achievement, this great city has struck the imagination of African and European travellers since the Middle Ages, as evidenced by the persistent legends which attribute to it a Biblical origin.”
10. Other UNESCO criteria met
UNESCO also states that “the ruins of Great Zimbabwe bear a unique testimony to the lost civilisation of the Shona between the 11th and 15th centuries.” And: “The entire Zimbabwe nation has identified with this historically symbolic ensemble and has adopted as its emblem the steatite bird, which may have been a royal totem.”
11. Getting there
Masvingo is in southeastern Zimbabwe, about equidistant from Harare and Bulawayo — it is due south of Harare and due east of Bulawayo. It takes about four hours to drive to Great Zimbabwe from either city.
12. Three groups of ruins
Today the city is divided into three main groups: the Hill Ruins, the Great Enclosure (pictured above) and the Valley ruins. Each area has distinct architectural differences and all should be visited.
You can either visit on your own, or take a guided tour. There is a US$25 entrance fee for non-Zimbabweans. A tour guide can be arranged at the information center and costs an additional US$12.
14. When to visit
Come during sunrise or sunset for the most impressive light and contrast of shadows.
15. Where to stay
There are not many sleeping options in this region, but you can stay inside the park’s main gate at the Great Zimbabwe Campground and Lodges, which has a few different sleeping options. There is also the Great Zimbabwe Hotel, pictured above, in the area.