Built between the 11th and 14th century, these incredibly well-preserved ruins are the biggest in Sub-Saharan Africa and second-oldest to Mapunguwe in South Africa. Made up of three distinct areas, they cover over 7 km2. The structures, walls and sculptures, made mostly of granite, are intricately put together without mortar. They are, in short, an architectural and archeological wonder.
The origins of the ruins were initially shrouded in controversy when white settlers claimed that they were 'a mystery'. The first written mention of the ruins was by Vicente Pagado, a Portuguese captain, in the early 1500s.
Archeological investigations and reports in the early 1900's proclaimed various origins. A replication of the Queen of Sheba's palace, building by a Semitic race of Arabic origin and a construction by the Lemba people were bandied about as possible options.
In 1905, David Randall-MacIver conducted the first archaeological excavation, followed by Gerturude Caton-Thompson in 1929. They both reported that ancestors of the Shona people built the structures between the 11th and 14th century, and recent consensus agrees with this.
The area around Great Zimbabwe is thought to have been occupied by the Gokomere people - from whom the Shona people are descended - from as early as 500 AD. They were cattle-herders and metal-workers with strong trade links to Persia, India and China. It is thought that up to 20 000 people occupied the area at its height.
The actual buildings are thought to have been built between the 11th and 14th century and were then abandoned around the 16th century. The real reason for this is unknown, with possibilities being drought and the resources (gold) running out.
Constructed out of granite slabs and boulders which are found in the area, no mortar was used. The fact that there are still so many standing structures and walls bears testimony to the incredible, intricate architectural principles that they used. Some of the structures reach up to 30 feet high (Conical Tower) and walls extend up to 800 metres.
The ruins are divided into three distinct areas which fulfilled different functions, although these differ from theory to theory: The Hill Complex/Ruins, The Great Enclosure and The Valley Complex/Ruins.
The Hill Complex, atop the koppie, is thought to have been the initial seat of power or 'Royal City'. This is the oldest of the structures, occupied between the 9th and 13th century. It consists of two main enclosures, the west - thought to have housed successive chiefs and the east - a ritual area. It is in the east enclosure that the six columns topped by the iconic soapstone Zimbabwe bird sculptures perched.
Below the hill, to the south, lies The Great Enclosure, thought to have been built around 12th to 14th century, when the seat of power moved from The Hill Complex. It consists of a number of structures surrounded by an inside wall and then, later on, an outer wall. The Conical Tower, which features in many of the images of Great Zimbabwe is within these walls.
A number of dwellings within the enclosure are made of bricks formed using granite sand and clay.
This large area with scattered dwellings, is thought to have been the villages for the citizens.
It is advised to phone ahead to check on opening times. It is usually open Monday to Friday 8 am to 5 pm and Saturday mornings, but this can change.
Arriving early, before the heat of the day, is wise as it can get very hot, and there is a fair amount of walking involved.
Sunscreen, hats and water are essential.
Use the Google map to explore Great Zimbabwe Ruins. Feel free to Print the Street Map when you're ready.