Officially named the Great Zimbabwe National Monument, the Great Zimbabwe ruins in Southern Zimbabwe are equally impressive in their history, craftsmanship and location selection (serious views). The ruins contain the largest ancient structure in sub-Saharan Africa and are the roots of much of what Zimbabwe is today.
An overview of the Great Zimbabwe ruins
Great Zimbabwe National Monument is the country’s largest set of preserved ruins and said to be the origin of the country. The ruins are located in the Masvingo province, about 5-6 hours south by car from the capital, Harare. Great Zimbabwe is one of five UNESCO World Heritage sites in Zimbabwe, recognized as an important trading center and “a unique testimony to the Bantu civilization of the Shona between the 11th and 15th centuries.”
The name “monument” is deceiving as it is definitely not what you might think of when you picture a monument. Instead of being a single structure, it is actually a massive expanse of ruins, covering 800 hectares of land over three archaeological zones.
The ancient city holds the origins of the culture of Zimbabwe, and even the origins of its name.
Visiting the Great Zimbabwe ruins
The two most important parts of visiting the ruins are to plan enough time for yourself there and to get a guide. I was shocked to see that the reviews I read recommended 3-4 hours at the ruins, but that’s exactly how much time we spent there. Anything shorter would have felt rushed in terms of both information and ground to cover.
Get a Great Zimbabwe guide
When you enter, you have the option of a guided or unguided tour. For a few dollars more on your entry, you can have a guide take you through the complex and it is SO WORTH IT. Not only will the guide show you how to get everywhere, but the knowledge of the history of the site was so impressive. I would not have gotten a fraction out of the visit that I did without the guide.Great Zimbabwe National Monument is the country’s largest preserved ruins and said to be the origin of the country.Click To Tweet
Expect to hike to see the ruins
While two of the three zones (see below) are at ground level, the Hill Complex is no easy walk. There are two routes to the top – the modern and the ancient route. I recommend taking the modern route up (slightly easier) and the ancient route down (it’s pretty cool to see). It’s a moderate hike – you don’t need to be exceptionally fit, but it’s worth it to have water and appropriate footwear.
Pick up a souvenir
At first, I shied away from checking out the small stalls run by local women (I’m not really big on souvenirs), but I saw locals checking them out and realized it was not a tourist trap. I ended up buying a few locally made items and it only set me back $4. They were definitely the most interesting and severely best-priced souvenirs I saw in Zimbabwe (I dare you to try to find a souvenir for $4 in Victoria Falls).
Great Zimbabwe – the origin of the name Zimbabwe
The country of Zimbabwe wasn’t always called by that name. It used to be Rhodesia (and Southern Rhodesia and Zimbabwe Rhodesia). But in the 1960s, people started using the name Zimbabwe, which stems back to Great Zimbabwe. It was chosen by black nationalists looking to rename the country from Rhodesia, named after Cecil Rhodes and to many representing colonialism.
Zimbabwe comes from the Shona term for Great Zimbabwe, in one dialect meaning “large houses of stone.” Some say it also means venerated houses.
Great Zimbabwe also gave the country its national symbol. Wood and soapstone carvings of Zimbabwe birds were found at the site in the late 19th century and have since been elevated to be used as an icon, even being featured on Zimbabwe’s flag.
Culture, people and history of Great Zimbabwe
Great Zimbabwe was an ancient, Iron Age, civilization in the southern portion of what is today Zimbabwe. The massive complex was home to upwards of 18,000 people at its largest spanning the 11th to 15th centuries. It was home to a Shona (Bantu) population and served as an important trade hub.
The Shona once represented two-thirds of Zimbabwe’s population, but have been fast declining with the influence of European culture via colonialism (and Christian evangelism).
Great Zimbabwe not only served as a trade center for the continent to the Indian Ocean, but was a farming and cattle community.
However, the city grew beyond its means and the overpopulation lead to overfarming and the decline of its existence. With the land no longer able to sustain the people, they moved towards Khami (whose ruins are another of Zimbabwe’s UNESCO World Heritage sites), bringing along their stone-working and pottery making.
