How To Visit The Great Zimbabwe Ruins

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Visiting Great Zimbabwe Ruins

Are you visiting Zimbabwe and wanting to learn more about their history and culture? The Great Zimbabwe Ruins is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Zimbabwe and is really worth the visit. Let me explain where it is, how to get there and what you will learn once at the site.

No visit to Zimbabwe or a southern Africa tour would be complete without a visit to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe – a veritable sea of fascinating rock formations. This lost and crumbling city was once home to the Zimbabwean monarchy.

About Greater Zimbabwe Ruins

The Great Zimbabwe Ruins is the name of the stone ruins of an ancient city built by the Shona cattlemen between the 11th and 14th centuries near modern-day Masvingo. Beautifully located in a lush and flourishing valley situated at the head of the Mutirikwi River, it extends over almost 800 hectares.

Once the home of the people of Greater Zimbabwe and the monarch’s royal palace, it was the seat of political power and a real force to be reckoned with in the Iron Age. An impressive African palace, perhaps the largest of its time in southern Africa.

Upon entry into the ruins, you find that the site is divided into three main areas: The Hill Complex (Ruins), the Great Enclosure, and the Valley Ruins. The ruins are considered an archaeological site of great importance, and that is why in 1986 they were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The view over Great Zimbabwe Ruins

Great Zimbabwe Ruins from the veiwpoint.

The Three Sections of Great Zimbabwe Ruins

The ruins are divided into three large complexes. On one side we have the Hill Complex, then there is the Valley Complex and the Great Enclosure.

The Hill Complex (formerly the Acropolis)

The first section is the Hill Complex, formerly called the Acropolis. It is a series of structural ruins that sit atop the steepest hill of the site. According to local guides, it is believed to have been the religious center and the oldest part of the site. The remains of the daga houses believed to have housed the city’s royal chefs can be seen within the walls.

The Great Enclosure

The ruins of the Great Enclosure (and the second are of the site) are perhaps the most exciting. Lying south of the hill complex, it is a walled, circular area with walls over 32 feet high in places, making it one of the largest single ancient structures in sub-Saharan Africa. The solidly constructed walls were built without mortar, are similar to the Inca ruins in South America, the walls rely on the positioning of the stones to hold the wall in place.

Following the same curve as the outer wall the inner enclosure mimics the curve leading to a stone tower about 33 feet high. While the main purpose of this enclosure is unknown, it has been suggested that it may have been one of the royal residences. The tower is thought to have been a grain store, possibly a secret grain store available only to the ruling family.

The Valley Ruins

The third section of the site is the Valley Ruins. The Great Zimbabwe valley ruins consist of a large number of homes which date back to the 19th century. Constructed mostly of mud-brick (daga) near the Great Enclosure, the distribution and number of houses suggest that Great Zimbabwe boasted a large population, possibly between 10,000–20,000 people.

Vegetation taking over Zimbabwe's Great Ruins
Greater Zimbabwe Ruins being overtaken by vegetation

History of Great Zimbabwe Ruins

It is said that in the area, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe flourished between 1,200 and 1,500 AD. Using carbon dating, the palace or royal building is estimated to have been built in the 14th century AD. In contrast, the wall dates from the 12th century, approximately so is much older. Although the stone structures were not built until at least the 12th century, before that, the first civilizations settled in that space that cultivated the valley, and extracted and worked the iron.

Among the most important objects recovered from that era are the eight soapstone birds of Zimbabwe, as well as numerous ceramic artifacts, gongs, worked ivory, iron and copper wire, and iron tools. Copper ingots, gold beads, bracelets and pendants, as well as glass beads and porcelains from China and Persia (modern day Iran) were also found, along with other foreign artifacts.

With all this information, archaeological evidence emerges that Great Zimbabwe became a central point of trade and was the main source of gold and ivory, mined from the surrounding caves. In addition to international trade, it also stands out for the local agricultural trade between the cattlemen, farmers and growers that kept the community alive.

Why Was Great Zimbabwe Abandoned?

The most common reason for abandonment that can be agreed upon, is that Great Zimbabwe was abandoned because the surrounding area could no longer furnish food for the overpopulated city. Over farming and deforestation could have changed the once lush lands into barren soil, unable to sustain the huge population. It could also have been that the rich mining in the region became depleted, leaving the Zimbabweans nothing to trade.

Again the similarity to the disappearance of the Mayan culture rang loud and true to me here. After visiting the Yucatan and learning about the Mayan people, I watched quite a few docos about their disappearance and a lot make reference to either a great drought causing famine on a massive scale OR that they simply did what we are doing today and destroyed their region by over farming. The similarities to Great Zimbabwe seemed pretty decent to me and again, I wonder “have we learnt nothing?”

Greater Zimbabwe Ruins still semi intact after hundreds of years
The quality of the stone work reminded me of the Incan buildings in Peru

How To Get To Great Zimbabwe Ruins

The Great Zimbabwe Ruins are located in southern Africa, in present-day Zimbabwe. Specifically, between some hills in the south-eastern part of the country. The complex is located within the Masvingo province, 30km from the city, and has an area of 722 hectares.

TM Pick and Pay Masvingo

The ruins are a four-hour drive from the capital, so the easiest way to get there is from the nearest city Masvingo, which is about 25 minutes away by car. You can board a combi behind the TM Pick n Pay in Masvingo. It costs around $1, but it takes time to fill up. If you are not interested in the wait time, you can also take a taxi from Masvingo or join other organized tours if available.

The combi will drop you off at around 2 km from the Great Zimbabwe gate and the driver will yell out to you when you get there. Just be sure to tell them where you want to go when you get on. Then you will walk past the remnants of a craft market and walk through the Great Zimbabwe Hotel to the ruins. There is another road entry to the Great Zimbabwe Information centre but that tends to confuse the drivers and you feel a bit lost as they drop you off at the street corner in what seems like the middle of nowhere. The best thing to do is ask to go to the Great Zimbabwe Hotel.

If you stay in Masvingo, your hotel or accommodation can also probably organise transport for you, however I recommend getting a combi. You haven’t lived until you’ve been packed into a tiny van in Africa wondering how on earth you are going to get out! Spoiler Alert – you try to stand when the van stops and people just fall out the door, you get out and they pack back in. It’s pretty easy really.

1 thought on “How To Visit The Great Zimbabwe Ruins”

  1. isiting the Great Zimbabwe Ruins is a remarkable experience that will transport you back in time and leave you in awe of the ancient African civilization.


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