Great Zimbabwe State
CapitalGreat Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe State existed from A.D 1270 to 1550.The state emerged in the southern plateau regions of Zimbabwe from an Iron Age agricultural community.

By the 14th century it was at the helm of a political hierarchy controlling territory and a community equivalent to a state. Its rulers accumulated considerable wealth and power from the large cattle herds they managed and from gold and ivory traded with the east African coast. It was the cultural and political successor to Mapungubwe (ad 1220–90), based in the middle Shashe-Limpopo valley.

The Great Zimbabwe State was the first great empire to arise in Southern Africa. The empire was ruled by a hereditary monarchy of elites. This means the power stayed in the family. The highest point of the empire was mid fifteenth century. The "parliament" helped the king to rule and was comprised of members of families close to the monarch.


At its peak during the 14th century Great Zimbabwe occupied an area over 700ha, with population estimates of up to 20,000 people.


The hereditary monarchy that ruled Great Zimbabwe for several hundred years was based in the massive stone complex of the same name, which extends over some two hundred acres. Archaeologists date its earliest structures to around 1000. The most elaborate structures are known as drystone—a type of mortarless construction that required great skill—using the plentiful granite in the area. They seemed to have been modeled on earlier styles found in the port cities of the coast, which in turn were based on Arabic architectural forms and methods brought to the region by the traders from the Arabian Peninsula.

At the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, the center of power appears to have been situated in what is referred to as the Great Enclosure, named for its massive outer wall, which has a circumference of eight hundred feet and reaches a height of thirty feet in some places. Inside it are the ruins of a conical tower and monoliths that once supported soapstone statues of a particular type of eagle, the baleur (tightrope-walker). The great chiefs who ruled over this were known as mambos and may have secured their hold on their own, and then increasingly gained control over distant Shona groups via the propagation of a cultlike religion, which may have involved the baleur and the cone tower. The mambos of Great Zimbabwe appear to have held some power over provincial chiefs in their dominion by loans of cattle to communities located farther afield from the capital and that may have struggled to feed their populace. The mambos also demanded tribute, or the handover of a specified kind of commodity that, like taxes, came due on a seasonal basis.

Political Parties and Factions

The exact ancestry of Great Zimbabwe’s ruling elite is unknown, but the first mambo of record is Chikura Wadyambeu (d. c. 1420), a semihistorical Shona figure. His purported son was Nyatsimba Mutota (d. c. 1450), who ruled from about 1420 to 1450 and led an impressive expansion effort that brought all the Zimbabwean plateau and a large swath of present-day Mozambique under Great Zimbabwean rule. His aggression earned him the nickname “Mwene Mutapa” (Great Raider or Great Pillager). Around 1450 he relocated the capital to Khami, perhaps to be nearer to gold deposits. Khami was another stone complex that also featured a walled enclosure for the leadership, his advisers, and family. After this point, the Great Zimbabwe civilization seems to have split into at least two major factions. Portuguese documents record contact with a Mutapa people in the northern part of modern-day Zimbabwe. They were supplanted there in the 1680s by another Shona clan led by the chief Changamire Dombo (seventeenth century).


Religion also played a role of supporting the ruling class in power and making exploitation acceptable to the masses. The symbiotic relationship which existed between the religious figures and the political leadership was essential the political stability needed for a growing state. Religious ideologies from mediums at state shrines reinforced the acceptance of the ruling class as normal and perpetual. Royal cults were established in the state and certain days were set aside for the worship and veneration of the ruling lineage ancestor and it was the ruler who usually led such worships, thus giving him an important position in the state. The worship of ancestors of one ruling lineage also helped to unify the state. However, the problem with religion as a factor in the rise of Great Zimbabwe is that, it is not archaeologically represented at the ruins and the evidence pointed to represent religion at Great Zimbabwe like sop stone birds seems to reduce Great Zimbabwe into an idol worshipping society which it was not.

