In search of Ophir

  Somewhere in the middle of an extensive plateau between the banks of two rivers – Zambezi and Limpopo in southeastern Zimbabwe, there is a little known, very old treasure.

“Welcome to Great Zimbabwe, good people”, an energetic local tour guide gives us a charming smile as we enter the ruins of a once remarkable city. So this is it. Great Zimbabwe – the second largest, after Egyptian pyramids architectural complex in Africa and the legacy of one of the most significant, medieval civilizations. Glorified by first explorers; Arabs, Portuguese traders, gold prospectors, adventurers and colonizers. The mystery of the past centuries, a riddle of the present and a big question mark in the heart of the African Continent.

Yet in present it is totally forgotten. How many of us heard about the existence of Great Zimbabwe? Why do we know so little and why the secrets of those walls were so closely guarded for centuries?


Since time immemorial, Africa used to attract many adventurers with a legendary promise of incredible treasures to be found alongside ancient trade routes. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive to the southern shores of Africa. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, they founded the fort on the east coast of the continent in order to oversee the flow of gold and other valuable goods. They were also the first Europeans who heard of the mysterious stone structures in the interior of the continent, of a closely guarded fortress inhabited by numerous wives of the local rulers, of the gold mines, a great wealth and splendor altogether. They never saw any of those wonders for themselves, but the juicy stories spread by Swahili merchants boosted their imagination and left traces in the most comprehensive chronicle of the Portuguese conquest at the time. For the first time in modern history the Great Zimbabwe was mentioned. The first dilemmas followed immediately as well.

The Portuguese landed on the soil belonging to the powerful king with bloodcurdling name Monomopata – “Master of all depredation”. His empire stretched from the Kalahari Desert to the shores of the Indian Ocean and covered most gold-bearing areas of southern Africa. Monomopata himself, along with his wives and court were living in the old, mythical stone walls. It was known that those structures had been built much earlier though and even their residents did not have a clue about their beginnings. People used to indicate some evil powers to be responsible for their creation.

Moors from the eastern coast believed that the fortress had been built by some ruler of a distant kingdom and served to protect his goldmines. They even pointed directly at the legacy of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, which proved to be a very popular couple in the culture of Islam at that time. Christians coming from Europe were pleased to pick up the biblical topic identifying Great Zimbabwe with the mythical land of Ophir. Their wild imagination allowed them to see the king of Israel directing his ships to the eastern and southern coasts of Africa. These ships were coming back loaded with gold, ivory and exotic animals. They saw him building his strongholds and temples on the African soil. Stories from the Old Testament, blended with the mysterious African scenery, created in the European man’s mind a romantic, easy to remember theory that was uncritically repeated for the next centuries.

German geologist Carl Mauch, who reached the ruins of Great Zimbabwe in 1871, is believed to be the first European to see the stone houses with their own eyes. He saw, and believed. He believed in Portuguese’ concept dating back 300 years stating authoritatively that “civilized (white) people had once inhabited these sites.” He saw a finger of God and a copy of the Temple of Solomon in these African ruins, because he wanted to see them. A similar scenario happened when the British South African Company led by Cecil Rhodes took control over Mashonaland in late nineteenth century. The aim of this expedition was primarily gold, however, African climate served the British so well, that they decided to make themselves comfortable and keep these lands for good. History repeats itself. Biblical theory of Ophir – the old Phoenician residence, found fertile ground and the romantic legend from the past was used as the colonial propaganda justifying white domination over the Shona people. Great Zimbabwe has become a symbol of wealth, a battlefield, a point of honor. When Rhodes came to see the ruins for the first time, local chiefs from Karanga tribe were told that “a great lord” would be visiting the ancient city built in the past by his ancestors. Africans could not have created something long – lasting and so impressive. They would not have been able to build a monumental fortress, a thriving kingdom or foundations of any civilization. Civilization had to belong to the white man. That was clear for Europeans.

