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Notes on the Geography of Zimbabwe: Great Zimbabwe: Photo 4

world pictures Zimbabwe: Great Zimbabwe

This is the iconic feature within the enclosure. It's a tower replicated around Zimbabwe today on everything from gas stations to funeral homes. What it is or was is another matter, but it's hard to top the speculations of early visitors. When Cecil Rhodes came by in 1890, for example, the people living nearby were told that the white men were "much interested in the Phallus or Phalli, the Phoenician god...."

(See David Christiaan de Waal, With Rhodes in Mashonaland, p.272.)

Rhodes was keen enough on this stuff to sponsor the archival digging of George McCall Theal, whose Records of south-eastern Africa appeared in nine volumes at Rhodes' expense. Here are two nuggets culled by Theal:

João de Barros, whose Da Asia of 1552 discusses Portugal's empire, includes a description of Great Zimbabwe based on reports from Swahili traders in Sofala, on the coast. de Barros writes, obviously without having seen the place, of "a square fortress, masonry within and without, built of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them...."

de Barros isn't finished however: "The natives of the country call all these edifices Symbaoe.... When and by whom, these edifices were raised, as the people of the land are ignorant of the art of writing, there is no record.... In the opinion of the Moors who saw it, it is very ancient, and was built there to keep possession of the mines.... These edifices are very similar to some which are found in the land of Prester John, at a place called Acasumo, which was a municipal city of the queen of Sheba, which Ptolemy calls Axuma, it would seem that the prince who was lord of that state also owned these mines...." (Quoted in P.S. Garlake, Great Zimbabwe, p. 51f.)

A lifetime later, João dos Santos published Ethiopia Oriental (1609) and wrote, this time on the basis of personal experience as a missionary, of structures near Mt. Darwin, in the northeast corner of present-day Zimbabwe. He calls it Mt. Fura and writes that "the natives of these lands, especially some aged Moors, assert that they have a tradition from their ancestors that these houses were anciently a factory of the queen of Sheba.... Others say that these are the ruins of the factory of Solomon... I state that the mountain of Fura or Afura may be the region of Ophir, whence gold was brought to Jerusalem." (Quoted in Garlake, p. 53.)

In due course John Milton would mention Sofala, now a Mozambican province. He retains a touch of prudent doubt and writes of "Sofala, thought Ophir" (Paradise Lost 11:400).

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