The place that gave its name


The ancient city of Great Zimbabwe continues to inspire feelings of awe and grandeur.

With so much on offer in Zimbabwe, a journey to view an ancient ruin – the ‘lost’ city of Great Zimbabwe – might seem hardly worth the effort. To believe that, and to act upon it, would be a pity. The site is more than beautiful – it is awe-inspiring. It opens the eye to something too easily neglected in Africa – its extraordinary past.

At its height, Great Zimbabwe was a city of some 20,000 people, so its vestiges are cast over a wide area. But there are two clear focal points, apparent as you arrive – the Acropolis (or Hill Complex) and the Great Enclosure, some 500m away on the plain below.

The ancient ascent to the Acropolis skirts a steep rock face, every step bringing into sharper focus what has already caught your eye towering above you – the elegant curving walls of the free-standing granite blocks that line the cliff edge, like the ramparts of a fort.

Seen from above, the site is a high oval table emerging dramatically out of the plain. Its smooth sides are dizzily sheer. On top lies a chaos of huge tumbled stones, forming two irregular circles and linked here and there by inner walls. The elaborate outer walls are in fact decorative and peaceful, except at the western end, where they create a fortified entrance. Seemingly impregnable, it was not in fact a military construction but the seat of royal and spiritual authority.

The atmosphere in the Acropolis’ Eastern Enclosure is positively Delphic. It is a natural altar, whose backdrop of huge boulders frames a narrow fissure from which, it is believed, the oracular voice sounded.

The Great Enclosure down on the plain, where tall trees and winding walls screen the mysterious Conical Tower, is in its own way as remarkable as the Acropolis. The huge dry-stone walls, sensuously curved and decorated with patterns of chevron, consumed nearly a million individually-shaped pieces of stone. Its 15,000 tonnes of material make it the largest ancient structure in Africa south of the Sahara.  To stand among these graceful ruins is a truly remarkable experience.

Words by Len Rix