“Zimbabwe” literally means “big house of stone.” After cruising through the country’s rocky terrain, it’s clear just how appropriate the name. Massive boulder structures and balancing rocks riddle the landscape. Picture dozens of natural Stone Henges dotting the countryside. Even the country’s heritage is rooted in stone. High atop a natural granite escarpment, we visited Great Zimbabwe, the palace ruins of generations of African royalty between the 13th and 17th centuries. The dry-stone construction is reminiscent of early medieval Europe, although the only contact with the outside world that the ancient Zimbabweans had was with Arab traders.
The grounds host two stone complexes. At the base of the hill resides the Great Enclosure where the queen and her children lived. Just beyond that lived the king’s other 200 wives and their numerous offspring.
Inside the Great Enclosure, the queen would hold classes for her children on how to best serve their king.
The narrow passageways between the Great Enclosure’s main structures and its 6-meter thick wall were used by children to make their way to and from classes.
The outer wall of the dry-stone complex separated the extremely large royal family (200 wives and all of their children) from the common folk.
Well-built stone steps led the way up the steep slopes of the rocky hillside to the King’s Royal Enclosure. With one navigable route up the hill, the palace was easily defended from enemies even if the rest of the complex was taken.
The Royal Enclosure was built around the natural, gargantuan granite boulders on top of the hill. To create such perfect granite bricks, the ancient builders would pour boiling water on nearby granite outcrops, quickly followed by a bath of cold water. The sudden temperature change would cause the granite to crack in uniform sheets, which could then be easily cut into bricks.
High atop his hillside palace, the King ruled over his subjects from a platform at the very top of a natural boulder. The Royal Enclosure included a treasury, a war room, ceremonial chambers, living chambers, a network of tunnels that to this day have not been explored, and, naturally, a fire that was kept burning for the duration of the king’s life. After a king died, his entire hilltop palace was leveled and a new one built on its ruins. Eight levels have been excavated in the central area, indicating the rule of 8 separate kings over about 400 years.