German geologist and explorer Karl Mauch made a discovery in 1871 that captured the attention of the world. Mauch claimed that the ruined stone city of Great Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, was the site of the fabled King Solomon’s Mines and the capital of the realm of the queen of Sheba.
The ruin, from which the nation Zimbabwe took its name a century later, looks much the same now as it did in Mauch’s day. It is made up of two main groups of buildings: a seemingly impregnable structure, known as the Hill Fortress, which looks down on a large elliptical building, the Great Enclosure.
Bound by a stone wall 253 meters long and ranging in height from 4.9 meters to 10.7 meters, the Great Enclosure contains a vast labyrinth of stone walls, forming narrow passageways, three platforms and many unidentifiable “rooms.” The walls are made of pieces of granite cut like bricks and laid without mortar. The most enigmatic feature of the Great Enclosure is a conical tower, standing 9 meters high with a circumference at its base of 17.4 meters. The tower is completely solid and offers no clues as to its purpose.
Some scholars put the construction of this mysterious city down to various ancient races, from the Arabs to Indians. But in 1905 a Scottish archaeologist, David Randall-McIver, proved that the walls and buildings were local in origin and of the relatively recent fifteenth century. In 1929 British archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson concluded that building began between the tenth and eleventh centuries.
We now know that the local Karanga people built Great Zimbabwe over many decades, at about the time that the West was emerging from the medieval era into the renaissance. What is still a puzzle is the purpose of the solid conical tower, let alone a maze of high walls with watchtowers that look inwards, not outwards. A hideaway for kings? A rain-making shrine? A phallic symbol and temple? The mystery remains.