TRAVEL / Great Civilisations of the world: Great Zimbabwe: Quest for Africa's lost city: David Keys on tales of Great Zimbabwe's origins that have lured explorers for centuries

SEVEN hundred years ago, in the middle of southern Africa's bush, there flourished a great empire. Virtually unknown to the rest of the world, it was ruled by an all-powerful priest-king from a huge city in what is now the African republic of Zimbabwe.

Throughout the world there are the shattered remnants of scores of forgotten civilisations and lost cities. Few have sparked as much controversy as the ruins of the once mighty imperial capital known today as Great Zimbabwe. Its origins and even its location were for centuries obscure and shrouded in mystery. White supremacists and black liberationists alike used Great Zimbabwe's potent mythology to support their ideologies.

Various writers have recognised Great Zimbabwe's hold on the imagination. It inspired Rider Haggard to write King Solomon's Mines and She, and the novelist Wilbur Smith used the theme of a 'lost city' similar to Great Zimbabwe to produce a best-seller - The Sunbird.

For centuries rumours of a southern African lost city tantalised European explorers, and for centuries Europeans believed that Africans were incapable of building such a metropolis. From the early 14th century, geographers were convinced that there was a lost Christian kingdom - ruled by a man called Prester (Priest) John, marooned in the depths of darkest Africa and waiting to be rescued.

In the early 16th century, the Portuguese launched an expedition into what is now Zimbabwe to try to find this Christian land. Needless to say, they failed. But rumours of a great lost city kept emanating from southern Africa, and by the early 17th century Portuguese scholars had a new hypothesis: the Zimbabwe region was where the Phoenicians had gone to mine gold for Israel's King Solomon.

Such biblical connections, and thoughts of golden treasure, were quite sufficient to provoke the Dutch into action. In 1652 they too set out to find Great Zimbabwe, but their expedition also ended in failure. The myths continued, however. In John Milton's Paradise Lost, for example, the area is referred to as the source of King Solomon's gold.

Three hundred years after the search for Great Zimbabwe had first begun, the lost city was finally discovered by the German explorer Carl Mauch. Even then, Mauch was quite convinced that the two main buildings at the site were copies of King Solomon's temple in Jerusalem, and the Israelite palace where Solomon and the Queen of Sheba had, according to the Bible, found bliss together. A British map dating from 1873 marks Great Zimbabwe as 'the supposed realm of the Queen of Sheba', and Mauch, beating Indiana Jones by a century, believed that the Ark of the Covenant might be hidden among its ruins.

The following decade H Rider Haggard, who had just spent six years in southern Africa, let rip with a block-busting adventure novel - King Solomon's Mines - loosely based on the discovery of Great Zimbabwe. The surrounding hills he described as 'Sheba's breasts', and his lost city was brimful of jewels. In the book, King Solomon's diamond-studded mining outpost - a beacon of civilisation - was extinguished by black invaders and the area then lapsed 'into the darkest barbarism'.

Whether it was the lost kingdom of Prester John, or Solomon's dazzling African colony (or the Queen of Sheba's), the idea that a part of southern Africa had once belonged to non-Africans was massively appealing to British and other imperial forces busy seizing territory in the dark continent. The Great Zimbabwe saga had prepared the 'moral' ground for imperialism; the European mission could be seen not so much as a seizure of black territory, but the liberation of lands thought to have once been held by whites.

When Cecil Rhodes (and his British South Africa Company) seized what is now Zimbabwe in 1890, the first thing he did was to commission - and fund - a full exploration of Great Zimbabwe. The ruins became an obsession. In 1891 he wrote that they were those of 'an old Phoenician residence'.

The man who carried out the work at Great Zimbabwe on behalf of Rhodes was a Victorian antiquarian called Theodore Bent. He concluded that the place had been built by Arabs from the land of the Queen of Sheba - although not by the queen herself. He also pronounced, to Rhodes's delight, that a Phoenician connection was strongly suggested by 'evidence of phallic worship' at the site. He believed that the lost city was certainly not built by the local Africans.

For much of the first half of this century many archaeologists refused to believe that Great Zimbabwe was an entirely African creation. Some of them considered that, even if local black people had designed and built the place, it must have been under foreign influence. Even when, on the basis of ceramic and architectural evidence, an African role was admitted, the architecture was condemned in the 1930s as being 'essentially the product of an infantile mind'.

In 1972, Heinemann published Wilbur Smith's best-seller The Sunbird - a novel about the search for a southern African lost city, built under Mediterranean influence by 'a race of fair skinned golden haired warriors' who enslaved the local African tribes 2,500 years ago. According to Smith's book (which has sold more than three million copies), Great Zimbabwe had been a mere outpost of this long-vanished fantasy civilisation.

It was therefore a strange irony that, in that same year, 1972, a leading archaeologist investigating Great Zimbabwe was forced to leave what was then Rhodesia for arguing that the ancient city was in fact built by local black Africans. Yet careful evaluation of the evidence, and excavations at Great Zimbabwe and related sites over the past 20 years, have shown that the city was entirely black African in origin.

