Friday, May 16, 2014

Great Zimbabwe

Fig.1: The Great Enclosure of the Great Zimbabwe is so 
great that is doesn't even violate the Double Great Rule 
that states two greats make a not-so-great!
Oh great, another "Great" thing! There are already people who are great, pyramids that are great, fires that are great, sugar-coated flakes that are great. How can there be so much greatness in the world? There must be certain great things that are greater than other greats! Well, let me ask you this: how many great things lend its name to an entire country? This is the case with the Great Zimbabwe (fig.1) in the Southern African nation of Zimbabwe (yes, Southern Africa has countries not named South Africa). This huge enclosed city once hosted the capital to a prosperous kingdom from the 11th to the 15th centuries, and still remains the largest stone complex in Africa south of the Sahara. The word zimbabwe, derived from the Shona language term for "large house of stone," described many such sites in the region, but only this one was considered to be the Great "large house of stone" (yay for adjectives!). This term then lent its name to the Iron Age kingdom that built the structure, the modern-day nation that houses it, and the next big celebrity birth (I'm looking at you, Jay-Z and Beyonce). I'd like to see your Great Depression do that!

The great story of Great Zimbabwe begins with the Kingdom of Mapungubwe in Northern South Africa (cause that's not confusing). What historians consider the first politically-structured civilization in the region thrived during the 9th-10th centuries. That is until it stopped raining, putting Mapungubwe's economy of agriculture and water slides into double jeopardy. So parts of the population traveled north to find better land on which to live, but unfortunately didn't make it so far as Europe (that would have made life much easier). Instead they settled (literally and figuratively) on a fertile plateau about two hundred miles away from Mapungubwe, which was good enough for cultivating small crops, raising cattle, and constructing those zimbabwes like they knew the land would one day be named after them. But at some point between the 11th and 13th centuries, they decided to "Go Big or Go Home" (Zimbabwe's national motto) and put most of their energy into the one zimbabwe to rule them all!

Fig.2: That Great Enclosure was necessary to keep out the riffraff from the Valley.
As the cliché goes, the Great Zimbabwe wasn't built in a day (unlike Rome). It was an ongoing project that was constantly renovated and added to for over 300 years, creating construction and traffic nightmares throughout its existence. Initially they began on the Hill Complex (fig.2, #1) where the well-to-do priests and cattle-raisers lived. Many large bird statues once dotted the hill; this may have been an ancient surveillance system to protect the livestock and keep a watchful eye on the peons down below. In the 13th century, the Great Enclosure (#2) was built to house the kings and ministers that comprised the government, as well as the royal wenches that kept the government happy. Finally in the 14th century, the Valley Complex (#3) was built as a community housing project for the citizens. Of course, the Valley (or V-Side) eventually turned into a rough neighborhood with constant violence, theft, and yard sales (I blame the schools). Historians estimate the site's peak population reached over 18,000, a significant figure for a settlement in sub-Saharan Africa, putting modern-day industrial capitals like Vaduz, Liechtenstein and their lowly 5,248 people to shame!

Fig.3: Yes, but does it use 
thermodynamic pressure to 
dunk its head into water? 
Cause that would be cool!
The Great Zimbabwe quickly became a center for wealth and trade. Markets, forums, religious houses, and graffiti-covered check cashing establishments (mostly in V-Side) covered the 700 hectacres (or nearly three square miles) of the site. It was especially useful when millions upon millions of ounces of gold were discovered and mined nearby, putting the Kingdom of Zimbabwe on the international trading market. Items that made their way into the complex and eventually excavated include glass beads from the East African coast, coins from the Arabian peninsula, even pottery from China (sadly, no Holy Grail from Jesus's cupboard). Locally-made artifacts include soapstone copies of the bird monoliths from the Hill Complex (fig.3), which found their way onto the Zimbabwean flag, coat of arms, currency, and biceps of overly-patriotic people. What Timbuktu was to West Africa, the Great Zimbabwe became to Southern Africa, and like Timbuktu its prosperity would last forever...

...Until it didn't. Around 1450, the Great Zimbabwe seems to have been completely abandoned. Archaeologists have not pinpointed an exact reason why this occurred (maybe they should stop playing in the dirt so much and do something for once), but environmental collapse and a loss of resources account for the most popular theory (as popular as those things can be). Tradition states that the Kingdom of Mutapa to the north, which appears to have been established at the same time of Zimbabwe's decline, was founded by a Zimbabwean who really wanted some salt on his kielbasa and kept going until he found some. Mutapa would survive for another 300 years, while the Great Zimbabwe quickly turned into a Great Vacant Lot that every city has.

There it sat until the Europeans reared their pasty heads. The Portuguese caught wind of the place around the period of its abandonment by Arab traders in East Africa, who confessed it was a major source of their gold supply. Portugal thought about checking the place out, but that meant actually heading into the mosquito-invested heartland of Africa instead of hanging out on the nice sandy beaches like they normally did, so they quickly vetoed it in favor of working on that tan. It was finally rediscovered in the late 1800s by German explorers, attracting the attention of one Cecil Rhodes, a British business magnate and all-around lover of oppression colonialism (especially when entire colonies were named after him like "Rhodesia," which comprised of modern-day Zimbabwe, would be).

Fig.4: "Mesa do good stonework!"
European archaeologists were sent to the Great Zimbabwe to get dirty, and maybe find something historical out for a change. Unfortunately, their racist minds concluded that lowly Bantu Africans could not have possibly been the original architects of the city, and that only people like the Phoenicians, Jews, or even the Gungans (fig.4) could have been smart enough to build something so magnificent. These assumptions about great architectural works in colonized lands was sadly not new: the same people refused to believe the Cambodians built Angkor Wat or the Aztecs Tenochtitlan, and we're lucky if Europeans even gave indigenous people credit for wiping themselves. Even when later evidence explicitly proved its construction by the native population, the British officials in Rhodesia discredited and censured their work all the way until the 1970s! How rude!

Regardless of this sad instance of institutionalized racism and overall stupidness, the Great Zimbabwe remains as a testament to native African ingenuity, as well as the only reason for people to visit the country of Zimbabwe (except if you wanted to visit every country in the world in reverse-alphabetical order). While maybe not as visually impressive as the Great Pyramids or Great Walls or Great American Cookie Companies of the world, the attention to detail for each section of the complex is unparallelled for its time, and would have required much patience and engineering know-how. The Great Zimbabwe is entitled to basque in its fair share of greatness, even if the country named after it doesn't quite have as great of a reputation for its economy or reliable presidential elections. Gotta take all the great you can get when it comes to post-colonial Africa!

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