Among the world's great and ancient architectural sites, none today dominates the imagination of its host country so completey as Rhodesia's Great Zimbabwe. One thing on which Rhodesia's black nationalist factions agree is that if they take over government their nation will be called Zimbabwe. And the sale figures importantly in white Rhodesia imagery, too: crowning Rhodesia's national crest and printed on its currency are drawings of the Zambabwe birds, a sculptured figure found at the site.
It is no wonder that Zimbabwe figures so prominently. it is an awesome any mysterious aggregarion of high, massive stone walls, narrow, tortuous passages and completely laid-out compounds. The largest archeological site in all of sub-Saharan Africa, it stretches across some 100 acres.
The oldest walls from enclousures strung high up across a step, 300-foot-tall-granite hill. They run across, around and even on top of giant boulders where lizard sunbathe. On flat ellipse, 32 feet high stands 292 feet across. Within it are walls of several smaller enclosures, plus the site's biggest attention-grabber - a conical tower as high as the ellipse and 18 feet thick, a solid pile of stones.And across the shallow valley between hill and ellipse sprawl clusters of smaller scale enclosureces and courtyard walls.
All of the walls were built without mortor from rectangular stones that look like large bricks - the local granite splits readily into such tidy blooks. The walls slope slightly because each layer was set back for extra stability.
But the stone structures did not work as ordinary buildings, None formed houses or great halls or temples as we know them.None even had roofs. Instead, they formed enclosures, shelters and courtyard walls for round huts made of thick, carefully finished daga, the red-mud-mix is the local adobe.
Once Zimbabwe must have glowed marvelously red in its green savannah setting - even some stone walls were plastered with dags, and the stain endures. But all we can see today are red clay floors and the odd hints of daga hearths, seats and platforms.
Just who built Zimbabwe and why was long a topic for imaginative theorizing. Many credited Phoenicians, Ethiopians and even Yemenites Cecil Rhodes thoug perharps he'd got his hands on ancient Ophir.
But all serious and even archeological investigation of Zambabwe point to Bantu builders, probably the ancestor serveral years dynasties removed of some modern-day Shona, the majority people of Rhodesia.
The stone constructuon work was mostly likely began the 13th century, and Zimbabwe thrived until around 14500 A.D. Local legends suggest that a shortage of salt or other famine may have been what made people leave.
During its glory days, ZImbabwe apparently functioned much like a feudal European town - as a political, trading and religious center. Some 2,000 to 3,000 people lived there, about as many as the agricultured economy could bear. A ruling class probably occupied the huts within stone enclosures for the ellipse reserved perharps for the very top-ranking. A bustling small community of artisans such as metal wrokers, potters and weavers lived in huts beyond the walls.
Zimbabwe was the capital of a loosely and peaceably-held quasi-national of Rhodesia, it stretched across much of Rhodesia, it seems. At least 150 small sites with Zimbabwa'style stonework stand as relics of the network.
The site was probably chosen as capital because of its religious significance, though it was also convenient for overland trade and in a fairly health climate. People continued to worship and sacrifice animals there until the early 1900s.
Certainly, the religious and court sides of Zimbabwe life strongly shaped its architecture. Paltforms and altas-like structures dot the site. Numerous 4-foot-tall column of soap-stone and grantie - perharps even hundresd - stood on such platforms and crowned Zimbabwe's walls. It was stop eight of these columns, which may stand for ancestor spirits, that the Zombabwe birds rested.
The great conical tower could have played a role in ceremonies. The ruler may even have stood before it - its shape is like that of local granaries, and receiving grain in tribute was once the prerogative chieftains.
Indeed, the whole Zimbabwe comlex of stoneworks seems to have been built at least partly for symoblic reasons, in particular as a status symbol demonstrating the ruling groups's wealth and accomplishment. But Zimbabwe's building were probably not hugely critical to its people's lives in the way that, for examples, some West African palaces have embodied the cultural and spiritual lives of a people. For one thing, regional tribal lore makers no mention of great trauma accompanying the abandoment of Zimbabwe, and oral histories seldom leaves out a major cause for lament.
However, the forms of the stoneworks and the spaces between them do indicate that the builders of Great Zimbabwe had pretty special taste in shaping buildings and spaces.
They took pains to bend their masonry into graceful curves, especially in the best-laid walls. The walls themselves curve; entrances are marked by rounded bastions, and stepped platforms have curved sides.
In a particularly neat touch, the steps that punctuate some entries are formed of courses from bodering walls and curve back and inward, like the reciprocal of a weeding cake.
Some scholars suggest that the inspiration for his curvaciousness came from the rounded granite boulders arounds the site. Or, the daga building craft could have taught a fondness for roundness, such mud structures made without first forming and drying bricks are at their best, strongest and most attractive when round.
Zimbabwe's builders also showes a passion for squeezing themselves into the narrowest possible passagges and entrances. Boulders made the oaths across and down the hill narrow and difficul - yet the Zimbabweans added stone-walling to make the walkways even tighter! And the narrowness of the long, cool passage between high stone walls, which leads from the northest enterance of the ellipse up to through a special and somewhat mystical experience.
Perharps most remarkable, the structures on the site are laid out and juxtaposed so as to form a continuous stream of structures. One passages along stony boundaries from the ellipse, downthrough the valley ruins and the into the walled path up to the hill enclosures. And from the high eastern enclosures the eye leaps out and down in an acr to the ellipse structures below, which, though irregular and assymetrical, still manage to convey a sense of some man-made order and perfection. The whole ensemble of stoneworks and view together form a great circle perpendicular to the earth - an effect so strongly perceived that it seems more likely due to design then to chance.