Wandering an ancient city

At dawn, the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe is shrouded in mist, silhouetted against a pink sky. The city, once the stronghold of Shona kings, is the setting for historic architecture and crumbling ruins. Rough granite walls and towering structures bore witness to the rise of a sophisticated civilization, before Great Zimbabwe was eventually abandoned.

Sunrise at Great Zimbabwe.
Sunrise at Great Zimbabwe.

This mystical place lies near Musvingo, a sleepy town situated in the hilly landscape of southeastern Zim, close to the Chimanimani Mountains. Without a car, the journey to Musvingo involves a five-hour bus from Harare that conveniently transports everything from people to live poultry — Zimbabweans call these buses “chicken buses.” Great Zimbabwe lies another 30 kilometers or so from town.

The historic ruins have become a symbol of Zimbabwe. After the British colony of Rhodesia won independence in 1980, the new nation took its name from Great Zimbabwe.

On approach to the ruins, Great Zimbabwe blends in with its surrounding landscape. Baboons and white-faced monkeys scramble around a vast landscape of aloe trees, stinging nettles and, of course, city relics.

The impressive site is divided into three areas: The Hill Complex, the Valley Complex and the Great Enclosure. It was constructed in the 11th century by the ancestors of the Shona people, who would build up the city for more than 300 years. At capacity, the city could hold up to 25,000 people.

View of the Great Enclosure from The Hill Complex.
View of the Great Enclosure from The Hill Complex.

The Great Enclosure is the most recognized area of the ruins. A circular wall, standing 11 meters tall, enclosed the living area for the king’s senior wife and children. The periphery provided homes for the king’s 250 or so other wives. The walls tower above, made from perfectly-placed granite bricks which are held together by design rather than mortar. The Great Enclosure has earned fame as the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara Desert, putting Great Zimbabwe in the same league as Machu Picchu in Peru and the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

Inside the Great Enclosure of Great Zimbabwe.
Inside the Great Enclosure of Great Zimbabwe.

My guide, appropriately named Teach, told stories of royal eccentricities and court intrigue to bring the ruins to life — it was the setting for an ancient soap opera. Teach’s modern day anecdotes included stories about a natural aphrodisiac in the valley, prescribed by local herbalists in the area. He also pointed out the home of a black mamba snake and the favourite perch of a roaming leopard who feeds on fresh baboon, leaving behind bloody stains.

Great Zimbabwe is a testament to the wonder of this country, and the adventure that awaits anyone lucky enough to visit it. But as with so many things here, there is an underlying story as well. It occurred to me when I was standing with three friends on the king’s seat of Great Zimbabwe, overlooking a magnificent valley in complete silence.

There are hardly any tourists here.

When I saw Machu Picchu in Peru, I remember competing for the view with countless people who ventured to see the ancient city at sunrise. And here in Zimbabwe, at a comparable site in terms of historical significance, I might as well have been alone.

While this added to my own personal experience, I hope that in the future tourists flock to places like Great Zimbabwe. The preservation of historical sites depends on support. Zim is an awe-inspiring place to visit. And with a tourism industry that is slowly rebuilding itself, only the travelers are missing.

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