Standing Army

The founders of Great Zimbabwe were also able to raise enough men as soldiers to compel traders to pay tax and to make sure that no trader avoids paying tax by making a detour to the North or South. These soldiers were also used to enforce the king’s authority in the surrounding area. This body of armed men few of whom could have been anything like full time warriors was made out of relations created through marriages. However, there is no sign at Great Zimbabwe that it was a military centre thus, the military did not work alone to facilitate the rise of the state.


The state sustained its economy through long distance trade ,tribute , agriculture and pastoralism.

Long distance trade

The Shona of Great Zimbabwe practised long distance trade with the foreigners like Arabs and Chinese at the East Coast. Great Zimbabwe was a trade centre where foreigners would bring items like cloth and glass beads in exchange for gold and ivory from the interior. Vast evidence of foreign items like glass beads and Chinese porcelain have been unearthed by archaeologists at the Great Zimbabwe ruins as a sign that the locals were in contact with foreigners. Long distance was controlled by rulers and it is these foreign items which they used to manipulate some sections of the society by redistributing them to those who would not have participated in long distance trade.

Gold trade sustained the wealth of Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe. It transformed local Zimbabwe Culture societies, leading to suggestions that it was a prime mover in the emergence of complex societies in the region.With the emergence of Great Zimbabwe during the second half of the 13th century, there was increased gold production and trade on the Zimbabwe plateau, matched by corresponding prosperity in east African coastal cities. Great Zimbabwe was at the helm of this commercial expansion.

The site yielded Persian bowls, Persian tin-glazed earthenware bowls, Chinese celadon, Chinese stoneware vessels, near Eastern glass, some coral pieces, a variety of copper objects, bronze crotals (hawk bells), yellow and green glass beads, brass wire and cowrie shells. The imported glass beads and ceramics compare closely with those found in east African towns while the iron and copper point towards regional trading networks. Items such as copper crosses, ivory, barbed spearheads, and iron gongs, although indigenous, were not necessarily local in origin and were frequently brought from central Africa.

Great Zimbabwe thus had extensive regional trading contacts with central Africa as well as the Indian Ocean coastal towns.


Possibly, the key factor in the rise of Great Zimbabwe was crop growing. The destruction of natural resources and land degradation around Masvingo testifies that the area had been occupied for a long time by sedentary agriculturalists. Also much evidence related to the practice of agriculture was unearthed like, pollen grains of millet, sorghum, and rapoko, fired clay pots possibly used to prepare sadza and relish and charred remains of grain rotten overtime hence producing a compound like tar found in ancient granaries at Great Zimbabwe. Every household in Great Zimbabwe had a field where they grew cereals and many other crops to feed their families. It was the agricultural produce that fed the huge population at Great Zimbabwe which was an important ingredient for any rising state. However, the growth of the state did not only lie in agriculture alone since droughts were common and in such cases the state had to rely on other economic activities since grain could not be stored for more than five years.


Pastoralism played a crucial role in the rise of Great Zimbabwe . According to D.Beach, it is likely that the local Shona speaking Gumanye community began to turn the valley into a state by using their cattle to acquire wives and so increase its population. Pollens grains of bull grass depicting cattle pens, cow dung, cattle bones, and other livestock bones unearthed at the ruins shows how pastoralism was important in the society. Therefore, since Great Zimbabwe was not an important gold producing area, the founders of the state based their strength initially on livestock and managed to dominate enough gold mining elsewhere. With livestock in their hands, rulers paid miners to get gold from the southern areas or to build the stone houses. Cattle loan system (kuronzera) was also used to manipulate people’s consent. However, livestock was also prone to droughts and diseases and once decimated it was difficult to restock within a small period of time.


By the middle of the 15th century, Great Zimbabwe had declined in both political and economic significance.There are suggestions that the population living in and around the town could have impacted on the physical environment, triggering its abandonment and the break up of the state that it controlled. It has been further suggested that in this process it also lost control of the gold trade,19 prompting the rise of successor states namely Torwa/Rozvi A.D 1450–1830 and Mutapa A.D 1450–1900 in the western and northern regions of the Zimbabwe plateau respectively. Ceramics recovered at Great Zimbabwe show that few imports reached the town after 1450, confirming the decline of long-distance trade.

