The Ruins of Great Zimbabwe

All year long I have hoped that we could go to Zimbabwe as a family to visit the ruins of a medieval structure called “Great Zimbabwe.” We covered it in our ancient Africa studies recently in history, and since we only live an hour away from Zimbabwe in South Africa, I thought it would be such an amazing field trip to visit the ruins. If we lived in America, we could go on so many field trips while learning American history. We don’t get that here, but we DO live near to Zimbabwe, so I jumped at the chance for a school-connected field trip.

I did not know how difficult or expensive it would be to get there. I had an idea, but as we got closer to the trip, I got more and more nervous about the logistics. We even canceled the whole idea earlier this year when it looked like our finances wouldn’t allow it. But then, a former LBI graduate of ours who is planting a church in Zimbabwe asked Seth to come baptize some new believers for him, and our financial situation was looking up a bit, so I plucked up my courage, and we went. What an amazing trip!

Even as we approached Great Zim, I was almost in tears wondering whether or not we could actually enter the site. It was raining that morning as we approached. 😦 And Seth had warned me that if the entrance fees were too high, we wouldn’t pay to see it. But the fees were reasonable, about what we thought they might be when we’d tried to research it in SA, and the rain quit. It worked out so perfectly, praise to the Lord! We even paid a small extra charge for a guide, which made the visit way better, since we could understand what we were looking at. I will try to post soon about the rest of our trip, but I promised some fellow homeschoolers to share pictures of our visit to Great Zim, so that’s all I’m going to explain in this post.

Here is the sign at the paypoint, hanging between two flags. As you can see, the sign mentions several other similar ruins across southern Africa. I didn’t know how many other sites are connected to Great Zim. I’d heard of one in SA, Mapungubwe, which I’d like to visit sometime as it’s in our northern province; but Great Zim is the biggest and best. The others, from what I hear, are only related in building style, but the ruins are very small.


There are four major parts of Great Zim to see: the king’s fortress on the mountain, the Shona village model, the museum (I couldn’t take pictures in there), and the queen’s city at the bottom of the mountain. We began the tour by walking down a path that led to the mountain, where we saw the beginning of the ruined walls, which led up quite a climb to get to the top of the king’s fortress. It was steep in some places, and there were no guard rails at the top–just ruined walls. Sometimes I wished I had leashes to attach to my kids’ belt loops so none of them would fall down the mountain. Americans would probably be sue-crazy there. We did it, admittedly worriedly, with a 2 year old (though we often looked like the last picture here of Seth)!


If you look closely, you can see the walls to the left of the high rocks.



Catch the baby!

From the top, you could look down and see the ruins at the bottom where the king’s (about 200) wives lived. These are the famous ruins in many of the pictures, which they say were actually for the head wife, the queen. I’ll show more pictures of these later.


The walls of the king’s fortress as well as the queen’s city were very high, up to 11 meters. There were all sorts of tight passages and cave-like crevices. In one of these pictures, the king’s bodyguards would protect the stairwell, and only one person could fit up the stairs at a time.

Archaeologists believe eight kings ruled here. Each time a king died, they destroyed the cooking huts or other living quarters for that king and rebuilt new ones. Here is an example of a cooking hut they found.


The next few images show one of the most interesting sections to us as missionaries, because it showed African traditional religion. The sangoma, or witch doctor, would summon the spirits and become possessed in this outer chamber, then would cross into this open sitting area, where he would prophesy or do rituals for the king. This open assembly area was also used for civil proceedings and judgments.

There were, if I remember correctly, eight, but maybe fewer, carved wooden birds that were used by the sangoma in this area that had some type of religious significance. They were a symbol somehow having to do with demonic power given to the king with the help of the sangoma. These birds are carved differently but in a similar style. They are no longer there on the mountain, but most of them are down in the museum. I was not allowed to take pictures of them there. But I did take pictures of souvenirs elsewhere that show the style of the bird images. You can see on this huge rock hanging above this assembly area the beak of a falcon-like bird pointing towards the left, with the face and neck part coming down below. The country of Zimbabwe took their name from these ruins and has this bird symbol on their flag.


