Thursday 14 November 2013

o : Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe National Monument
About 30km south of Masvingo

Dear o,

It’s the end of our tour of Great Zimbabwe and Prosper, our guide, has taken us to the small museum.  Because there is no electricity we explored the artifacts, maps, information panels and row of famous birds (one of which is on the Zimbabwe flag) by phone-light.  Just ahead of me lies a large, jutting hill of rock where the old kings ruled, and behind the bush with its fooling monkeys to my right are the famous conical tower and winding circular walls of the Great Enclosure.  This place became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, six years after giving its name to the newly independent nation formerly known as Rhodesia.  As you woud expect, there is plenty of history here.  Prosper took us the ancient way up the hill, and the modern way down; he brought us to a recreation of a Shona polygamist village where we watched a ritual rainmaking dance; we visited a low, deep cave where the former capital’s iron was stored and from where the king could call out via echo to his people in the valley below.  Some of the past at Great Zimbabwe is reenacted, some of it rebuilt, and some of it remains as it was centuries ago.  And it seems to me that every stone suggests an overarching principle of design and meaning: the tension between masculine and feminine. 

Zimbabwe is believed to mean “large house of stone,” and Great Zimbabwe is Africa’s largest precolonial stone ruin south of the Sahara.  The ruin is divided into three sections: the Hill Complex, where standing or crumbled stone walls interlace with fantastic, pointed boulders; the Great Enclosure, a large meadow of rock and grass enclosed by a circular wall of stone up to 11m tall; and the Valley, with assorted ruins between the Hill and Enclosure.  Archaeologists variably suggest that these three components were a progress from high to low over time, or that they entrenched social divisions akin to the Three French Estates: the Hill was clerical, the Enclosure royal, and the Valley common.  Furthermore, the site is clearly strategic: from the height of the Hill Complex, you can see the drooping, wet plains to one side, and the hard, poking hills to the other.

This area was inhabited from at least 1,500 years ago, and the first stone structures were erected in the 11th century.  From around 1100 to 1450 the Gokomere people, ancestors of the modern Shona, dominated the region and Great Zimbabwe (the largest house of stone) emerged as their capital.  Two major factors contributed to the rise of Great Zimbabwe and its kingdom: the trading of gold from south to north on the same route as the east African slave trade, and the intensive smelting of iron.  At its height, Great Zimbabwe itself housed up to 18,000 people, all of whom lived in a complex urban society.  Practically useless gold was collected and quickly sold off.  Iron, used for weapons as well as construction, was treasured, and has been found in the tombs underneath the Hill Complex as if preparing the ornamented dead for the afterlife.  Archaeologists have also discovered coins and artifacts from medieval Europe, the Middle East and China, suggesting that Great Zimbabwe was a major trading centre.

Several theories have been offered to explain Great Zimbabwe’s downfall and abandonment, which must have been complete by the time Portuguese explorers took note of the ruins in the 16th century.  Perhaps the Arabic gold trade was disrupted by the Spanish arrival in the Americas; the ancient route, like a river, may have changed course and left Great Zimbabwe out to dry (it was not a mining centre, but only a crossing point); maybe the reason is environmental, exacerbated by the iron smelting which required enormous amounts of wood for charcoal – no more trees, no more city; or it could have been one of the usual suspects: war, plague, famine.  Most likely, the true historical cause lies suspended somewhere in this web of possibility.  For traditional history, this makes Great Zimbabwe interesting enough.

But this is not really why Great Zimbabwe is so widely known and studied, why it gave its name to its country, and why I first came to know about it.  For much of the 20th century, Great Zimbabwe was one of Africa’s great historical controversies.  Today the ruins prove that an indigenous African civilisation outside of Egypt achieved the technological, political and economic sophistication necessary to construct such structures.  Of course, we now know of many other advanced native African civilisations from the period and before, but none of them left behind structures which would stay standing for hundreds of years.  All of them, except Great Zimbabwe and Egypt, could be denied by those who were frightened, or just bewildered, by the notion that pre-European-arrival Africans could make big things that last, and all the things that go with big things that last.  So, because the ruins stood right in their faces, European colonists, archaeologists, historians and politicians didn’t deny them.  Instead, they simply argued that Great Zimbabwe was built by someone else.  Not extraterrestrials (who built the Pyramids), but Arabs, Sumerians, Phoenicians or, most popular among the white settlers of Rhodesia, by the Queen of Sheba to replicate her palace in Jerusalem.