Excavations initiated at that time were supposed to solve two greatest mysteries of Great Zimbabwe: who built these walls and when did it happen. First and foremost, they were supposed to confirm the colonizers’ theory. The first “research” was done by adventurers, journalists, gold prospectors and did more harm than good. Many valuable items were robbed, several cultural layers were removed from the ground and huge losses to the archeology were made. Even then, however, a breakthrough was achieved. The biblical myth of the land of Ophir was discredited as there was no sign of a biblical royal couple to be found at any time. If not Phoenicians, then who? Authorship of the ruins was then subsequently attributed to the Egyptians, Arabs, Chinese, Persians, Greeks, Assyrians, and almost all other people that could be suspected of any potential influence in the region, except of Africans themselves. However even at that initial stage of the study, it was clear that all objects found in the ruins did not differ much from those used by the Karanga tribe at that time. The fact that actually no evidence of any foreign influence could be found, was very uncomfortable to the researchers and politicians. Summary of the first excavations therefore sounded something like “… these ruins are the work of a prehistoric race who in the last phase of existence was affected, and who knows, if not absorbed by some Semitic organizations … the peoples of the northern race who came from Arabia, closely related to Phoenicians and Egyptians…who then started more advanced civilizations of the ancient world. “

It was only after real archaeologists and scientists were allowed to conduct the excavations that fair and thorough studies began. This led to the bashful statement at the very beginning that the Great Zimbabwe “could be” the work of locals. It came in year 1905 when British imperialism lived its golden age. It was too early to call the colonizers’ theory into question, therefore archaeologists were forbidden entry to the excavations for the next 25 years!

The work was resumed in the late 1930s. Professional research methods and detailed analysis enabled researchers to concentrate on the facts. These facts, however, still conflicted with the official policy of British Rhodesia, as ruins proved to be “African” in every possible sense. There was no doubt that the authorship of the Great Zimbabwe should be assigned to the Karanga tribe speaking the Shona language. Publication of the scientific documents proving this theory, however, was prohibited until 1980 when a brand new African, independent country called Zimbabwe emerged. The country took its name after the greatest monument built by human hands on the south of the Sahara, being indisputable proof of the existence of a growing African civilization. Civilization, which reached its peak long before the Europeans, the Arabs trade routes and Portuguese sailors appeared in Africa. When Europe was still shrouded in the darkness of the Middle Ages continuing a witch-hunt, in the remote part of Africa, located between the Zambezi and Limpopo, there was a thriving kingdom of Great Zimbabwe.


As we pass through a souvenir shop and follow the “Ancient trail”, we listen to the history of the creation, rise and fall of this mystical city. An avalanche of questions falls upon the poor guide, but he listens patiently and responds to each of them – “No problem, good people – ask as much as you want, thanks to you I have this wonderful job.” So let’s start from the beginning. “Why Great Zimbabwe was built particularly in here?”

– “This region has always been kind to its inhabitants. Mild climate, constant rain, abundant vegetation and hills forming a natural barrier from the tse-tse flies, created altogether perfect conditions for settlement and agriculture. In the fourth century farmers from Karanga tribe came to this area and founded their first settlement. After some time, a social elite emerged taking over control of the rural community and began the construction of stone walls. Therefore foundations for a new civilization known as Great Zimbabwe were built. The city flourished between 1100-1450 thanks to its goldmines and trade.”

What does the name mean? – “The word ‘Zimbabwe’ (dzimba dzamabwe) in the Shona language means a ‘holy house’, ‘ritual place for the King’, or ‘royal tomb’, although most frequently it is being translated as ‘houses of stone’. Karanga tribe used this term to name the buildings occupied by the ruler and other members of the royal family.”

“Ok, let us move, good people – I will continue the story as we walk.”
An ancient map consisted of two parts: complex on the hill and complex in the valley. We begin at the entrance to the hill and as we climb up, we will follow the path used in the heyday of the city by everyone who wanted to visit the king and his residence.

