The Kingdom of Zimbabwe (1220–1450), one of Africa’s greatest civilizations like Meroe, stood between present-day Zimbabwe, eastern Botswana and south-east Mozambique. It is famous for its capital, Great Zimbabwe, the largest stone structure in southern Africa until recent times.
The first inhabitants of Great Zimbabwe were Shona-speaking peoples who likely settled in the region as early as 400 C.E. Back then, the land was full of possibilities: plains of fertile soil to support farming and herding, and mineral rich territories to provide gold, iron, copper, and tin for trading and crafting.
Over the years, descendants of the Shona made transitions from simple farming communities to more complex, stratified societies. By 1000 C.E., the population of Great Zimbabwe was divided and ranked by status — from elite leaders and their cattle to the peasants who did all the work. Cattle were very desirable and actually more valuable than most of the workers.
Towards 1100, The rulers of Zimbabwe brought artistic and stonemasonry traditions from Mapungubwe and started building the capital of the empire with the local granite on a mountain. For this, they used a very simple technique: they burnt the granite in hot fire before pouring water on them to make them easier to hew. And then they piled the stones on top of each other without any cement, simply because they did not have it. But this method was adapted to the region’s extreme temperature changes and also prevented the construction work from collapsing. To stabilize the structures the bases were larger than the upper parts, a construction technique comparable to the pyramids. Its outer wall is 250 meters in circumference and over 10 meters high. All of Great Zimbabwe was 27,000 square meters. It took a century to complete the work. The name “Zimbabwe” is variously translated from the Shona language to mean “sacred house,” “venerated houses,” “houses of stone,” “ritual seat of the king,” “court,” or “home or grave of the chief.”
By 1200 C.E., the city had grown strong, and was well known as an important religious and trading center. Some believe that religion triggered the city’s rise to power, and that the tall tower was used for worship.
There was a lot of gold in western Zimbabwe which allowed the development of significant trade with the Arabs and the Portuguese. In exchange for their ore, the people of Great Zimbabwe accepted clothes and beads. This place was strategic for the Shona to control trade routes from north to south and from west to east, giving the king considerable power. Moreover, it often rained in the region and the quality of grass was very good for the rearing of cattle. The nation also produced millet. It was self-sufficient in food. All these factors enabled the empire to grow powerful. Discoveries of Chinese porcelain, engraved glass from the Middle East, and metal ornaments from West Africa provide evidence that suggests that Great Zimbabwe was at the center of an international commercial system, which on the continent of Africa, encompassed settlements on the East African Coast such as Kilwa, Malindi and Mogadishu. But this trade network also extended to towns in the Gulf, in western parts of India, and even went as far as China. during the 13th and 14th centuries.
In terms of political power and cultural influence, the archaeological evidence indicates Great Zimbabwe covered a huge area between the Limpopo River and the Zambezi River, spilling out into Mozambique and Botswana, as well as the Transvaal area of northern South Africa. The Great Zimbabwe is estimated to have contained perhaps 18,000 inhabitants, making it one of the largest cities of its day.
In response to the changing social, political, and economic landscape, new buildings were gradually built. Tremendous stone houses were constructed by the peasants for their kings. Sophisticated workplaces were designed for conducting trades such as blacksmithing.
Zimbabwe’s prosperity continued until the mid-15th century, but declined due to the same reasons that made it successful. By keeping increasingly large hordes of livestock that grazed more and more, the environment could not keep up with agricultural demands … People moved away for greener pastures, to Hami, near Bulawayo for example, thus gaining their independence in the process. And because more and more people were leaving there were fewer people to pay taxes to the king, who, in addition to growing poorer, lost his influence. We can say that the Empire died in 1450. However, those who did not leave continued to pray in the spiritual center of Great Zimbabwe. It is one of the remaining traditions of Great Zimbabwe. During the struggle for decolonization, nationalists came to Great Zimbabwe to pray for the liberation of the country. After independence, they changed the country’s name from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. Up till today, people still travel there to meditate.