It isn’t really a surprise that these theories held sway in the British Empire up until the Second World War.  Central to the racist ideology which glued the empire together was the white man’s burden to civilise, develop and better the lesser peoples on the dark continent.  But by the time the war ended and Her Majesty was cutting loose her former dominions, these ideas began to seem a little ridiculous.  African nations under African leaders sponsoring African archaeologists to revise African textbooks became the norm, and the old imperialism was suddenly very old indeed.  Old, that is, everywhere except a few places: namely apartheid South Africa and its neighbour, white-ruled Rhodesia.  In both of these countries, scholars of all stripes and fields were actively discouraged by the state from publishing anything against the adopted Africans-are-stupid theory of history.  While much of the rest of the world moved on and even had a laugh at the expense of those trapped in a timewarped fantasyland, research here was censored, textbooks were dated, and white tyrants continued to believe in their pre-ordained right to tyranny.  In Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, this lasted right up until the 1970s.  Indeed, in 1978 the South African paper, The Star, did a story on an archaeologist named Dr. Silberberg who ‘discovered’ that the ruins of Great Zimbabwe may be indigenous.  The headline stated that the argument would send “tremors in the world of the archaeological sciences”.  Didn’t anyone say something like this before?  Of course they did, long before.  African and non-Africans both, but nobody wanted to listen.  The Queen of Sheba was a far better story to tell the (white) kids.

In 1980, after years of guerilla war against the white supremacist leadership, the country came under African rule.  Its independence, declared by the Rhodesian government in 1965 but viewed by Britain as an act of rebellion (because of the ‘no majority rule, no independence’ policy), was internationally recognised, and Africa welcomed a new (or newly-named) nation: Zimbabwe.  History was quick to return to the path of least resistance, and once again it was Africans who built this place.

I think that the real story about Great Zimbabwe, which was always the most glaringly obvious story, is a lot more fascinating for the visitor.  If you imagine that the Queen of Sheba laid the stones in a conical shape or that Sumerians erected a curving circular wall, all without the use of writing or mortar, then you cut this place off from the present.  You isolate an historical event from its temporal and physical context, and it becomes fantasy instead of history, fiction instead of progress – a castle floating in the sky.  If we accept the facts about indigenous construction (and they are overwhelming, sort of like the evidence for evolution), then we find a whole cornucopia of related information; the ruins are not just here, but all over the country.  They are in language, culture, symbolism, mythology, maybe even present-day house construction styles.  We can ask questions and trace lines between this place and Harare, between the 14th century and the 21st, between iron smelting and copper mining.  The world gets richer and we get better for it.

Let me give you an example.  There is one principle above all others which seems to be suggested by this place, over and over again: the tension between the masculine and the feminine.  The conical tower is a phallic object, no doubt, while the iron smelter preserved in the museum is deliberately shaped as a womam giving birth.  The chevrons which adorn the top of the outer wall signal the interplay between the sexes (as in classical symbolism, a la Dan Brown), while the huts in the recreated polygamist village shelter whole worlds of gender politics (the man has his seat in each one, but the women own them).  The Hill Complex was traditionally male: the seat of the king’s power, jutting out from the earth, strong, tall, and martial.  The Enclosure was where the queen lived and trained her future co-wives, and this is where food was stored.  More viscerally, the Hill is hot, and the Enclosure cool; the Hill angular, crawling, poking, the Enclosure curved, soft, gentle.  Prosper told us about the rituals and rules of this place, and we can see them worked into the very shape and cut of the stones.    

How does southern African society, specifically in Zimbabwe, reflect or relate to this chemistry of masculine and feminine?  Is there a link between the king and his court on top of the hill, and the fact that I only see men driving cars?  What about the peculiar feature of construction here at Great Zimbabwe, where new homes were built on top of the old ones because a man was not supposed to enter his father’s bedroom (a taboo which still exists in Zimbabwe today)?  Just yesterday on the train I heard a man say, “the wealth of a man is in his children.”  Was this how the architects of Great Zimbabwe thought, and acted, and built? 

Prosper is Shona, and he believes that his ancestors built this place.  He doesn’t lay claim to it, or think he is better because of what may be in his blood.  It isn’t really pride with which he speaks, but curiosity of the self.  He sees himself and his country reflected in these ruins, and when he speaks about them and takes us around, he is relating it to the present.  For Prosper, this is the present.  What if this was instead a castle in the clouds, and Prosper was just as much a visitor as I am?  What would we talk about?  What would we see?  What questions would we ask?  Or would we just take a bunch of photos and leave?  I don’t think the past is so disconnected and far away, at least not here amongst the ancient African ruins of Great Zimbabwe.  History is between the stones where the mortar might have been, in the way Prosper speaks, in the darkness of a flashlight-lit museum.  History is now.



Welcome to Great Zimbabwe
Schoolchildren looking at the map
The Great Enclosure
View from the Ancient Path
Hill Complex Wall
Hill Complex
Prosper speaking
Hill Complex
Hill Complex
Hill Complex
Hill Complex
Hill Complex
Hill Complex
Hill Complex
Hill Complex
Recreated Shona polygamist village
The Great Enclosure
The Hill Complex seen from the Great Enclosure
Great Enclosure
Inside the Great Enclosure
The conical tower
The conical tower
Sundial in the Great Enclosure
Exiting the Great Enclosure
The chevron design
Chevrons close up
Monkey and baby on the rum
Monkey at Great Zimbabwe