At one place, the guide showed us where they believe the kings are buried. Sadly, though much of southern Africa claims to be Christian, theirs is a nominal, syncretistic Christianity, mainly prosperity gospel, which still fears the spirits and tries to utilize the power of the spirits to enrich their lives. They just tack on the name of Jesus as one more power to conquer their problems in life. Our guide was a first-class example of this African need for Reformation.

He claims to be a Christian (Seventh Day Adventist), yet he whispered while talking about how when archaeologists began to dig where they thought the kings were buried, they heard strange voices, felt a great fear, and strange things happened, so that they gave up digging. He showed a great reverence and fear of the place and didn’t want to speak loudly there. Soon he believes, there are plans to call sangomas of great power to help them access this tunnel in a way that they may be safe from the curses or demons connected to the burial site, so they may discover what’s down this tunnel. When we gently challenged his inconsistent beliefs, he maintained that even though he’s a Christian, we should still be afraid of the power those spirits exercise over their areas, and must access them in their way, by appeasing those powers in their own ways. We encouraged him to fear God only.


Here he did a funny thing. He sat in this little cave and called loudly, “Wife #99!” It echoed off the hills in the distance. It was humorous to imagine the king calling his wives in that way, by number, down in the queens’ village.


We had finished our tour of the top fortress, which was my favorite part, though the queen’s place was more stunning visually. We hiked back down and headed to the Shona village. We were running short on time, and considering we lived in a Tsonga village for nine years, and had stayed the night before and were staying the following two nights in a Shona village, we moved on to the next parts. Shona is the language of that area of Zimbabwe, and their ancestors were the builders of Great Zim. They had some hand-crafted souvenirs for sale here; you can see the bird image in some of the items.


We quickly headed over to the queen’s houses. It began with some outer ruins, and then you come up to a circular wall 11 meters high at the highest point. This was the amazing part. There are two concentric passageways, one along the outer wall, one inside; they surmise that the girls were allowed to use one passage, the boys the outer, to come inside for “premarital classes.” In conjunction with this supposition, they believe the circular tower was a symbol of male domination. Ahem.

Some of the inner walls were taken apart and moved elsewhere. Some whites came in later and wanted souvenirs or to find out if there was gold there. Gold was traded here to Portuguese or Muslim traders for items. They have found beads and other items to show this was the queen’s palace. To prevent someone taking apart the circular tower, an archaeologist dug down underneath it, and came up underneath to prove that it is solid inside. It is not hollow and couldn’t have gold in there.


Circular tower from passage view


Tower from inside view. There was a lot more open space inside than my pictures show.

Finally we exited the queens’ homes’ ruins. As we were exiting, there was a large open space with big stones sticking out of the ground. It looked like tombstones, but they surmise that these were a sort of sundial. We exited and went to the museum next, where they housed some artifacts, most importantly, the wooden carved birds from the king’s mountain home. It was a lovely visit, even including the extremely bold monkeys creeping up on us as we ate sandwiches at the car before we left!





I was so blessed to have the opportunity to see history up close, and I hope you all enjoy these pictures as well.

About Amy

I'm Amy, a missionary wife and homeschooling mother of five children, blogging about our lives and perspectives on culture in South Africa.
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9 Responses to The Ruins of Great Zimbabwe

  1. Katie says:

    I loved seeing your photos, Amy! I’m not sure I’m brave enough to do another road trip in Zim — once was enough! — so your photos might be the only look I get of the ruins πŸ™‚

  2. Thanks! What history are you studying right now? I’m sure I will use these pictures in the future when I teach this cycle.

    • Amy says:

      We are finishing up MFW Rome to the Reformation, so it’s Africa “ancient Africa,” but it’s really from the medieval times. MFW scheduled it the same week as when SOTW teaches the African kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay in Western Africa. This isn’t covered in SOTW. It was scheduled as an optional reading for the week from Streams of Civilization, which most people probably skip, but I definitely wanted to do! πŸ™‚

  3. Mom says:

    This was really interesting. Now I know what you were talking about and I can see why you wanted to go there.

  4. Kathy Mullins-Engelhardt says:

    Thank you for sharing, I really enjoyed seeing the pix and was very glad the trip was safe

  5. Pingback: Our Epic, Whirlwind Visit to Zimbabwe | Ita Vita

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