Great Zimbabwe was abandoned and uninhabited in the 15th century. Portuguese explorers were all over the country (and continent) in the 16th century, so it’s likely that they encountered the ruins, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the ruins were “discovered” and studied. Initially, the stonework techniques and evidence of advanced culture led researches to believe Great Zimbabwe was a city of an ancient civilization (Phoenician, Greek or Egyptian), but in the early 1900s, archaeologists were able to disprove that belief and conclude that the site’s ruins “were medieval and of exclusively African origin.”
Today the site is protected under Zimbabwe law and UNESCO World Heritage Site status, but still is considered underfunded and under-researched.
Great Zimbabwe archaeology and architecture
As mentioned above, the Great Zimbabwe ruins can be classified into three separate archaeological zones – the Hill Complex, the Valley Ruins and the Great Enclosure. CNN notes that the architecture is unique to the continent and while elsewhere you can find similar styles, Great Zimbabwe is “exceptional and imposing.” Britannica describes the construction,
The first two are characterized by mortarless stone construction, but they also include ruined daga (earthen and mud-brick) structures that may once have rivaled the stone buildings in grandeur. The Valley Ruins, located between the Hill Complex and the Great Enclosure, include a large number of mounds that are remnants of daga buildings.
The Hill Complex
The Hill Complex is the portion of the ruins that requires a hike. It is the highest and the oldest part of the ruins, sitting 80 meters above ground and with evidence of construction beginning around the year 900. It is considered to be the royal part of the site, as it served as home to the king as well as the presumed burial grounds for the kings. The structures are built in and amongst massive granite stone, making them all that more impressive.
Our guide noted that archaeological scans of the site are needed to better understand the purposes of portions of the hill ruins. Little excavation has been done in the name of preservation, but this has also stifled the knowledge about the massive structures.
It is believed that the king’s most trusted advisors, shamans and healers also had a place atop the hill complex. From the elevated vantage point, the king could see down to all of the villages, and most importantly his wives.
The Hill Complex is also believed to have served as the spiritual and religious center of the city.
The Valley Ruins
The Valley Ruins are basically all of the ruins scattered in the valley between the Hill Complex and the Great Enclosure. They include living collections, featuring brick construction and dry-stone masonry. They are remarked for their craftsmanship and detail.
The Great Enclosure
The Great Enclosure is the largest single ancient structure in sub-Saharan Africa and its construction is impressive. It has both a larger, outside and smaller, inside wall, creating a narrow passageway between. It has the shape of an ellipsis and also features a large conical tower, whose purpose is unknown, but guesses to be more symbolic as a grain bin and/or represent a phallic symbol.
The Great Enclosure includes living areas and a court and guides say that children did their learning in the narrow passageway.
Great Zimbabwe National Monument as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Great Zimbabwe ruins have been protected by the Zimbabwean government since 1893 (under the National Museums and Monuments Act), but were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage site list in 1986. UNESCO cites it as “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.”
Great Zimbabwe ruins accommodation
There are two main options for where to stay when visiting Great Zimbabwe National Monument. You can stay directly at the site at the Great Zimbabwe Hotel or look for accommodation in nearby Masvingo.
The Great Zimbabwe Hotel is the closest, and the most upscale. It’s less than a 5-minute drive from the ruins, can accommodate large groups and has amenities like a restaurant and pool on site.
Masvingo is the closest town nearby and about a 20-minute drive to the ruins. If you are doing a road trip, this is also where you can stop for a shop to stock up and fuel up. Click here to find the best rates for accommodation in Masvingo.
Great Zimbabwe Hotel
Regency Hotel Chevron
Regency Lodge Panyanda
Accommodation pro-tip: When traveling in southern Africa, you should add Lekke Slaap to the sites you use to explore. It is in Afrikaans by default, but you can switch it to English and many of the properties I found on there were not listed on other sites.
Great Zimbabwe ruins photo gallery
Additional Great Zimbabwe resources
Resources used to research this article, in addition to the visit to the site, include:
UNESCO: Great Zimbabwe National Monument
BBC: VIDEO Lost Kingdoms of Africa (approx. 52 minutes)
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