Ecological factors

The plateau environment was overwhelmed by the growing human and animal population. According to D.Beach, the most convincing reason for the collapse of Great Zimbabwe was that the state simply grew to big to be supported by its environment. The mere presence of so many people at one spot would have seriously affected the ability of the site territory to supply crops, firewood, game, grazing and all other necessities of life. Since the Great Zimbabwe people did not have the technology to transport sufficient supplies over long distances, the only alternative would have been to disperse the people. Of Great Zimbabwe had about 11000 people at the centre alone who all depended on farming and so as the nearby fields got exhausted or lost fertility, women who did most of the crop production had to move to distant areas to farm crops in better soils. Therefore, in Beach’s opinion, the seeds of the ultimate decline of Great Zimbabwe may have lain in the reluctance of its own women to walk increasingly long distances to find fertile fields. Also with the growth of their livestock herds, pastures became scarce due to overgrazing forcing them to compete for the scarce grazing lands. Thus, exhaustion of soils and shortage of pastures against the rising human and animal population was on the forefront in the decline of Great Zimbabwe.


Oral tradition has also pointed to drought as another cause of the collapse of Great Zimbabwe. According to D.Beach, southern plateau states including Great Zimbabwe were often affected by droughts which usually occurred in the fifth year after four good farming seasons. With the exhaustion of pastures, it meant the Great Zimbabwe people no longer rely on livestock rearing which was usually their escape route during times of crop failure. Even if they may have had the livestock, it was difficult to transport grain in large numbers over long distances realising their lack of transport technology.

Exhaustion of ivory and gold

The exhaustion of ivory and gold fields also played an important part in the collapse of Great Zimbabwe. Since gold and ivory were the major trade items, their exhaustion seriously affected external trade thus making the common trade route on the East African coast to lose its position to the new trade route which had been opened in the Zambezi valley were ivory and gold were abundant. D.N.Beach argued that, gold production was certainly linked to the rise of the state and several centuries later it was the decline in gold mining which led to the collapse of the whole Zimbabwe-Khami building culture. Therefore, it is highly probable that the Great Zimbabwe people moved away to be in a position to benefit from this new trade route.

Civil Wars

Ecological factors were also at the centre of the civil wars that devastated Great Zimbabwe in the 15th century. As the state continued to grow, pressure over resources needed such as game, firewood, grazing and farming land led to the competition between the branches of the ruling class over the control of the available resources. As a result, civil wars arose between the members of the ruling class and their supporters over the control of the available diminishing resources. Civil wars led to divisions which made it difficult for the state to continue thus forcing some groups to move away.

Climatic changes

Climatic changes in the area have also been implicated in the collapse of the Great Zimbabwe state. Around the 15th century there were unbearable climatic changes at Great Zimbabwe associated with high temperatures and poor rainfall patterns. These changes made important economic activities like agriculture and pastoralism difficult in Great Zimbabwe. Eventually some people were forced to move to other areas where climatic conditions were better.

Ambitious leaders

Apart from ecological reasons, the decline of Great Zimbabwe was also a result of ambitious leaders. It is possible that ambitious leaders like Nyatsimba Mutota took advantage of the division between members of the ruling class and stopped paying tribute and established independence from the Great Zimbabwe ruler thus worsening the disintegration of the state. It is thought that Nyatsimba Mutota was an unsuccessful claimant to the throne in a royal family with many would be successors to the Great Zimbabwe throne. Thus after failing to succeed his father he moved to the North to fulfil his ambition.

Poor administration

Poor administration is also to blame for the collapse of Great Zimbabwe. According to I.Pikirayi at a time when all conditions were favourable in Great Zimbabwe, rulers decided to take advantage of that time and expand their state in order to control gold mining outside the centre. As Pikirayi explains, as the state was expanding it suffered “overstretch” which compromised communication, making it difficult for the rulers to exercise their control over the sub-chiefdoms, thus states like Torwa emerged in the South West.