This place looks like a great fortress, although we get to know that those solid walls were not supposed to have defensive character at all. “Were its residents not afraid of the attack?” As we climb higher, with each step it becomes more and more obvious that gigantic stones, big gaps between them and steep terrain gave a great natural protection, which was good enough to discourage any potential invaders. Getting to the top with heavy weapons would be very hectic and time-consuming, so the enemy would not have enough strength to defeat the guards. Anyway, at that time there was no other kingdom nearby, which was at the position to equate with the civilization of Great Zimbabwe. That does not mean though the security measures were not in place. People’s movement to the hill was strictly monitored and ordinary mortals had no access to it. At the entrance gate, kingdom’s guards performed an initial guests’ selection trying to establish if applicants’ affairs were worth the king’s attention. Only a valid reason and a noble birth guaranteed the permission to the top. After this initial intelligence, there were hundreds of stones to climb and when these obstacles were overcome; visitors were subject to the last trail – test of truthfulness. An avalanche of questions used to fall from the top. These questions were supposed to verify if guests had peaceful intentions and knew local customs. If the answer was not satisfactory or aroused suspicion that the visitor is a spy, an avalanche of stones used to fall from the top…

Fortunately we do not have any unpleasant surprises on the way and manage to reach to the heart of the medieval royal headquarters, one of the largest of that time. In this exact place, religious rituals and political ceremonies of the greatest importance were held. City, inhabited during the peak period by approximately 18-25 thousand people, flourished thanks to the international trade with Syria, Persia and China, to name just a few. Control over some important trade routes brought prestige and wealth to Great Zimbabwe.

At present, there is little left from its old glory, but one can still sense the majesty. Millions of granite blocks laid one by one without the use of any mortar form a dense labyrinth of huge walls and a very consistent structure. Although time, gold prospectors and false scientists left a great destruction, the charm of this place remains untouched.

The next point of our itinerary is a huge courtyard called “Ritual Enclosure”, used as a center of magic rituals and religious ecstasy. In this place mysterious bird sculptures were found. It is not known whether they depicted parrots, hawks, vultures or African eagles, as there were as many interpretations as researches. Symbolism of these sculptures is unclear too. Were they a link between life and death, a real world and supernatural, representing ideas and prayers raised to the Heavens? Or maybe they simply symbolized a flight into the skies?

Just a few more pictures of these immense stone walls and we need to leave the royal hill, slowly heading towards the buildings of the valley. Here the landscape is totally different, more monotonous and harsh. There is a lot more space, stones are scattered carelessly in the grass, medieval ruins are covered with savannah and some bizarre palm trees emerge from the rocks.

There is just one more attraction waiting for us – the last one and probably the most important : Great Enclosure; the most significant prehistoric structure in southern Africa, known also by Karanga people as “mumbahuru” – “Home of a great woman.” External, elliptical walls are more than 245 m. high and over 5 meters width in some places. The most advanced construction techniques of that time and 15,000 tons of rock blocks were used. The impressive, massive structure was supposed to protect royal wives and young girls from the eyes of strangers. Most probably at some stage also a king along with his family and the nobility lived here too. Within these walls another bird sculpture was found, a structure of a mysterious totemic animal, that has become the emblem of the state. Although its significance is still not fully explained, we can see it as a symbol of the cultural heritage of Zimbabwe on the national flag, banknotes and postage stamps. Conical Tower. Another riddle and the most characteristic object in the entire complex. Is it a phallic symbol representing the king’s sexuality or simply a granary? Hypotheses are many.


The civilization of Great Zimbabwe began to decline in the XV century. The city was abandoned for reasons still unknown. There are different theories why this could happen: an abrupt climate change, overpopulation, over-exploitation of agricultural land and shrinking gold deposits. Nothing is certain. “The mystery of Zimbabwe is the mystery which lies in the still pulsating heart of native Africa” said Gertrude Caton Thompson, outstanding archaeologist who used to work in the area.
We already know who built the Great Zimbabwe and when that happened, but that’s the only facts to base on. There are still more questions than answers. The mystery of this place is still enclosed in a stone and waiting to be discovered by future generations. “Thank you for coming over, good people”!


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