Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 520:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 520.

Today, a great city, and a great civilization, in the African plains. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The nation of Zimbabwe takes its name from an ancient masonry city called Great Dzhimbahwe. It's near Nyanda -- once called Fort Victoria. The bleached bones of this city tell us much about medieval African civilization.

The ruins run for almost a mile. They weave about a cliff face and down into the valley below. These fine masonry husks were once buildings that served many functions.

The center is the so-called Great Enclosure. It's the structure that was called a Zimbabwe. It's an outdoor amphitheater or temple.

We walk the winding stone paths of the city through walls of beautifully set unmortared stone. We see what Europeans want to call an acropolis. We see dwellings. We're astonished at the reach of this empty city. It goes on and on.

Carbon dating tells us more. Iron-age Rhodesians began the city after AD 200. Then they abandoned it until the 9th or 10th century. The masonry went up in the 11th century -- just before the Gothic cathedrals in Europe. The city lasted until colonialism and slavers had splintered African civilization. People still lived there 200 years ago.

White souvenir hunters found Great Zimbabwe in the late 19th century. They savaged the place. We've had to reconstruct much of what we know from stolen relics in the museums of Europe and South Africa.

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

Then, an even greater surprise. We move away into Rhodesia, Botswana, and even South Africa. What do we find? Great Zimbabwe is only one of hundreds of abandoned Zimbabwes. This city was once the rule. It wasn't 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.

So we gaze upon civilization of the highest order here. We see centers for art, dance, and human concourse. This, and the other Zimbabwes, remind us how little we've seen of Africa, when we've expected to see only jungle.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

I've used two sources for this episode. The primary one was a fine article under the listing Zimbabwe in the 1970 Encyclopaedia Britannica. The source that first caught my interest and gave additional information, was

Asante, M. and Asante, K., Great Zimbabwe: An Ancient African City-State. Blacks and Science: Ancient and Modern. (I. van Sertima, ed.) New Brunswick (USA): Transaction Books, 1983, pp. 84-91.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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