The word Zimbabwe loosely translated to ‘House of Rock’. It is a severely anglicized version of the Shona words dzimba dza mabwe, meaning great stone houses or dzimba woye, meaning esteemed houses. The Shona people were the original inhabitants of the Zimbabwe plateau. These people settled in this area and slowly developed a society of rigid social structure and order. These societies slowly evolved over centuries and eventually gave rise to the Kingdom of Zimbabwe. Its capital was at the city of Great Zimbabwe. They were experts at trade, mainly of ivory and gold, which fuelled the economy of the kingdom. They were also expert stonemasons, and examples of their centuries old construction and stone artefacts are still standing tall to this date.
Origin and Rise to Power
The first inhabitants likely settled in this area as early as the 5th century AD according to some pottery shard found in this area. These were the Shona people, who originated from Southern Africa and migrated towards north. These Shona people lived here for centuries in small isolated towns and villages, leading to the development of various dialects and cultural sects of the Shona. The biggest and most prosperous of these were the Kalanga people. It is believed that the first Kalanga dominated societies started in the 9th century in the Limpopo valley, and subsequently moved to the Zimbabwe highlands. The Zimbabwean plateau eventually became the centre of subsequent Kalanga states. The Kingdom of Mapungubwe was the first in a series of sophisticated trade states developed in Zimbabwe, trading with the Portuguese traders in gold, ivory and copper for cloth and glass.
This kingdom soon turned hostile towards its sub sect of BakaLanga people, who were then ostracized from the lands. These settlers, around the year 1220 AD moved further in to the Zimbabwean Plateau and founded the city of Great Zimbabwe, the centre of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe.
This Kalanga state further refined and expanded upon Mapungubwe’s stone architecture, which survives to this day at the ruins of the kingdom’s capital of Great Zimbabwe.
The Kingdom of Zimbabwe was mainly a trading kingdom, with strong trade ties in Europe. They traded in gold and ivory mainly, overshadowed Mapungubwe very quickly and rose to become the most powerful state in the Zimbabwe plateau. Soon this money began to be poured into a powerful military. Using this military, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe captured the neighbouring kingdoms, including its parent the Mapungubwe, and started exacting heavy taxes from these areas; skyrocketing its economic status. It reached the peak of its influence around the year 1400 AD, and then started to decline in the face of other kingdoms rising.
Areas under rule and Administration
The Kingdom of Zimbabwe was a relatively smaller kingdom, and at its peak only covered around the major cities, Khami, Mapela, and the capital Great Zimbabwe. However these three cities were among the most prosperous and well-fortified in the area. The other territory consisted of around 150 small tributary settlements which paid taxes and tribute to the kingdom.
The kingdom itself was ruled with a rigid three tiered structure, with royalty and the elite merchants at the top, commoner, like farmers and masons etc, and slaves at the very bottom. However within each strata there was uncommon equality between men and women, with each being respected the same.
Ruling over all three classes was the king, whose authority was absolute and without question.
Housing and Architecture of Great Zimbabwe
The architecture and building materials of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe are very well known as a lot of the city of Great Zimbabwe has survived till the modern day.
The Zimbabwean people built mainly with stone and mud. They had perfected the technique of cutting and shaping the stone in such a way that the stones could be stacked in a wall perfectly without the use of mortar, and the wall would hold its shape and integrity. This technique was used extensively in the city of Great Zimbabwe, mainly in the walls.
There are two major walls in the city. One outer wall, which protected the main city from invaders, and one inner wall which divided the city into two part, the inner part was for the royalty and elite, and the outer are was for the common folk. The building in the inner area were mainly constructed with granite and stone, which was cut to perfection and stacked with one another. The buildings in the outer area were mainly mud walled with stone foundations and thatch roofed.
Even though the commoners couldn’t live in the granite palace of the wealthy, the mud houses were very spacious and well-apportioned due to prolific artistic culture in the kingdom.
The Kingdom of Zimbabwe was mainly known for its trade routes, and supply of gold, ivory and leopard skins. It had vast trade routes: stretching from the east African coast all the way to India. It is thought that the most important port in this trade network was first the city of Mogadishu in present-day Somalia, and later Kilwa, south of Zanzibar.
Stonework and Art
Apart from the trade, the major achievement of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe was its architecture and stone masonry. The buildings in the city of Great Zimbabwe were built completely without the use of mortar and have survived the test of time, from the 14th century to the modern era.
One of the most notable artefacts discovered to date are the eight Zimbabwe Birds. The birds are 16 inches tall, carved from soapstone and had been placed atop massive stone monoliths that were about a yard tall. The birds contain both human and bird-like features, including lips for a beak, and five-toed feet for claws. They may have been symbols of a royal presence. These birds provide a lot of insight into the art of that era and kingdom. It is speculated that the art of the kingdom was heavily influenced by the royalty and religion, often merging the two and envisioning the royalty as gods themselves.
Judging by the appearance of the Zimbabwe Birds, and relating it to other African cultures, it is speculated that the royalty was viewed as godlike animals themselves, much like the Egyptian culture.
By the 1400s, the kingdom was in decline. Masses of people were migrating from Great Zimbabwe to find better fortunes. There are many speculations about this mass exodus. Some historians state that it was because of lack of resources and food. Others claim that the decline was due to the gold mines in the Zimbabwean territory running out.
Whatever may be the reason, to stave off this decline, Zimbabwe tried to annex new areas with more fertile soil or gold mines, and to secure better trade routes. One of the areas that were on the list for annexation was the eastward lying area under Arab-Swahili influence, mainly the Zambezi valley.
To this effect around 1430 Nyatsimba Mutota, a prince of the Zimbabwean royalty headed out with a large chunk of the army and waged war against the Tawara people living in the Zambezi valley. He and his followers managed to defeat them and secure the area. Soon Nyatsimba declared himself king and founded the Mutapa Kingdom, with its centre of power at the Zambezi valley. A huge chunk of the Zimbabwean army followed him and abandoned the Kingdom of Zimbabwe.
This led to a civil war between the two kingdoms, which led to the defeat of the Zimbabwe people. They lost a large part of their territory and trade to the Mutapa, and by 1550 the entire kingdom was absorbed into the Mutapa kingdom, with only a few outlying settlements inhabiting the ruins of Great Zimbabwe.
Thomas N. Huffman and J. C. Vogel, “The Chronology of Great Zimbabwe” in The South African Archaeological Bulletin Vol. 46, No. 154 (Dec., 1991)
Shadreck Chirikure, Munyaradzi Manyanga, Innocent Pikirayi and Mark Pollard, “New Pathways of Sociopolitical Complexity in Southern Africa” in The African Archaeological Review Vol. 30, No. 4
Thomas N. Huffman, “Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe: The origin and spread of social complexity in southern Africa” in Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 28 (2009) 37–54