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Great Zimbabwe - as seen through the eyes of a local tour guide

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang H. Thome, eTN Africa Correspondent  Jul 12, 2016

Great Zimbabwe is a World Heritage site located in the central plateau of Zimbabwe. It is 27 km southeast of the city of Masvingo which happens to be the oldest town in Zimbabwe. It is the cradle of the Zimbabwe dry-stone architecture in the Southern African region.

The Great Zimbabwe monument consists of a maze of dry-stone structures, evidence of great pre-colonial architectural poesy which the builders had. The amazing structures act as evidence of the exploitation of the vast wealth used in the construction of the walls. The Great Zimbabwe site today can actually be subdivided into three major sections which happens to be the Hill Complex, the Valley Structures and the Great Enclosure,

The Hill Complex is right on top of the sacred kopje and is made up of roughly four elaborate enclosures. Cultural materials retrieved by archaeologists date back to the 12th century and the materials all points to the residence of the royal rulers/leaders. The Hill Complex consists of walls which were used as fortresses to protect and safeguard the elite rulers. The entrance which is located on the eastern side of the Royal enclosure is actually the last original entrance. The Kings actually lived in this enclosure and the hut floor remains can actually be seen. A spacious enclosure which is on the eastern-side of the hill is believed to have served as the ritual enclosure or prayer house of that time. Six of the well-celebrated soapstone carvings of the Zimbabwean (Hungwe- African fish eagle) birds were found in this very enclosure. The birds a believed to have been carved to signify the royal importance and powers of the Kings and as a result, these very carving are historically and spiritually significant to the nation at large. The soapstone birds (now housed in the site museum) were traditionally placed on the spacious altars in this ritual enclosure. A well-defined bench were an audience would sit during ceremonies stretches from the eastern the southern side of the very enclosure.

Traditionally the hill was accessed using two alternative routes, the so-called traditional ascend and the alternate Watergate path. The traditional path is about 460m long and it actually gives panoramic views of the surroundings. One can actually see the nearby Great Zimbabwe Hotel, the spacious campsite on the foot of the hill, the Nemamwa primary school and the Mutirikwi dam. The Watergate path was traditionally used as the way to a stream that used to flow on the foot of the hill complex. This Watergate path is no longer in use today, it has been substituted by the modern path which is gradual and more convenient for visitors. The modern path is more gradual and connects to a Curio shop which is selling light refreshments and some locally made crafts and curios, making it a befitting refreshment and rest place after the tour of the hill complex.

The other place of great interest is the Great Enclosure which happens to be the most spectacular structure at the site. It stands 255m in circumference, the highest parts reaches 11m and the broader base reaches 6m wide. This amazing structure is actually the second largest pre-historic structure in the whole of Africa, second only after the Egyptian pyramids. Pillars of royal dominants can actually be seen on the top of the outer wall of this enclosure. From the northern side, the Great Enclosure is accessed using the parallel passage which is believed to have been used by initiates who would be going for the pre-marital lessons which were conducted in this very enclosure. The parallel passage actually leads one to the conical tower which used to be printed on the Zimbabwean dollar coin. According to historians, the tower signified the abundant royal wealth of the builders. Archaeologists however rather believe that it was a sign of the great architectural skill which they had acquired with time. The solid conical tower stands at present 12m high, the base circumference is 26m and the tipping of all stone courses is roughly a centimeter apart. A spacious initiation center is on the north-western side of the tower and a daga initiation altar is under a thatch for conservation and preservation purposes.

The Valley Structures consist of numerous enclosures that traditionally housed the royal people. Today there isn’t much to admire in the valley area because most of the walls declined as a result of the uncontrolled growth of vegetation just after demise of Great Zimbabwe civilization in the 16th century. Of interest rather is the model village which was set to showcase and celebrate the local heritage and talents in terms of soapstone curving, basket making, clay pot making as well as music and dance. The village is on the outer-eastern side of the monument such that it does not distort the traditional feel of the monument. There are pole and daga huts with a grass thatch build as an imitation of the ancient structures which were build inside the stone-walling at Great Zimbabwe. There are groups of people that offers traditional music and dance while some do the carvings and demonstrate the clay pot making. There is also a shaman, an African magician who can actual foretell the future even for tourists. The village is just there as a revival center of the fast vanishing Shona culture.

Alien yet well blending to the site of Great Zimbabwe is the Curio-shop and a site museum all located at the heart of the site. The museum houses some of the artifacts archaeologically retrieved from the site. Of paramount importance in this museum are the eight soapstone birds. One of these eight soapstone sculptures is actually the Zimbabwean emblem on the flag. Seven of the sculptures are original and only one of them is a replica of its original. There is a wide collection of exhibits in this site museum which includes the gold which they had, evidence of cotton weaving and spinning as well regional and international trade. The museum has written texts narrating the history of the site as a whole.

With all this, the Great Zimbabwe site stands as one of the most visited sites in Zimbabwe. A team of well trained and articulate tour guides are always available to serve and guide all visitors. It is to one’s advantage to visit this colossal Zimbabwean shrine which makes the genesis of the Zimbabwe traditions and the distinctive Shona civilizations.

Great Zimbabwe - as seen through the eyes of a local tour guide

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