The Empire of Mutapa: Great Zimbabwe

The word Zimbabwe literally means “stone dwelling” in the Shona language. Thus, Great Zimbabwe is appropriately named because it is indeed a great stone dwelling! The pictures below show parts of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe as they can be seen today by people who visit the country of Zimbabwe.

Aerial view of Zimbabwe ruins

Large classrooms are located by the Great Encolosure for training of young people for adulthood (seperared by sex). By examining the ruins and dating the materials found within them, historians have been able to piece together the lives of people who built and dwelled in Great Zimbabwe.

Great Zimbabwe existed between approximately the 12th and 15th centuries CE, and it is the largest of about 150 ruins found in the land around the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers. This area is filled with granite that was used as building material. Examine the map below to find the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers. The yellow point between the two marks the location of Great Zimbabwe. Its kingdom, however, was much larger, stretching into much of present day Zimbabwe and central Mozambique. The greater area of the kingdom is also indicated on the map.

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe are remains of what was once a great trading civilization, which sprang up in the interior of southern Africa. Although the civilization had some contact with outside groups, modern historians have agreed that Great Zimbabwe was built and managed by Africans living in the interior. It was a center of gold and ivory trade. Towards the latter part of the history of Great Zimbabwe, evidence (pots from China etc) suggests that the people living there were trading with regions as far as China, Persia, and Syria. People living at Great Zimbabwe also practiced agriculture and cattle herding, although historians believe that this became a problem after awhile.

Too many people living and farming one small area led to environmental degradation. Eventually the land was no longer able to sustain such a large number of people. Alliances between the Shona states after the decline of Great Zimbabwe created the Rozwi state which continued until 1834 when the Ndebele people (a splinter group of South African Zulu people) under the command of Mzilikazi invaded and assassinated the Rowzi leader. Later the son of Mzilikazi relocated the Ndebele capital to Bulawayo.

The Mwenes or Monomatapas of the first Mutapa state:

  • Nyatsimba Mutota (c. 1430–c. 1450)
  • Matope Nyanhehwe Nebedza (c. 1450–c. 1480)
  • Mavura Maobwe (1480)
  • Mukombero Nyahuma (1480–c. 1490)
  • Changamire (1490–1494)
  • Kakuyo Komunyaka (1494–c. 1530)
  • Neshangwe Munembire (c. 1530–c. 1550)
  • Chivere Nyasoro (c. 1550–1560)
  • Chisamharu Negomo Mupuzangutu (1560–1589)
  • Gatsi Rusere (1589–1623)
  • Nyambo Kapararidze (1623–1629)
  • Chimbganda matombo (1634-1698)

The Mwenes or Monomatapas of the second Mutapa state:

  • Cangara II (1803 – 1804)
  • Mutiwapangome (1804 – 1806)
  • Mutiwaora (1806)
  • Cipfumba (1806 – 1807)
  • Nyasoro (1807 – 1828)
  • Cimininyambo or Kandeya II (1828 – 1830)
  • Dzeka (1830 – 1849)
  • Kataruza (1849 – 1868)
  • Kandeya III (1868-1870)
  • Dzuda (1870-1887)
  • Cioko Dambamupute (1887-1902)

Great Zimbabwe was an early example of a state in this region of southern Africa with much political, economic, and military power. With its formation, social and political organization became more hierarchical. This involved a move from village level organization to a larger, broader social and political organization resulting in the Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe. What might be some advantages and disadvantages of being part of a large, powerful kingdom, rather than a village that is governed locally? Think about this question as you continue reading the following sections on people living in the interior of East and Central Africa around the time of the Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe left behind no record of a written language.

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