Great Zimbabwe: An African empire
November 15, 2011 11:31 AM   Subscribe

Built by the Shona (1100-1500 AD), the empire of Great Zimbabwe, one of Africa’s greatest civilizations like Egypt and Meroe, stood between present-day Zimbabwe, eastern Botswana and south-east Mozambique. The empire’s highly developed architecture overwhelmed discoverers. And much in the same manner as German anthropologist Doctor Frobenius ignorantly mistook the Kingdom of Ife in Nigeria for the lost kingdom of Atlantis in 1911, some Europeans blatantly refused to believe that Great Zimbabwe was built by Africans. Dawson Munjeri, former director of Great Zimbabwe, a World Heritage site, discusses the history of the exceptional Zimbabwe empire.

* 1552 Portuguese historian Joao dos Barros wrote Da Asia, conquest account; assumed site be one of the cities of the Queen of Sheba. Other Portuguese chroniclers described it as the biblical city of Ophir.

* 1871 German geologist Karl Mauch; similarly believed he had found Ophir, home of the Queen of Sheba, site of gold mines that were the source of King Solomon’s wealth, where Queen of Sheba procured gold for the Temple of Solomon.

* 1890s British James Theodore Bent, sent by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, sponsored by Cecil Rhodes, British financier whose British South Africa Company occupied Mashonaland (N or Great Zimbabwe) in 1890 and established colony called Rhodesia; Bent first suspects ruins to be of African origin, but his 1892 Ruined Cities of Mashonaland cites exotic objects found within to conclude ruins not natively built.

* 1902-04 British archaeologist Richard N. Hall cleared dirt and rubble within enclosures, destroying much evidence. Believed it built by "more civilized races" than native groups.

* 1905 David Randall-MacIver, archaeologist and Egyptologist, first to declare the ruins African.

* 1929 Gertrude Caton-Thompson, archaeologist, sent by British to prove him wrong, confirms Randall-MacIver’s thesis, pronounces the site African Bantu in origin.
posted by infini (19 comments total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
Great post, I love these reminders that, for every historical bit you're taught in school, there's a dozen things that never even get mentioned, particularly if they're in pre-colonial Africa.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:55 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I always thought it interesting that advanced architecture didn't develop south of the Sahara until the 11th century... even the Americas had planned cities and large temples in the 25th century BC.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:09 PM on November 15, 2011

Thanks for posting! I spent a semester in Harare in college and one of the many trips we took was to Great Zimbabwe. It was an amazing and grand sight, particularly the decorative elements that were part of the structures--the chevrons built into the walls, and the zimbabwe birds. I just remember thinking that even with the African history classes I'd already taken, I still knew next-to-nothing about pre-colonial times.
posted by janerica at 12:10 PM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is really a fantastic post, thanks. We did Great Zimbabwe in sort of a whirlwind in ninth grade, and I look forward to learning more!

I would also add that although it's unlikely that we'll discover a new empire with stone buildings, the archaeology of sub-Saharan African countries is not necessarily very well understood, and new and exciting developments undoubtedly still await. (And man, yikes-- it kind of pains me to have degrees in the same field as Richard Hall! I can only hope modern excavations help redeem that particular colonial legacy.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:38 PM on November 15, 2011

Nice post, infini. I wish the teaching of history in schools incorporated more non-European cultures, but it seems to fall especially woefully short when it comes to the history of the African continent. Thank you for this!
posted by VikingSword at 1:06 PM on November 15, 2011

Pre-colonial Africa is something I've always wanted to learn more about. Thanks for posting this.
posted by immlass at 1:12 PM on November 15, 2011

Interestingly, its been the recent spate of [affordable, easily available, second hand] Wilbur Smith novels I'd been reading whilst in Kenya that got me interested in all of this. If you set aside his dated colonial mindset/choice of words, he still writes with great knowledge and passion about this part of the world. The most recent novel, The Sunbird, had me googling with every other chapter which is how I stumbled across this unique city and its historic controversy I'd never even known about.
posted by infini at 1:59 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Janerica, your informative captions in the flickr set are far better than anything I was able to find online regarding the architecture of Great Zimbabwe
posted by infini at 2:02 PM on November 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

The trick with teaching history of the world in any encapsulated way is that there are so many interesting side stories that largely faded out, or don't fit into any convenient linear path of history. Unfortunately, the lack of education about civilizations that rose and fell without leaving a mark on the western world is that the lack of education is self-perpetuating. If you don't hear about it, you won't want to learn more. With that, I suggest teachers incorporate 60 second "here's what we didn't have time to cover in depth (because it's not on any state or federally mandated tests) but is still really interesting" micro-teaser-lessons.

