mercantile powers

Who built Great Zimbabwe?

Stretched across a tree-peppered expanse in southern Africa lies the magnificent ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a medieval stone city of astounding wealth and prestige. Located in the present-day country of Zimbabwe, it’s the sight of the largest known settlement ruins in Sub-Saharan Africa, second on the continent only to the pyramids of Egypt. But the history of this city is shrouded in controversy, defined by decades of dispute about who built it and why.

Its name comes from the Shona word madzimbabwe, meaning big house of stone for its unscalable stone walls that reach heights of nearly ten meters and run for a length of about 250 meters. For its grandeur and historical significance, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986. Back in the 14th and 15th centuries, it was a thriving city. 

Spread across nearly eight square-kilometers, Great Zimbabwe was defined by three main areas: the Hill Complex, where the king lived; the Great Enclosure, reserved for members of the royal family; and the Valley Complex, where regular citizens lived. Rulers were both powerful economic and religious leaders for the region. At its highest point, the city had a bustling urban population of 18,000 people and was one of the major African trade centers at the time. What enabled this growth was Great Zimbabwe’s influential role in an intercontinental trade network. Connected to several key city-states along the East African Swahili Coast, it was part of the larger Indian Ocean trade routes. The city generated its riches by controlling the sources and trade of the most prized items: gold, ivory, and copper. With this mercantile power, it was able to extend its sphere of influence across continents, fostering a strong Arab and Indian trader presence throughout its zenith. 

Archaeologists have since pieced together the details of this history through artifacts discovered on site. There were pottery shards and glassworks from Asia, as well as coins minted in the coastal trading city of Kilwa Kisiwani over 1,500 miles away. They also found soapstone bird figures, which are thought to represent each of the city’s rulers, and young calf bones, only unearthed near the royal residence, show how the diet of the elite differed from the general population. These clues have also led to theories about the city’s decline. 

By the mid-15th century, the buildings at Great Zimbabwe were almost all that remained. Archaeological evidence points to overcrowding and sanitation issues as the cause, compounded by soil depletion triggered by overuse. Eventually, as crops withered and conditions in the city worsened, the population of Great Zimbabwe is thought to have dispersed and formed the nearby Mutapa and Torwa states.

Centuries later, a new phase of Great Zimbabwe’s influence began to play out in the political realm as people debated who had built the famous city of stone. During the European colonization of Africa, racist colonial officials claimed the ruins couldn’t be of African origin. So, without a detailed written record on hand, they instead relied on myths to explain the magnificence of Great Zimbabwe. Some claimed it proved the Bible story of the Queen of Sheba who lived in a city of riches. Others argued it was built by the Ancient Greeks. Then, in the early 20th century after extensive excavation at the site, the archaeologist David Randall-MacIver presented clear evidence that Great Zimbabwe was built by indigenous peoples. Yet, at the time, the country’s white minority colonial government sought to discredit this theory because it challenged the legitimacy of their rule. In fact, the government actively encouraged historians to produce accounts that disputed the city’s African origins.

Over time, however, an overwhelming body of evidence mounted, identifying Great Zimbabwe as an African city built by Africans. During the 1960s and 70s, Great Zimbabwe became an important symbol for the African Nationalist movement that was spreading across the continent. Today, the ruins at Great Zimbabwe, alluded to on the Zimbabwean flag by a soapstone bird, still stand as a source of national pride and cultural value.

From the TED-Ed Lesson Who built Great Zimbabwe? And why? - Breeanna Elliott

Animation by JodyPrody

Recently Introduced Lore Tidbits

Demacia

  • Using lime, ash and the fossilized bark of ancient trees, Demacians create petricite; magic absorbing stone with which they built their walls.
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  • Garen and Lux are siblings of the Crownguard family, who traditionally serve as the royal protectors. 
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  • Demacia’s army is often outnumbered, but is arguably the most elite, well-trained army in Runeterra.
  • Garen left home to join the Dauntless Vanguard, one of Demacia’s most elite military forces, when he was only twelve years old.
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Noxus

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  • With his dying breath, Sion killed Jarvan I. The King’s crown now serves as Sion’s jaw. 
  • Gateways of dark stone known as Noxtoraa are raised over roads in territories conquered by Noxus. 

Shurima

  • The Brackern, a race of enormous, crystal-bodied scorpions, slumber in the sands beneath a hidden valley in Shurima. o Sai Kahleek is one of Shurima’s most feared deserts, as it is populated by the ravenous Xer'Sai.
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Freljord

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The distinctive facets of English class structure, as it has evolved over three centuries, can thus be summed up as follows. After a bitter, cathartic revolution, which transformed the structure but not the super-structure of English society, a landed aristocracy underpinned by a powerful mercantile affinal group, became the first dominant capitalist class in Britain. This dynamic agrarian capitalism expelled the English peasantry from history. Its success was economically the ‘floor’ and sociologically the ‘ceiling’ of the rise of the industrial bourgeoisie. Un-disturbed by a feudal state, terrified of the French Revolution and its own proletariat, mesmerized by the prestige and authority of the landed class, the bourgeoisie won two modest victories, lost its nerve and ended by losing its identity. The late Victorian era and the high noon of imperialism welded aristocracy and bourgeoisie together in a single social bloc. The working class fought passionately and un-aided against the advent of industrial capitalism; its extreme exhaustion after successive defeats was the measure of its efforts. Henceforward it evolved, separate but subordinate, within the apparently unshakable structure of British capitalism, unable, despite its great numerical superiority, to transform the fundamental nature of British society.
—  Anderson, Perry. (1964). Origins of the present crisis. New Left Review, I/23(Jan-Feb), 26–53. pp.37-39
5

V. O. Hammon Publishing Co. booklet, “Souvenir of Minneapolis in Colors”, 1910s. 

 - Bird’s Eye View
- Minnehaha Falls
- Calhoun Boulevard
- St. Anthony Falls
- Hotel Radisson
- Scene at Lake Minnetonka
- St. Marks Episcopal Church
- Powers Mercantile Co.
- Minneapolis Court House and City Hall
- Steel Arch Bridge and Union Depot
- Old Block House, Fort Snelling
- Nicollet Avenue West From Sixth Street
- Nicollet Avenue at Night
- Minkhada Golf Club
- Stevens House
- New Roman Catholic Pro-Cathedral
- Minnesota State Soldier’s Home
- Hotel Nicollet
- Metropolitan Life Building
- Park Bridge No. 1
- Minnehaha Falls
- Minnesota State Capitol Building
- Donaldson’s Glass Block
- The Anchorage, Lake Calhoun
- Milling District By Moonlight in Winter
- Hotel Dyckman
- Typical Building in Wholesale District
- Stone Arch Bridge
- Milling District
- West High School
- Nicollet Avenue East From Sixth Street
- View Along Harriet Boulevard
- Pier at Shady Island, Lake Minnetonka
- Shubert Theatre
- Masonic Temple
- Racetrack at Minnesota State Fair Grounds
- Public Library
- Auditorium Building
- Post Office Building
- General View of the University of Minnesota
- Bridal Veil Falls
- West Hotel
- Security Bank Building
- Bridge Over the Mississippi River at Fort Snelling
- Folwell Hall and Physical Laboratory
- Plymouth Building
- Seventh Street North from Nicollet Avenue
- Loring Park Showing Hotel Plaza
- New Bridge Over Mississippi River at Fort Snelling
- Minnehaha Falls in Winter