The Public Humanist

Global in (African) Nature: Great Zimbabwe and Kilwa Kisiwani


A view of the Great Enclosure, the likely residence of the king’s primary wife, from the Hill Complex, the location of the royal residence. The outer wall nears 250 meters in length with a maximum height of 11 meters.

Sprawled across rolling hills, surrounded by ancient granite rocks, and bisected by a now dried-up river, the ruins of the massive, fortified imperial city at Great Zimbabwe is a testament to the architectural and mercantile prowess of its previous inhabitants.

Great Zimbabwe, the namesake of the African country, is the site of the largest settlement ruins in Sub-Saharan Africa, second only on the continent to the Pyramids of Egypt. At its zenith, a period roughly between 14th and 15th centuries, during which much of the present-day ruins were constructed, an estimated minimum of 18,000 people occupied the site. Deriving its name from the Shona word madzimbahwe, meaning big house of stone, the ruins are characterized by millions of hand-cut granite stones. Its towers, passageways, and formidable walls were constructed stone by stone, without any mortar. After a millennium in existence, the large stones used to construct the city’s towering walls, hilltop royal residence, and vast communities continue to impress visitors today.

One of the many original passageways within the Hill Complex, where only the king, his advisors, and his invited guests were permitted.

One of the many original passageways within the Hill Complex, where only the king, his advisors, and his invited guests were permitted.

Despite initially conflicting origin theories, largely reflective of the racial prejudice of the original colonial officials dispatched to assess the area, scholars now agree that the site, and the hundreds of others dotting central southern Africa, are indeed African in origin. The impressive regional influence and power the rulers of Great Zimbabwe had was equally characteristically African. During its height, its governance extended to the coasts of Mozambique and was responsible for the regional exportation of gold, iron, and copper. The ingenious smelting furnaces constructed out of the imposing granite rocks peppering the surrounding areas are indicative of its mining forte. Past archeological excavations often found Chinese, Persian, and Indian foreign goods, such as glass beads dating to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Over 1500 miles away, located securely on a small island off the Swahili coast of modern-day Tanzania, is Kilwa Kisiwani, a relic of the international prestige and wealth of the East African coast. An amalgamation of cultures, languages, and traditions, Kilwa Kisiwani represents the diversity of the Swahili identity. In the 10th century, Ali ibn al-Hassan, the son of the Emir of Shiraz, purchased the island from the indigenous Bantu king after fleeing Persia due to an inheritance struggle. Local legend has it that the island was given only after the local king was offered enough fabric to encircle the entire island. Although faced with succession issues after the death of the first dynasty of sultans, the 14th through 16th centuries saw the height of its imperial development and the construction of palaces, mosques, and the coral rag stone cities for which the Swahili coast is famous. Its wealth derived from control of the coastal gold trade and the long-standing Indian Ocean trade network, which is further evidenced by the decorative porcelain and minerals adorning the domes of the mosques and the homes of the island’s elite residents. Most notable on Kilwa Kisiwani is Husuni Kubwa, a sprawling 14th century palace complex constructed of more than 100 rooms complete with sea view bathing pools.

mapAt the time of the arrival of the Portuguese in the first years of the 16th century, Kilwa Kisiwani was the site of the most powerful East African city-state, at this point the seat of the coastal empire, stretching from Malindi in present-day Kenya to Cape Correntes in present-day Mozambique. The World Monument Fund (WMF) captures the significance of the site: “The standing ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani represent a slice through East African history, from the high point of the Swahili civilization, through decline under Portuguese control, to annexation by the Omani Empire based in Zanzibar.”

The Great Mosque of Kilwa Kiswani, parts of which date to the 11th century. It is the oldest extant mosque on the East African Coast.

The Great Mosque of Kilwa Kisiwani, parts of which date to the 11th century. It is the oldest extant mosque on the East African Coast.

The two regional empires, Great Zimbabwe and Kilwa Kiswani, linked obviously today only by their regional proximity on the UNESCO world heritage site list, were part of a transcontinental trade network that defined the global economy, inspired technological and architectural advancements, and influenced linguistic and cultural developments throughout East and Southern Africa. Archaeological research at Great Zimbabwe, yielded coins minted in Kilwa Kisiwani, which minted its own currency during the 11th – 14th centuries to facilitate international exchange. Kilwa Kisiwani grew rich from the control of the coastal gold and ivory trade as a direct result of its relationship with the supplier of the gold and ivory: Great Zimbabwe. Moreover, archival records and archeological evidence point to a significant Swahili and Arab trading presence in Great Zimbabwe, with traders and caravans traveling to the imperial city in order to establish and negotiate trade partnerships.

A dome of the Small Mosque of Kilwa Kiswani that demonstrates the decorative uses of imported Chinese porcelains.

A dome of the Small Mosque of Kilwa Kiswani that demonstrates the decorative uses of imported Chinese porcelains.

This undeniable relationship between Great Zimbabwe and Kilwa Kisiwani extended beyond the confines of the continent and made its way into European and Asian markets relying on African sourced, African, mined, and African traded goods. While Europe was still reeling from the middle ages, these trading empires in Africa were flourishing and connecting, creating a global trade network not unprecedented in other parts of the continent. Yet, despite the global nature of African trade for at least a millennium, on which the foundation of Europe’s centralization and industrialization rested, this history has all but been lost to a colonial narrative. This has occurred in part due to the inherent biases of the written record, which prior to European arrival were non-existent for Great Zimbabwe and continue to be somewhat suspect for Kilwa Kisiwani. However, the ongoing preservation of and research on these sites is a reminder to audiences on the continent and abroad of the historical legacies of these cultures and the value they hold in documenting a past unjustifiably eclipsed in our understandings of history today.

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