One of my great regrets from childhood was that whilst on holiday in Zimbabwe I was too grumpy to go on a journey to visit Great Zimbabwe. Reading through an article from the Encyclopedia of Archaeology on our online resource Credo Reference (log in with your library card number), we learn just how amazing and historically important it is; it describes the site as “possibly the largest settlement in Sub-Saharan Africa”.
- There are stone towers, steps and many buildings covering a wide area
- It survived for over 500 years between 900 and 1450 AD
- It gained its wealth from gathering local gold and other resources, and traded with other distant civilizations as far away as China
When the area was discovered by Europeans, there was a misapprehension that something so complex must have come from another outside ancient civilization (maybe China, India… some even suggesting it was King Solomon’s Mines). For a great many years the site suffered from looting and damage from those who did not place any value on the history of the site. Both these issues the article describes as attempts to strip the indigenous population of their history and archeological heritage. Indeed, acknowledgement of its origin and importance is seen as growing only in 1929/30 with the visit of Gertrude Caton-Thompson, when ideas of its creation by “a vigorous native civilization” were given some credence. It was almost as though many could not believe that the indigenous people could have been “a national organization of a high kind of originality and industry” (as quoted from the Times Digital Archive from 1929).
Fifty years ago, in November 1965, Rhodesia broke away from the UK. The Unilateral Declaration of Independence brought to the fore racial inequality and minority rule in the country. After many years of war, independence was internationally and legally recognized and elections took place involving the whole population. The new country of Zimbabwe took its very name from the houses of stone and the culture which surrounded them. The new currency displayed images of Great Zimbabwe (I loved the image of the stone tower on the Zimbabwean dollar) and the unique artifact known as the Zimbabwe Bird is displayed prominently on the flag. Indeed, the importance of this bird can be seen through the return of several examples of them by the South African government after independence was recognized (perhaps read an article from the time such as this one from the Guardian: Rock of ages, Zimbabwe (4 February 1981).
Sadly there are still a great many problems in the country, but perhaps the history of this ancient civilization can help inspire the creation of a community which can live together for several hundred years, trading with the outside world as did those who lived there all that time ago.
Other lessons must be learnt from what has happened with Great Zimbabwe: the importance of history, seeing past any prejudices/preconceptions and aiming to learn more (including trying to learn from our past), the evils of destroying or stealing archaeological artifacts for short-term gain, there is more to history including black and African History than we hear about on a day-to-day basis… and finally, if you are young and tend to get grumpy don’t let it spoil your chances of seeing/doing something special which you will remember forever!
- Learn about the battles for independence
- Find articles containing peoples’ views on Great Zimbabwe and its possible history from newspapers from the time
- Search through The Times for the example I mention above from 1929 (you could just search for ‘Great Zimbabwe’).
- Find out about issues affecting the country today from current newspapers
- Search the library catalogue for books about Great Zimbabwe