There was a time long ago when these stone buildings were the epicenter of a once powerful and dominant civilization in Southern Africa. At its peak, it is believed the city had over 10 000 inhabitants. What remains today are awe-striking rock walls that have mainly resisted the punishment of time. A place that symbolizes the architectural prowess of a people that had little mechanization but sheer determination to protect themselves.
Great Zimbabwe ruins were once a thriving city from 11th century to about 15th century. It is believed to have served as a royal palace for the local monarch who would have ruled across much of present day Zimbabwe probably through vassals. Not much is known about what really happened in the enclosures and who actually dwelt in there. Most of the history is through oral recitation.
After the colonization of Zimbabwe in the late 19th century there was a massive attempt to discredit the fact that such a humongous piece of engineering could have been built by black people of Bantu origin. The colonial administrations tried to push the narrative that it was built by Phoenitians or Arabs.
James Theodore Bent who was funded by Cecil John Rhodes the person who led the first occupation of Zimbabwe was the most notable of those who pushed the theory that the ruins were built by people of Jewish and Arabian origin who were traders living within a client African city. This characterization was important in the quest of Rhodes to justify subjugating millions of people. The black people had to fit the narrative . That they were uncivilized with no capability to build anything of such significance.
These theories were later discredited as more and more evidence from excavations and carbon dating pointed more to the ruins having been built and inhabited by the local Shona people.
Getting to Great Zimbabwe Ruins
Most visitors fly into Harare. There are some charter flights from Harare to Masvingo or Buffalo Range Airport but can be pretty expensive. A 4-hr road trip on one of the busiest but also poorly-maintained road is the easiest way to get there. You can hire a car at the airport. This will set you back $50-100/day. You can also take a bus. Depending on your comfort preferences, there are some busesthat travel from Harare to Masvingo, or Harare to Beitbridge via Masvingo. It is not advisable to use these buses unless you have a local guide because some of the places you catch these buses may not be safe. If you decide to hitch-hike to Masvingo, you can take a taxi to Mbudzi which is a junction on the south side of Harare. There is generally no etiquette on how to hitch, just wave your hand!
Driving to Great Zimbabwe is a good option. It would be advisable to find a local driver if possible who can act as a guide too. The road to Masvingo is also used by huge haulage trucks and it not advisable to drive at night. Make sure to inquire about the fuel situation from the car hire company as Zimbabwe usually have some periods of shortages.
Right close to the ruins is a 3 star hotel, The Great Zimbabwe hotel. They have some spacious rooms and a decent menu. They also have a bar that closes a bit late too. From the hotel there is a decent walk to the monument.
You may want to stay in the City of Masvingo which would give you a good amount of other experiences. There are a few good hotels in the city and also a number of lodges that you can book. If you are on a tight budget a lodge , cottage or house is a good option. Be sure to review the neighborhood.
The tour of Great Zimbabwe is generally ideal if you have a guide who has intimate knowledge of the history. You can hire a guide a the gate. The area itself spans about 4 square miles with different archaeological and historical sites scattered across the escarpment.
There is a huge amount of walking involved, some around slopes and uphill. There are no carts available. There is however a great deal to see around the main enclosure. To really appreciate the intricacies of this area we strongly encourage you to find a good guide familiar with the history of the Shona people.
There is a museum that houses some of the ancient Zimbabwe bird sculptures which were returned after being looted by treasure hunters and colonial administration. There is also a number of literature and carvings, Persian pottery, a Chinese writing set and brass ornaments from Assam in India. These were recovered in or near the ruins. The museum is however in great need of a face-lift.
There is great detail of architectural purpose on both the Hill Complex and the Great Enclosure. To appreciate how this was such a massive feat one has to dedicate at least 4-5 hours of exploration, up the hill, in the valley and into the Great Enclosure whose main attraction is the iconic tower on the south side.
The Shona Village
There is also a place known as Shona Village just outside the area. The place tries to recapture how people used to live at the height of activity of the city. There are Shona huts with statures and sculptures which you can visit and probably spend another hour.
Where and what to eat
There are no food places within the Great Zimbabwe area, however there is a shaded area just outside where you can rest and eat whatever you would have brought. If you would want to experience some of Zimbabwe’s cuisines you can drive a few miles to Nemamwa Growth point which is close by.