The great ruins of Zimbabwe

By Daniel Waller

The Great Zimbabwe ruins lie some 27 kilometres outside Masvingo. Dense labyrinths of vast walls sown over a hundred acres of granite hill and valley, the ruins hold forth an austere grandeur. Imposing and mysterious, they bear an aboriginal epic quality which, mated with a nebulous association with goldsmithing, has found patronage in the likes of King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, and Prester John.

Now it is the kingdom of the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe, and visitors are few and far between. The site’s entrance attendant spotted our car down the length of the entrance road and although he did not move or raise his hand, we could feel his eyes reeling us in. Inside the reception, sat in a frozen bubble of khaki light, were three further personnel with the disconsolate air of a family of moulting turkeys. A moustachioed woman accepted our payment and issued our passes with the mandarin calm of the under-enthused. Parked, we sat in a strange mist whilst a bearded woman under a thatch roof radioed for our guide, Joseph. Clever, witty and good-tempered, it was easy to like him. He spoke rapidly and confidently, with great charm, marking his sentences with stabbing motions of his walking stick, as though he were going to impale a star. He told us he was called to give a tour of the site perhaps once a week; we had each paid two US dollars in addition to our entrance fee for the tour. Such is the terminal state of Zimbabwe now.

Joseph explained we would proceed first to the Hill Ruin, and then to the Great Enclosure, and then launched into a breakneck history of the site, and the derivation of the name Zimbabwe. It was clear that here he liked to linger and discourse, finding etymology as pleasant as a shade tree (Zimbabwe is a Shona word usually taken to be a contraction of “dzimba dza mabwe”, or “houses of stone”).

The Hill Ruin dominates Great Zimbabwe to the north – a bony ridge of bare granite 300 feet high, capped by a mass of boulders that fall away to the south in a sheer unbroken cliff. It loomed above the surface of the mist like the brow of some leviathan lifted just above the surface of the water. As we climbed the ancient path, fog slid out from the banks of stone like a broad black tongue, and out of the invisible marched shadowy standing stones, for the hill is crowned with walls and capped by turrets and sacrificial monoliths.

Everywhere they sprang up in the pale mist, cowled like monks in a vertiginous diversity of outline. The sky was a scleral grey and cast such a weird light that every colour was intensified. Each lichen that grew from the walls looked like a live, green nerve.

On the opposite side of the valley, like some coiled snake shedding its chevron-patterned skin, stands the greatest structure of Great Zimbabwe, the Great Enclosure. The largest single prehistoric structure in sub-Saharan Africa, its outer wall is over 800 feet long, and sometimes 17 feet thick and 32 high, and capped with monoliths and a two-line chevron frieze. Inside the eastern curve is built a solid conical tower, 30 feet high, and patterned and beautiful as a serpent. Behind this great phallus a round red moon rose idly, and the world might have been shedding its skin.

As we left, we paid our dues in the compact museum, accommodating the Zimbabwe Birds, and populated with bored caretakers and the site’s only other visitors that day: four Frenchmen. Having tipped as extravagantly as we could, the road from Masvingo of course bore out a cunning speed-trap and a delighted policeman. He was grinning shrewdly and his eyes held a malevolent promise of unwanted friendship.