In its heyday in the 14th century, Great Zimbabwe covered an area of around three square miles (three times the size of the medieval walled city of London) and had a population of about 20,000. Its inner core was flanked by two miles of city walls, and it was the capital of an empire which covered some 180,000 square miles (almost four times the size of England) with about 150 provincial administrative centres, the ruins of which still survive.

Its economy depended on cattle, grain, textiles and gold. Trade with East African coastal cities - and through them, indirect trade with Middle-Eastern merchants and the Portuguese - brought into the empire luxury items from China, India and Persia.

Great Zimbabwe was not the first urban culture in southern Africa. Some evidence suggests that the first towns in the area appeared between the fifth and seventh century AD. The region's first stone-built city was being constructed - at Mapungubwe, in what is now South Africa - in the mid-13th century. Great Zimbabwe itself flourished between about 1270 and 1500. After the city had declined, two major successor kingdoms - Torwa and Mutapa, with their monumental architecture - took over much of the empire.

The myth and the reality of Great Zimbabwe's past have inspired both white and black southern Africa. Part of the design of the Voortrekker Monument - the Afrikaner shrine outside Pretoria which commemorates the Great Trek of the first white settlers into the remote interior of southern Africa - is based on motifs from Great Zimbabwe, and the Rhodes House Library in Oxford is topped by a giant copper replica of one of the once sacred statues of birds found there.

In the modern state of Zimbabwe, outside the capital Harare, the architecture of the great monument to the fallen heroes of the Liberation Struggle is based on that of Great Zimbabwe. The national flag, coins and banknotes also bear its motifs. And four African tribal groups each claim descent from the builders of the now deserted city.

In Zimbabwe's parliament, a handful of extreme nationalist MPs have been using archaeological evidence of the scale of Great Zimbabwe's medieval empire as grounds for claiming territory in neighbouring Mozambique and South Africa.

And it is in South Africa that the next chapter of the Great Zimbabwe saga is being written. In the homeland of Bophuthatswana, an international hotel group has spent pounds 186m on building Sun City, a replica lost city based 'purely on fantasy but coloured by the heritage of Africa'. The developers claim that the fictional ancient builders of this city came not from southern Africa, but from the northern part of the continent with its Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern influences. Archaeological sites decay, but legends never die.

Where to go and what to see

*** spectacular ** very interesting * interesting

1 BIDEFORD * Ruins of a 17th to 19th-century settlement.

2 BULAWAYO MUSEUM * Pottery from Great Zimbabwe and other sites.

3 CHAWOMERA * 17th to 19th-century ruins.

4 CHISWINGO * A 14th to 15th-century Great Zimbabwe empire period site. Some walls decorated with chevrons.

5 DANANGOMBE *** (Formerly Dhlo Dhlo) Ruins of a 17th to 19th-century capital of the kingdom of the Rozwi, one of the states which succeeded the empire of Great Zimbabwe. Portuguese soldiers taken prisoner by the Rozwi were kept here in about 1700. Portuguese silver chalice, a ring, a bell and two cannon found here.

6 DOMBOSHABA * (Botswana) Very remote 15th-century Great Zimbabwe empire-period ruin located on a rocky hill. For access inquire at Francistown Museum.

7 DZATA ** (South Africa) 18th-century capital of Venda kingdom.

8 GREAT ZIMBABWE *** Some 40 acres of ruins survive from this 13th to 15th-century imperial capital. In its heyday it covered three square miles. Its largest surviving building - the Great Enclosure - is known locally as 'the House of the Great Woman' - and was perhaps associated with the emperor's chief wife. Alternatively, it may have been a centre for the celebration of pre-marital male initiation rites. The elliptical enclosure is made of almost one million granite blocks (some 200,000 cubic feet of stonework) - substantially more than were used to build the Parthenon. Its main wall is 36 ft high and 20 ft thick. Overlooking the site is the emperor's palace - and, attached to it, a religious shrine, which is still regarded as sacred. It was here that explorers and archaeologists found the famous carved stone birds - probably religious totems used in ancestor worship. Great Zimbabwe has the remains of some 20 other stone buildings, including a complex thought to have housed the emperor's 300 or more wives. Much of the medieval city was built of a type of concrete called daga and has mostly eroded away. The recently redesigned site museum is excellent - one of the most important in Africa. In it one can see the carved stone birds, displayed in a (replica) shrine, just as they would have been 700 years ago. Guides on site.

9 HARARE * Display of artefacts from Great Zimbabwe and other sites in the Queen Victoria Museum.

10 HARLEIGH * Remains of a 14th-15th century Great Zimbabwe empire-period settlement.

11 KASEKETE * Ruins of the capital of one of Great Zimbabwe's successor states, the Mutapa kingdom, in the early 17th century. The city had a population of 5,000. See also the Portuguese fort.

12 KHAMI *** Extensive ruins of a now deserted 15th to 17th-century city. Probably the capital of the powerful kingdom of the Torwa, it had a population of 12,000. It was destroyed in a civil war in 1640. In the late 19th century the district was used by the area's last independent African king, Lobengula, as a hunting reserve and the ruins were kept a secret from the outside world. Guide on site.

