Great Zimbabwe Urbanism and Architecture Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Great Zimbabwe epitomizes the sophistication and skills of medieval African civilization. Located in the southern region of the nation of Zimbabwe, the Great Enclosure is one of many historic sites consisting of a series of walls, granaries, and fortifications built of granite blocks without mortar. The nation of Zimbabwe takes its name from this extraordinary place.

Summary of Event

Crossing the Zambezi River in a southerly direction, people left the plains of eastern Africa shortly after 1000 to settle the great plateau of what is now called Zimbabwe. The exact cultural and linguistic origins of the settlers is unknown, though they most likely belonged to the great migration of Bantu-speaking peoples that spread across Africa. Descendants of these migrants formed a number of clans called Karanga, the forebears of Zimbabwe’s dominant ethnic group, the Shona, who produced one of the most sophisticated, urbanized settlements south of the Sahara Desert during the medieval period. [kw]Great Zimbabwe Urbanism and Architecture (11th-15th centuries) [kw]Zimbabwe Urbanism and Architecture, Great (11th-15th centuries) [kw]Urbanism and Architecture, Great Zimbabwe (11th-15th centuries) [kw]Architecture, Great Zimbabwe Urbanism and (11th-15th centuries) Great Zimbabwe Africa;11th-15th cent.: Great Zimbabwe Urbanism and Architecture[1440] Architecture;11th-15th cent.: Great Zimbabwe Urbanism and Architecture[1440] Engineering;11th-15th cent.: Great Zimbabwe Urbanism and Architecture[1440] Government and politics;11th-15th cent.: Great Zimbabwe Urbanism and Architecture[1440] Trade and commerce;11th-15th cent.: Great Zimbabwe Urbanism and Architecture[1440]

The early settlers found many advantages to settling this plateau. First, it had a mild environment with plentiful rain, and much of the plateau region was free of the tsetse fly that spread serious illness to people and livestock. Fertile soils of the many tributaries to the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers supported horticulture that supplied millet, sorghum, and cowpeas. The plateau is dotted with kopjes (Afrikaans term meaning hillocks). The Karanga found the kopjes to be excellent places for settlement because they were pockmarked with caves and could be defended easily. Finally, the plateau is crossed, from north-northeast to south-southwest, by the longest linear volcanic extrusion in the world. More than 250 kinds of minerals, precious stones, and carving stones have been mined from the plateau since the time of the Karanga Karanga settlements. The Karanga depended on gold, copper, iron, and emeralds mined here. They also made good use of verdite, steatite (soapstone), malachite, and different forms of serpentine for the distinctive sculptural art now known around the world.

During early settlement years, people made their homes and surrounding compounds from the heavy clays called daga, which became hard when baked in the sun. By the twelfth century, cattle herding, iron smelting, and trade in the abundant collected ivory increased wealth and led to social stratification, with royal families emerging as economic, political, and ritual centers of power.

The Great Enclosure is one of many historic sites consisting of a series of walls, granaries, and fortifications built of granite blocks without mortar.

(R. Kent Rasmussen)

Royals increasingly used slabs of granite, which were easily collected from the kopjes, to strengthen their compounds, provide more privacy from commoners, and symbolize their authority over trade and ritual. The granite breaks off through exfoliation (weathering) in slabs that are about 3 to 8 inches (7.5 to 20 centimeters) thick. Early in the thirteenth century, the slabs were collected and used without mortar. The slabs were leaned into each other with each layer slightly recessed in comparison to the successive layers below. This produced a balancing of weights that held the structure in place.

Some of the interior walls, the floors, and extensions to the granite walls were made of daga. Thus, spiraling strings of connected homes and compounds of relatives could extend for some distance from the central, and most important, home compound of the king. Farther out, in a longer ring, were the dagas of the commoners who supported the royal family. This settlement pattern produced unusually high concentrations of people at that time. Nearly three hundred such sites existed at the civilization’s height in the late fifteenth century.

Many sites were later destroyed by warfare or colonial visitors, so only the remnants of 150 stone-wall complexes can be found throughout Zimbabwe today. In fact, the country takes its name (zimbabwe) from the old Shona words used to describe the stone houses. Dzimba dza mabwe in Shona literally means “house of stone” (plural madzimbabwe). Because the royal families were so powerful—controlling major rituals—and because they were buried in granite-encased graves, the term eventually took on the meanings of sacred house, ritual seat of a king, or both. Architecture;Africa Africa;architecture

By the fourteenth century, a number of Karanga kings gained control of the gold and copper trade, but they did not do their own mining. Instead, they controlled the gold and copper trade across their territories and manipulated the trade in cattle Cattle;trade in relative to the trade in gold and copper. New trade with Swahili and Arab merchants from the coast brought Ming porcelain from China, stoneware from the Rhineland, Persian textiles, and fine glass beads from India. The extraordinary wealth derived from this new source of income resulted in the building of several massive madzimbabwe between the early fifteenth century and the late sixteenth century. They are located at Great Zimbabwe (near Masvingo), Khami (near Bulawayo), and Dhlodhlo (near Gweru). Great Zimbabwe and Khami became UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1986.