But because teachers generally don't have enough time to do extensive research and then refine it into micro-doses, I say we start making our own and sharing them.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:25 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the post. But still, how can we begin to find some real research on African architecture? There is very little research, and hardly any from an architectural/preservationist perspective.
posted by mumimor at 3:31 PM on November 15, 2011

There is very little research, and hardly any from an architectural/preservationist perspective.

I was out in Gede and the dearth of information was obvious, even in the museum. There's a lot of work to be done from a more current perspective - one hopes that there will be more accessible. One of the links I found for this FPP sheds some light and thought on this (particularly the last section on page 180).

In Kenya, curiosity drove me to purchase local middleschool textbooks - History and Government are one subject taught together and I learnt a lot. I had not realized how much my own wide ranging knowledge was still narrow due to the lens through which I had learnt and been taught (British and American).

These Kenyan textbooks were unapologetic in their usage of the terms "And then the white man came..." etc - funnily enough, it seems that this "white man" is held in a different light from the those that one met everyday, accordingly to my local colleague. There was no hidden sense of embarrassment (wrt to being primitive or backward etc) in the museum displays of tribal life and beliefs, only pride. However, the challenge acknowledged is that unlike say China or India, there was little documentation available until the advent of the colonial government. The National Museum still depends on much of the work of Joy Adamson from 1945, with all its then current understanding.

Still, the current day textbooks were worth it, as I had never, until now, read about African history from the local everyday perspective of educating citizens of the future.
posted by infini at 4:37 PM on November 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Sadly, this reminds me of the Americans I know who absolutely refuse to believe that Indians had a culturally, artistically, and agriculturally sophisticated society with cities and towns right on the very land we live on now, rather than being the tribal bison-hunters we learned about in school.

Too bad they mostly didn't build things out of stone.
posted by miyabo at 5:35 PM on November 15, 2011

I tend to call them Columbus Indians in order to differentiate from what my passport tells me. I rather like what Canada uses instead, First Nations, since it implies exactly what it sounds like.
posted by infini at 5:53 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I always thought it interesting that advanced architecture didn't develop south of the Sahara until the 11th century... even the Americas had planned cities and large temples in the 25th century BC.
me too. Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel is a fantastic book on this and related subjects.
posted by moorooka at 6:39 PM on November 15, 2011

Infini--I can't take credit for those! It was just the best photo I found online, and whoever put that together did a great job. I should have clarified they were not mine.
posted by janerica at 10:13 PM on November 15, 2011

Awesome stuff! I've never heard of Great Zimbabwe, this is phenomenal. Will spend most of the morning now reading about this...
posted by the cydonian at 10:52 PM on November 15, 2011

even the Americas had planned cities and large temples in the 25th century BC.

That really only partially true. New world sites contemporaneous and equivalent on scale to say, Old Kingdom Egypt, are quite anomalous; Caral is the only one I can think of off the top of my head. Most of the urban centers with monumental architecture in the Americas didn't really develop until ~1200 BCE (San Lorenzo-Tenochtitlan, Chauvin de Huantar, Poverty Point, etc.). What all these sites had in common was intensive agriculture able to support a large, dense population.

There are certainly sites in West Africa that show ancient settlements (Tichitt, in Mauritania, for example), but the Sahel isn't the best place in the world to practice the kind of intensive agriculture needed for erecting massive architecture, so pastoralism was the rule. South Africa had it's own problem in that the tropics present a barrier for diffusion of the crops of Egypt and Ethiopia, so again, pastoralism ruled. Not to lean to heavily on the hydraulic theory of state creation, it's probably no surprise that other parts of Africa lagged in state formation behind those civilizations along the Nile. Really, even the later kingdoms and empire in South and West Africa weren't based around agriculture, but were pastoral peoples organized around controlling trade routes (Mali, Songhai, and yes, Zimbabwe).

Of course, the other factor could be what I heard an archaeologist who works in Mozambique say at a lecture, "the problem with archaeology in Africa is that no one goes there and you never find anything anyway," meaning funding is harder than usual and the predilection for certain areas to use wood or mud-brick as building materials in climates hostile to their presevation, means few traces may be left.
posted by Panjandrum at 9:33 AM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Great post!! Rest assured that at least this history teacher teaches American students about African civilizations like Great Zimbabwe. If you have 15 minutes, check out this great video that I show in my class about African civilizations that includes Great Zimbabwe and includes a lot of the information contained in this post: (part 1) (part 2)
posted by dealing away at 2:35 PM on November 17, 2011

Thanks for the links and the comments. Up to now the only things I knew about African empires came from "The Cartoon History of the Universe", which has a nice chapter in Volume 3.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:37 AM on November 19, 2011

« Older "Back in June, the Guardian gave it a go and in...   |   Frozen Planet decides not to air episode in U.S. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments