Great Zimbabwe

The culmination of the Annual General Meeting was an illustrated talk by the Director of the Cambria Archaeological Trust, Gwilym Hughes. One of the opening slides of his excellent and revealing presentation was of mist over Victoria Falls seen through a rainbow; aptly known as the ‘Smoke that Thunders’. The landlocked country of Zimbabwe is bordered to the north from Zambia by the Zambezi River which throws itself over the mile wide Victoria Falls and into Lake Kariba which is 186 miles long. To the south the river Limpopo divides the country from South Africa and its neighbours to the east and west are Mozambique and Botswana respectively.

Gwilym told us he had lived and worked in Zimbabwe between 1984 and 1989 and been involved in conservation work associated with the massive stone structures forming the mysterious ruins of Great Zimbabwe, near Masvingo in the south of the country. The huge stone walls of the settlement, up to 11metres high and 6 metres thick, is believed to date from a Shona civilisation that dominated the region from the 12th to the 15th centuries. At the centre of the site is a hill complex thought to be the residence of the King. The word Zimbabwe in the Shona language means ‘house of stone’. The settlement was probably home to about 20,000 people making it one of the largest settlements of the period and there were clear indications that trade with the Middle East and even the Far East was taking place at that time.

Centuries later traces of this great black civilisation were discovered by the early colonial settlers who chose to believe they had discovered King Solomon’s Mines rather than accept that Great Zimbabwe had been built by the indigenous population all those years ago; so the myth was promoted. Sadly, these early settlers vandalised many of the ancient sites almost as if they were afraid of the past. Oddly today in modern Zimbabwe on its national flag displays the bird of Zimbabwe which was an icon in the times of the old Shona civilisation.

Postscript: In the book entitled Founders of Rhodesia by G.H.Taser published in 1950 a foreword written by Rt.Hon.Sir Geoffrey Huggins, C.H., K.C.M.G., F.R.C.S., M.P. says ‘To understand the future it is necessary to know something of the past...In this book, the author has made the early history of the Colony a much more entertaining subject by giving the reader a series of lively biographies of some of the important personalities who contributed so much to the development of our country.’

Isn’t it odd how pre-history of Great Zimbabwe prior to the coming of the ‘white man’ is so easily dismissed by our colonial forebears? The Friends should be grateful to Gwilym Hughes for ensuring that the history of a truly great country which existed before Cecil John Rhodes was a twinkle in his father’s eye is being told. Wasn’t it Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said ‘When the white man came to the land of Africa he brought the Bible. The people knelt, closed their eyes and prayed. When they opened them again they had the Bible and the white man had the land’.

TREVOR D. LLOYD

First published in The Friend June 2005