Site History and Significance
The Capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe
The ruins of the city of Great Zimbabwe, the monumental capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, are one of the most emblematic places of the world’s architectural heritage. The name of the site derives from a Shona word meaning “stone house,” and it is the largest of the over 300 zimbabwe sites across the country. A national monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Great Zimbabwe encompasses extensive areas of archaeological remains, including the Hill Complex, a granite acropolis that was occupied for centuries; the iconic Great Enclosure, the largest ancient structure to be built in sub-Saharan Africa; and the Valley Ruins, which comprise a series of residential ensembles that were occupied more recently in the site’s history. At the peak of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe in the fourteenth century, the city was home to a population of more than 10,000. After the fifteenth century, the city was gradually abandoned and fell into ruin. Today, the archaeological landscape is a site of great significance for the modern nation of Zimbabwe, serving as a national symbol and a link with its pre-colonial past. It also holds great significance for local communities of the Charumbira, Mugabe, Murinye, and Nemanwa clans, whose lineage is intertwined with the history of the site.
Preserving Great Zimbabwe for enjoyment by future generations is a complex challenge, as is the case with many of the great ruined cities of the world. A long-standing threat to the preservation of the site has been the uncontrolled growth of vegetation. The spread of lantana, an invasive flowering shrub that was introduced to Zimbabwe by Europeans in the early twentieth century, has long vexed the managers of the site. The growth of vegetation threatens the stability of the dry stone walls, and yet drastic interventions like the removal of vegetation can further weaken these historic structures. Besides vegetation, the site faces additional risks such as the threat of veld fires, an issue of growing concern that endangers the livelihood of many in the country.
2016 World Monuments Watch
The inclusion of the site on the 2016 World Monuments Watch supported the efforts of the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe to implement a plan that would turn Great Zimbabwe into a center of excellence in archaeological site management. Mapping the various species of vegetation in the area, including lantana, and developing strategies for their control that are informed by international experience while involving local communities will help reveal the aesthetic value of the monument and contribute to its sustained enjoyment.
A two-day awareness campaign in March 2017 that consisted of group discussions and workshops culminated in a group march to Great Zimbabwe to promote the need for cooperation among the different stakeholders in the protection and preservation of the site. Along the way, experts demonstrated the proper methods of removing and disposing of the invasive plants that threaten to overrun the fragile monuments.
Since the Watch
In 2018, the site received an award from the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. With this support, WMF began a project in collaboration with the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe to improve methods of controlling the pervasive growth of lantana and implement a monitoring system to measure movement in the most vulnerable wall sections. Physical conservation work has focused on collapsed sections of wall in the Hill Complex. The ongoing project will also include a training program for skilled local masons on best practices for dry stone conservation at World Heritage Sites. The methods developed in the program will subsequently be implemented at other medieval zimbabwe sites like Zinjanja. A two-week field school for university students focused on skills like mapping, observation, risk assessment, and project budgeting.
World Monuments Fund safeguards cultural heritage around the globe, ensuring our treasured places are preserved for present and future generations.
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This project was made possible in part by the U.S. Department of State through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.