The Ruins of Great Zimbabwe The Ruins of Great Zimbabwe

Ask about ancient African cities, and we immediately think of Egypt. But let me offer two less-well-known cities — Great Zimbabwe and Timbuktu.

The nation of Zimbabwe takes its name from the ancient masonry city of Great Dzhimbahwe. Its bleached bones tell much about medieval African civilization. They run for almost a mile, weaving about a cliff face, and down into the valley below.

These masonry husks were once buildings that served many functions. The center is the so-called Great Enclosure — called a Zimbabwe. It's an outdoor amphitheater or temple. We walk the winding stone paths of the city through walls of beautifully set un-mortared stone, and are astonished at its extent.

Carbon dating shows that Iron-age Rhodesians began the city after 200 AD, then abandoned it until the 9th or 10th century. The masonry went up in the 11th century, just before Europe's Gothic cathedrals. The city lasted until colonialism and slavers splintered African civilization. The last people lived there 200 years ago. Souvenir hunters found Great Zimbabwe in the late 19th century and savaged the place. Much of what we know has been reconstructed from stolen relics in European and South African Museums.

Like cities of the Indus Valley, this was a great peaceful trading center — no military fortifications. We find art from all over the world: Ming Celedon, Nankin porcelain, Persian faience, Arab glass! But the native art arrests our eye: sculpture in soapstone and schist — objects of copper, iron, and gold.

Then, another surprise: This proves to be only one among hundreds of abandoned Zimbabwes throughout Rhodesia, Botswana, and South Africa. This city was once the rule, not the exception at all. The Shona people, who built the Zimbabwes, practiced a highly personal, familial religion. Each Shona chieftain had a holy Zimbabwe. Tribal representatives gathered in them to hear their ancestors' spirits.

We see centers for art, dance, and human concourse. We see civilization of a very high order.

Heinrich Barth approaches Timbuktu Heinrich Barth approaches Timbuktu

Timbuktu, 3500 miles northwest of Great Zimbabwe, came into being about the same time. But it still lives to tease our imaginations. I've always dreamt of seeing Timbuktu. Few of us ever will, but we can make the journey today in our imaginations.

Timbuktu might take its name from an 11th-century woman Buktu; and the word tin (not tim) means a place. Tuareg merchants knew Buktu to be unshakably honest. They could trust her to store their goods. So she may've laid the foundation for this trading center in the southern Sahara — nearly a thousand miles east of Dakar and the Atlantic and just north of the Niger River.

As caravans moved through Timbuktu carrying salt, gold, ivory, and other goods (including slaves) the city grew wealthy. During the 14th through 16th centuries, it was the seat of three successive empires, with a canal connecting it to the Niger River.

With wealth came learning: Traders brought books, and scribes copied them. Schools and universities arose. Timbuktu became a great center of learning as well as of commerce. But her downfall, like Great Zimbabwe's, involved slavery. When Europe began buying slaves, Africans set up huge trading enterprises on the West African coast and Timbuktu's economy weakened.

Moroccan invaders took it over in 1591. They wanted its wealth and saw only a threat in all that accrued knowledge. (By then, Timbuktu housed 120 libraries.) The invaders threw out the learning establishment — books and scholars alike. Of course, many people hid books away. They buried them, or sealed them in mud walls.

Today, this remote and impoverished city is rich in some 14,000 old books that have literally come out of its woodwork. Scientific historians have only begun translating the old science texts from Arabic and more obscure languages.

Ancient text discovered in Timbuktu They find that Timbuktu's medieval and renaissance scholars followed a path separated from Europe. Her astronomers didn't follow the European leap to a sun-centered solar system, but they did spring far ahead in the mathematics of calendar writing — far ahead in trigonometry. We read about astronomic events 600 years ago. Now scholars race to translate this huge trove. They want to know what these ancients knew of medicine, botany, chemistry and climatology. How did the knowledge of other regions flow through this glittering outpost? How much new science did it create?

South African astrophysicist Thebe Medupe thinks Africa would do far better if Africans realized that the Sub-Saharan world, just a few centuries ago, held a great intellectual center. The message (which applies to Great Zimbabwe as well) is, know your city's history and you'll more accurately know yourselves.

Of course the romantic image of Timbuktu is a trap. In a recent survey of young Britons, a third thought Timbuktu was imaginary. The rest found the very name to be mystical. Timbuktu remains a location in our imaginations, when its real place lies in the history of human knowledge.

Well, let us then leave Africa to look at another city — a city that overlapped both Great Zimbabwe and Timbuktu in time. Roger Kaza would like to tell us about a city more mysterious than either of those, and far closer to home.


See the fine article under the listing Zimbabwe in the 1970 Encyclopaedia Britannica. See also, M. Asante and K. Asante,, Great Zimbabwe: An Ancient African City-State. Blacks and Science: Ancient and Modern. (I. van Sertima, ed.) (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1983, pp. 84-91).

For more on Timbuktu, see C. Abraham, Stars of the Sahara. New Scientist, 18 Aug., 2007, pp. 39-41; and M. de Villiers and S. Hirtle, Space, Time, and Timbuktu. Natural History, July/August, 2007, pp. 22-26.

See also: and

And for more on Timbuktu's books, see:

Images: Great Zimbabwe image, Painting of Heinrich Barth's expedition and manuscript photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons

See also Episodes 520, and 2265

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