Great Zimbabwe is an archaeological site located near the town of Masvingo in southeastern Zimbabwe. The name Zimbabwe, from which the country also derives its name, is a word from the Shona language that basically means "stone house." The Great Zimbabwe ruins are one of the greatest attractions of the country, and they are the largest and second-oldest stone ruins south of the Sahara Desert in Africa, following only Mapungubwe in South Africa. The term great is used to distinguish it from other smaller ruins, also called zimbabwe, in the country. Any trip to Zimbabwe should include a side trip to tour the Great Zimbabwe and its mysterious history.
The Great Zimbabwe ruins date from the eleventh century and at one time the site was inhabited by about 20,000 people. Re-discovered by Portuguese traders in the sixteenth century, archaeological research has shown that the ruins were indeed built by a native African civilization. The stone buildings were constructed with a unique dry-stone technique, in which granite blocks quarried from nearby hills were split so precisely into bricks that they could be stacked into structures without needing the help of mortar. In some of the finer buildings, the technique was so refined that the stone walls are as smooth as modern brick walls.
When travelers arrive to tour the Great Zimbabwe, the prime attraction of the ancient city is the Great Enclosure, a large elliptical structure that encloses several buildings as well as a tall stone tower. This stone edifice at Great Zimbabwe was probably a royal palace, and its buildings and great stone walls, which measure 820 feet wide and 36 feet tall, contain more stone than the rest of the Great Zimbabwe ruins combined. The Great Enclosure is the single largest ancient stone structure in sub-Saharan Africa.
Those who tour the Great Zimbabwe are sure to find its mysterious allure fascinating. Not much is known about the original inhabitants of the Great Zimbabwe ruins, as they left no written records. Nevertheless, archaeologists at the site have discovered ancient artifacts that originated in many other parts of the world, including Chinese pottery and Arabian coins, indicating that the civilization at Great Zimbabwe was advanced enough to do extensive trade with far-off countries. Other artifacts found in the area include carved figures of birds and gods, evidence of a developed religious and artistic culture. Although no one knows for certain who built the ruins, many archaeologists believe the inhabitants of the city were the ancestors of the Shona people group in Zimbabwe.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site was also the focus of some contention between black and white peoples throughout Zimbabwe's history. For much of Zimbabwe's colonial history, archaeological evidence supporting the fact that the site was built by a black African civilization was censored by European colonial powers, and it was only in the twentieth century that Great Zimbabwe was explicitly proven to have been built by black sub-Saharan Africans. This was a symbolic triumph for the newly independent country of Zimbabwe, making this ancient cultural/historical relic a matter of both political significance and national pride.