Thursday, January 30, 2014

Great Zimbabwe: Legacy of Pre-Colonial Africa

Zimbabwe Bird
Land rich in mineral resources, from gold, copper, and iron. Geographically landlocked, it has mountains ranges in the east, and could cradle life with the Zambezi River in the northeast with the famous Victoria Falls stands beautifully as one of the tallest falls in the world. It is also full of wildlife with elephants, rhinos, and other big animals roaming its lands. This is the country of Zimbabwe. Today, Zimbabwe faced dire economic challenges. In the past, it was once home of the prosperous center of the gold trade. A city where the name of the country was derived, the city of Great Zimbabwe.

Gold was a precious metal that drive economies forward, advance livelihood, supports wars of kingdoms and empires. It is a precious metal mined from few places in the Earth. Many ports and trade centers rose because of this metal. There were Kilwa, Mogadishu, Sofala, Timbuktu, and in Zimbabwe itself, the Great Zimbabwe. The city of Great Zimbabwe can be found near of the center of present day Zimbabwe. Today, its ruins shows the wealth of the history the country. Magnificent stone structure that marveled archaeologist and visitors alike. Its deserted ruins today stands opposite from its status almost 6 centuries ago when it was prosperous, alive, and vibrant.

The story of Great Zimbabwe began during 400-500 CE. Shona people looking for a new home search far and wide in the east of Africa. They needed a land where they could raise their livestock as well as their crops. They finally found it in the heart of modern day Zimbabwe where they would establish their new lives. The land they choose was perfects. The grazing lands were enough to raise enough cattle. Its soil could also grow crops. Cattle raising was the first key engine of their growth. High social status could be achieved if a person has a lot of cattle. Trading was only limited to ivory, cloth, and glass. Then in the 12th century. A gold mine was located 40 km from the city. The discovery of the mines would bring a boost to Great Zimbabwe.

The discovery of the mines led to merchants across the Indian Ocean to flock the city to obtain the precious metal. Arabs, Indians, and others came to trade in the city. With wealth, the population rose from about 5,000 to 30,000. This trade generated a lot of income to city and thus finance the development of its structures. Huge stone structures, mostly made of granite were erected. A grand wall was build that would be known as the Great Enclosure. Some walls divided the society of the city itself. The king of Great Zimbabwe, his family, and his officials would stay in what is called today as Hill Ruins. Wealthy families lived in their own enclosures near the city. Among the most iconic structure built from the profits from gold was a structure with cone like tower made of stone. Archaeologist today baffles over the use of the structure. It was hypothesize that it was either a school for the children of wealthy families or temple for worship. Stone houses were also built within the city from these houses the name of the city was derived. Dzimba Dza Mabwe or houses of stone became the root word of Zimbabwe. Finally, one of the most iconic symbols of the wealth of Great Zimbabwe was a soapstone sculpture of bird that would became a symbol in the flag of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe bird.

From 1200-mid-1400’s, Great Zimbabwe reached its heights. The gold boom allowed the city to raise an army and expand the borders of the city. Its armies marched up to the Zimbezi River to the north. In the south, they reached down to the Limpopo River. To the west, they reached as far as the Kalahari Desert. And finally, to the east, the borders edge ended to the mountain ranges of Chimani and Iyanga.

Prosperity continued until in 1400s when it suffered a decline. Several drought passed that caused devastation to agriculture and livestock. Crops failed. The grazing lands were exhausted and became arid. Livestock either died of disease or hunger and dehydration. With the failure of the food supplies, the people of Great Zimbabwe faced famine. Many people moved and emigrated to save themselves from the suffering. As the city weakened, it became vulnerable to invasions. It was in 1450 when another Shona Kingdom, the Rozvi, invaded the Great of Zimbabwe. Emigration out of the city continued. Some inhabitants of the Great Zimbabwe went to the cities of Mutapa or Torwa. By 1500, the city of Great Zimbabwe was abandoned.

Afterwards, the Great Zimbabwe existed only as ruins of once great city. Stories of it were recorded by Europeans that would arrived in the continent, first of which were the Portuguese. Eventually, as time progress, rediscovery of the Great Zimbabwe became a driving force of the nationalist of Africans against their colonial master. With the pile of ruins of Great Zimbabwe, it inspired nationalism to many people in Africa.

See also:
Kilwa: Golden Port in East of Africa
Salt Through the Desert: Tuareg Salt Caravan

Appiah, K. & Henry Gates ed. Encyclopedia of Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 

Editors of Kingfisher. The Kingfisher History EncyclopediaMassachusetts: Kingfisher Publications, 2004. 

Grimbly, S. Encyclopedia of the Ancient World. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000. 

"Great Zimbabwe." BBC World Service. Accessed January 30, 2014.

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