13 LUNDI * 16th to 17th-century ruins.

14 MANEKWENI * (Mozambique) 13th to 17th-century ruin. Mozambique is now peaceful - but check with the Foreign Office before setting out.

15 MAPELA * Extensive remains of a 13th-century town. Probably an outpost of the kingdom of Mapungubwe. Very remote.

16 MAPUNGUBWE * (South Africa) 13th-century capital. It marks the beginning of the stone building culture in southern Africa. Permission and access advice must be obtained from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Pretoria.

17 MOUNT FURA ** (previously known as Mount Darwin). Extensive 15th-century ruins overlooking the bush. Probable capital of the late medieval kingdom of Mutapa.

18 MTELEGWA * Great Zimbabwe empire-period ruin. Very remote.

19 MTOKO ** (also known as Tere) Great Zimbabwe empire-period ruin. Spectacular location and views. New museum. Guide on site.

20 NALETALE *** Well-preserved remains of late 15th to 17th-century palace, walls decorated with chevrons, herring bone and check patterns. Magnificent views. Guide on site.

21 NHUNGUZA * Early 16th-century ruins.

22 NJANJA ** (formerly Regina) Decorated walls of 17th-century town which, with Portuguese help, won the civil war against Khami in 1640. Mysterious underground chambers.

23 NYAHOKWE RUINS * Remains of 17th to 19th-century settlement including reconstructed iron smelting furnace.

24 NYANGWE FORT ** Large 17th to 19th-century fortified settlement.

25 TSINDI ** (formerly Lekkerwater) Great Zimbabwe empire-period ruins. Museum and guide on site.

26 ZIWA *** (formerly Van Niekerk Ruins) Extensive remains of 17th to 19th-century settlements and agricultural terracing.

Information about locations and, where appropriate, access to sites is obtainable from the National Museums and Monuments commission of Zimbabwe and the Queen Victoria Museum, both in Rotten Row, Harare. Ordnance Survey maps are vital if you're visiting any other than the most well-known ruins (available in Harare).

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Commonwealth Institute, Kensington High Street, London W8 6NQ (071-603 4535) has library and exhibition covering Great Zimbabwe.

FURTHER READING: Guides Zimbabwe, Botswana & Namibia Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet pounds 10.95); Zimbabwe and Botswana Rough Guide (Penguin pounds 8.99) - two reliable guides to the country.

History and culture The Archaeology of Africa, edited by T Shaw (Routledge pounds 75); Great Zimbabwe by Peter Garlake (Thames and Hudson), the only book written in recent decades specifically on Great Zimbabwe and related sites, out of print, but obtainable from libraries; The Shona and Zimbabwe 900-1850 by David Beach (Mambo Press), the best history of the Shona, currently only available in Zimbabwe (Blackwell is publishing his new book, The Shona, in this country in August); Great Zimbabwe Described and Explained by Peter Garlake (Zimbabwe Publishing House), clear explanation of the history and architecture of the site, another book published only in Zimbabwe; Symbols in Stone by T Huffman (available from University of Witwatersrand Press pounds 1.22), an up-to-date booklet on the site, which would have to be ordered from South Africa; African Laughter by Doris Lessing (Collins pounds 16.99), evocative and penetrating portrait of Zimbabwe, the result of four visits to her birthplace after independence and the 25 years of exile.

Fiction King Solomon's Mines by H Rider Haggard (OUP pounds 4.99); She by H Rider Haggard (OUP pounds 4.99); The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing (Paladin pounds 4.99), classic novel set in pre-independence Rhodesia; Nervous Conditions by Tsiti Dangarembga (Women's Press pounds 5.95), gripping novel set before independence by the best modern Zimbabwean writer; The Sunbird by Wilbur Smith (Mandarin pounds 4.99).

Most of these titles are available from good bookshops, and by mail order from Daunt Books for Travellers, 83 Marylebone High Street, London W1M 3DE (071-224 2295). D K

GETTING THERE: Fly to Harare via Johannesburg with South African Airways (071- 734 9841) from pounds 625 return (minimum stay seven days, maximum stay six months, no advance purchase necessary); with Air Zimbabwe (071-491 0009) from pounds 929 return (minimum stay two weeks, maximum stay three months, purchase 14 days in advance); or with Trailfinders (071-938 3366) via Paris from pounds 474 return.

TOUR OPERATORS: Explore Worldwide (0252 319448) offers a Zimbabwe Grand Tour that includes Great Zimbabwe, 17 days, pounds 2,295. Africa Dawn Safaris, Box 128, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (010 263 9 46696) offers one to six-day archaeological tours covering up to a dozen sites; prices, available on request, vary according to the number in the party and the itinerary.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Zimbabwe Tourist Office, Zimbabwe House, 429 The Strand, London WC2R 0QE (071-836 7755); National Museums and Monuments, Rotten Row, Harare (010 263 4 707202/707717 fax).

(Photographs and map omitted)

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