The Forgotten Empire: Zimbabwe

zim.jpgWhen European travelers discovered a city of stones, above the bush country of southern Rhodesia, they exclaimed with glee, thinking they had found the legendary mines of King Solomon. But the fact was different. They had found the religious citadels of a powerful empire, Zimbabwe.

Did you know that Zimbabwe is referred to as the country of stones? True to its name, which has been translated from Shona- the language of the Mashona people, it means, “venerated houses” or “stone houses”. This civilization stood on the Mtilikwe River, and was so silent and so quiet that its sudden appearance makes you think of a mirage. Karl Mauch, a German geologist had discovered this civilization way back in September 1871, and interestingly, he mentions in his records that the roofless structures and great walls built in this massive complex resembled the European style of architecture. Well, there could have been some connection, but we are not sure how.

Mauch on his journey to Zimbabwe had come across this huge, about 60 acres of ruined land, with a Majestic fortress-having a series of narrow passages, steps and corridors, and walls which are now called the Acropolis. The second structure he came across was the vast elliptical enclosure, containing the temple of Solomon, and between the temple and the Acropolis, a valley of ruins. These ruins had baffled Mauch because looking at the ruins, and the structures, it was more than evident that these had been constructed, but by whom? Not by the local African tribes, Karangas, for sure! To Mauch, it appeared that the builders might have belonged to King Solomon or some other foreign ruler.

That the basic human nature remains the same is so evident when we look back in the past. Be it another civilization, or another language, or anything that is different from one, human beings never change, and probably they never ever will. The lust for power and money, jealousy, anger, and everything that is inherent in human behavior is beyond change. The Amangiva tribe which had escorted Mauch to Africa, was envious of the Karanga tribe, and claimed their right on the ruins. The political and territorial conflicts made the geologist’s movement within Zimbabwe impossible. He lost his surveying instruments, hence could not study the structures minutely. Also, the tropical fever which he caught in these ruins took his life. However, before dying, he left records of his discoveries. The reports left by Mauch, the sub-Saharan climate, and the absence of written records dithered future archaeologists from concluding that any form of civilization existed there. There was a problem in assessing the chronology of the area also. Hence, with the limited material that they had, the later historians knitted a history around these ruins, saying that the structures were made for Queen Sheba, who stayed during her visit to Solomon, and that the ruin on the hill was a copy of the temple of Solomon.

It was Theodor Bent, an English archaeologist who pursued his investigation in 1891 and concluded that these ruins were similar to that of the Phoenician and Egyptian. On the other hand, Rhodesia with its wealth and immense gold attracted a lot of explorers. However when the several layers of ruins were dug by the trained archaeologist working under the British South Africa company, David Randall Maclver concluded that Zimbabwe ruins had no western or Oriental influence and it was very much indigenous to Africa. His theories were supported by Gertrude Carton, who further added that the structures must have been built around 8th or 9th century. The records and theories then pointed towards the glorious emergence of a Black Empire, and the Zimbabwean civilization was the history of the Bantu tribe, who gradually migrated to all parts of Africa. This tribe gradually evolved, incorporating within them the occupations of herding, crop cultivation, mining and pottery making. The Acropolis suggests the presence of Iron Age settlement in Zimbabwe around 320 A.D.

The Karangas had come much later in 850 A.D., and owing to their migration from Central Africa, rich in iron deposits, were more advanced than the former tribes. Trade began when these people came in close contact with the Arab traders. Rhodesia became a beehive of gold, copper and iron trades. Although Zimbabwe was not rich in gold, it acted as a checkpoint for traders. Being an advanced group, the Karangas prospered much more than the Bantus, later on overpowering and claiming the calm and isolated city of Zimbabwe in around 1400 A.D. Becoming the king of the area, they naturally formulated their own laws and religion. They transformed Zimbabwe into a religious place. The beauty of the valley was enough to make it a place of worship. This factor explains the secret of its architectural splendour. From 1400 to 1833 A.D. flourished the golden realm of architecture, consisting of the well made Solomon temple. But, unfortunately the beauty now lies in debris. The Canonical tower which stood in the high outer walls of the Solomon temple, were destroyed in the archaeological pursuits of Bent and Carton, and despite of the destruction could not gather vital information. Various historians looked for its entrance but failed. As it is solid and in no way easy to climb up, questions like, whether it was a watch tower or a religious symbol, still haunt the historians even today.

Had the earlier archaeologists been bestowed with keen acumen, we would have known much more about the Black civilization where architectural beauty still baffles the travelers and explorers.

Aditi Raman