Mystery of Great Zimbabwe
Great Enclosure at Great Zimbabwe.
by Peter Tyson
The first whispered reports of a fabulous stone palace in the heart of southern
Africa began dribbling into the coastal trading ports of Mozambique in the
16th century. In his 1552 Da Asia, the most complete
chronicle of the Portuguese conquests, João de Barros wrote of "a square
fortress, masonry within and without, built of stones of marvelous size, and
there appears to be no mortar joining them."
De Barros thought the edifice, which he never saw, was Axuma, one of the cities
of the Queen of Sheba. Other Portuguese chroniclers of the day linked the
rumored fortress with the region's gold trade and decided it must be the
biblical Ophir, from which the Queen of Sheba procured gold for the Temple of
This notion persisted for centuries, right up until the monument's
19th-century European "discovery." That distinction fell to a young
German named Carl Mauch. In 1871, Mauch, eager to seek for the fabled ruins of
Ophir, penetrated deep into what is today southern Zimbabwe. In August, he
reached the home of a lone German trader, who told him of "quite large ruins
which could never have been built by blacks." On September 5, local Karanga
tribesmen led Mauch to the site.
In the midst of a wooded savanna backed by bare granite hills stood a city of
stone. Its beautifully coursed walls curved and undulated sinuously over the
landscape, blending into the boulder-strewn terrain as if having arisen there
naturally. Bearing no mortar, as de Barros had correctly heard, the walls
nevertheless reached enormous height, standing as high as 32 feet over the
surrounding savanna. Of fully 100 acres of these granite enclosures, not a
single one was straight.
Mauch was looking at the greatest pre-Portuguese ruins of sub-Saharan
The highest of Great Zimbabwe's walls soar 32 feet
above the surrounding savanna.
Mauch, for all his tenacity, was "no thinker," as Peter Garlake, author of the
definitive archeological text on Great Zimbabwe, deemed him. And Mauch only
boosted the Portuguese theories of three centuries before. The soapstone and
iron relics he uncovered told him that a "civilized [read: white] nation must
once have lived there." From a lintel, he cut some wood that he described as
reddish, scented, and very like the wood of his pencil. Therefore, he
concluded, the wood must be cedar from Lebanon and must have been brought by
Phoenicians. And therefore, the Great Enclosure—the edifice's most
impressive structure, which local Karanga called Mumbahuru, "the house
of the great woman"—must have been built by the Queen of Sheba.
As it turns out,
Mauch's description of the wood aptly characterizes the African sandalwood, a
local hardwood that later visitors also found in the walls of the Great
Enclosure. But no one would know that for years.
In the meantime, Mauch's line of reasoning, distinguished as it was by the most
purblind logic, perfectly suited Cecil Rhodes, whose British South Africa
Company (BSA) occupied Mashonaland in 1890. (Mashonaland lies just to the north
of Great Zimbabwe.) Inextricably steeped in his native country's racist views,
Rhodes bought into Mauch's take without a second thought. Indeed, on Rhodes'
first visit to the site, local Karanga chiefs were told that "the Great Master"
had come to see "the ancient temple which once upon a time belonged to white
Eager to nail down the edifice's exotic origins once and for all, Rhodes and
his BSA quickly sponsored an investigation of Great Zimbabwe. They hired one J.
Theodore Bent, whose only claim to expertise lay in an antiquarian interest
born of travels through the eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. He adhered
just as tenaciously as Rhodes to the notion of the city's non-black origin,
though to his credit he didn't automatically swallow the link to the Queen of
Sheba. (As he set to work at Great Zimbabwe, he later recalled, "the names of King
Solomon and the Queen of Sheba were on everybody's lips, and have become so
distasteful to us that we never expect to hear them again without an
All artifacts that Theodore Bent
turned up pointed to an indigenous origin to Great Zimbabwe and its people, but
he would have none of it.
All the artifacts Bent subsequently uncovered screamed "indigenous." Pottery
sherds and spindle whorls; spearheads of iron, bronze, and copper; axes, adzes,
and hoes; and gold-working equipment such as tuyères and crucibles—all
were very similar to household objects used by the local Karanga. Yet Bent,
incapable of following where the evidence might lead him, concluded ("a little
lamely and nebulously," notes Garlake) that "a prehistoric race built the ruins
... a northern race coming from Arabia ... closely akin to the Phoenician and
Egyptian ... and eventually developing into the more civilized races of the
Bent was amateurish and narrow-minded but not utterly incompetent. The same
could not be said of Richard Nicklin Hall, a local journalist and author of
The Ancient Ruins of Rhodesia. In what would prove to be one of the most
sickeningly misguided assignments in the history of archeological preservation,
the BSA appointed Hall Curator of Great Zimbabwe, with a mandate to undertake
"not scientific research but the preservation of the building." Instead, Hall,
hell-bent on finally settling the issue of its origins, launched into a
full-scale "archeological" investigation. Claiming he was removing the "filth
and decadence of the Kaffir occupation," he scoured the site for signs of its
white builders, discarding from three to 12 feet of stratified archeological
deposits throughout Great Zimbabwe. An archeologist who visited the site
shortly after Hall left deemed his fieldwork "reckless blundering ... worse
than anything I have ever seen."
Word eventually got back to the BSA of Hall's desecration of southern Africa's
greatest archeological treasure, and he was dismissed. But the damage had been
done. "Hall's disastrous activities left only vestiges of archeological
deposits within the walls," wrote Garlake in his book Great Zimbabwe, "a
paucity that was to inhibit all future scientific work."
Continue: Randall-MacIver investigates the site
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