Great Zimbabwe Great Zimbabwe is the grandest and the first of the major granite enclosures to be built. More than one million blocks of dressed-granite masonry without mortar (which were chipped and trimmed to a desired size) are found here. This site alone most likely supported nearly twenty thousand people. It has three parts: the Acropolis, the Valley Enclosures, and the Great Enclosure. The Acropolis is atop the kopje that rises more than 260 feet (79 meters). A series of narrow and steep passageways in stone lead to enclosures with walls 16 feet (5 meters) thick and 25 feet (7.5 meters) high. They were decorated with turrets and monoliths. The Acropolis is the oldest section (three hundred years of continuous habitation) and was inhabited by the king and his family. It was the spiritual center of the Great Zimbabwe civilization and had the main ritual enclosures.

The Valley Enclosures are a series of concentric walls that connected the daga huts of important people close to the king and his family. Here, carved steatite birds similar in style to the chevron were uncovered. This is now the symbol of the Zimbabwe nation and found on the flag and the state seal.

The Great Enclosure is the largest single ancient structure in sub-Saharan Africa. Its circumference is 820 feet (250 meters) and its length is 290 feet (88.5 meters) (about the size of a football field) with walls 36 feet (11 meters) high and 16 feet (5 meters) thick. It has another interior wall with a passageway and a number of stone structures decorated with courses, or layers, of chevron and herringbone designs. The most famous interior structure is the conical tower. The tower is 16 feet (5 meters) in diameter at the base and tapers to about 7 feet (2 meters) in diameter at the top. It is 33 feet (10 meters) high and probably was a symbolic structure. Some archaeologists believe that it was an initiation and ritual center.

Great Zimbabwe was the seat of the first formal state to emerge in southern Africa. By the middle of the fifteenth century, another clan, near what is now called Bulawayo (western region), led by Mwene Mutapa Mwene Mutapa , became strong and took over Great Zimbabwe and lands reaching to the Zambezi River and well into what is now western Mozambique.


The Great Zimbabwe site, and the wide distribution of several hundred sites related to it throughout the country of Zimbabwe and just across its borders into Mozambique, Botswana, and northern South Africa, had made a significant cultural impact.

First, it is invaluable as a source regarding precolonial African societies. Stone is among the most durable of building materials, thus preserving for posterity the skill, sophistication, and beauty of the legacy of the Shona people. This legacy is evident in the name Zimbabwe and in the pride many Zimbabweans have in their ancestral culture. Second, it is an outstanding example of early engineering skills. Third, it is a clear indication that eastern and southern Africa affected and was influenced by trade with cultures as far away as China, India, Persia, and central Europe. This evidence belies the assumption colonial Europeans had of the African interior: that it was a land without civilizations and cultures. This erroneous assumption was used to justify European expansion in Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Finally, it clearly and definitively challenges colonial European assumptions about the intelligence and capabilities of indigenous peoples in general and African people in particular.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bahn, Paul G., ed. Lost Cities. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1997. Considers Great Zimbabwe within the context of other great world cities and sites that no longer exist. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beach, D. The Shona and Their Neighbours. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1994. This is an overview of Zimbabwe’s dominant ethnic group and its historical impact on its neighbors in southern Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elleh, Nnamdi. African Architecture: Evolution and Transformation. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996. Presents an overview of African architecture from antiquity through the twentieth century. Looks at Zimbabwean architecture, architectural heritage, urbanization in Africa, and laying a foundation for the history of African architecture. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garlake, Peter. Early Art and Architecture of Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Provides a chapter on Great Zimbabwe and the southern African interior. Includes a time line, illustrations, maps, a list of sources for further study, a bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herbert, E. W. Iron, Gender, and Power: Rituals of Transformation in African Societies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. The author illustrates the relationship between new technologies and their impact on changing social and religious life in the African context. Zimbabwe’s medieval period is highlighted.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huffman, T. N. Snakes and Crocodiles: Power and Symbolism in Ancient Zimbabwe. Johannesburg, South Africa: Witwatersrand University Press, 1996. The central role of religious belief, ritual, and symbolism is put forth as the basis for the flowering of the Karanga kings, their culture, and achievements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McIntosh, Roderick J. “Riddle of Great Zimbabwe.” Archaeology 51, no. 4 (1998). Discusses the continuing scholarly debates about the origins of and motivations for building Great Zimbabwe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scarre, Chris, ed. The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World: The Great Monuments and How They Were Built. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999. Discusses Great Zimbabwe and its architecture as ancient world marvels. Illustrations, some in color, bibliography, index.

Categories: History