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Mauch discovers the ancient ruins of Zimbabwe

Posted in Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles on Thursday, 29 September 2011

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This edited article about Africa originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 828 published on 26 November 1977.

Mauch discovers Zimbabwe, picture, image, illustration

Mauch discovering the ruins of Zimbabwe by Walter Stanley Paget

“Bravo! That’s it!”

Carl Mauch wiped the sweat off his forehead and peered past his native guide. Below him stretched the plains. Eight kilometres away in a haze of heat, there towered a bare-flanked, green-topped hill, shimmering faintly in the African sun. Around its summit it wore, like a crown, a rampart built of stone.

Mauch had found Zimbabwe.

His guide, a local Karanga tribesman, was unimpressed. The hill on which they were standing, he argued, was the one of interest. Here could be found a pot of great magic, the pot-that-moves-by-itself.

What were old walls compared with such a marvel?

What indeed? Mauch did not bother to explain that nowhere, in the vast plains of Southern Africa where the Bantu tribes dwelt, had evidence been found before of buildings made of stone before white men came.

Why was Mauch searching for old stone ruins in that year of 1871? What had brought him to that part of Africa that today is Rhodesia?

He was a German geologist, born in Wittenberg in 1837. He already had the discovery of two African gold-fields to his credit when, in 1867, he heard a story which seemed unbelievable. It came from a fellow-countryman and missionary, the Rev. A. Merensky.

Deep in the African interior, said Merensky mysteriously, lay great ruins built of stone.

“A marvel, Herr Mauch! What native builds with stone, eh? None! None!”

But that was not all. If, as Merensky believed, the work had been done by others, then he thought he knew who they were. And his theory was startling: “The ruins, my dear Mauch, can only be those mentioned in the Bible – King Solomon’s mines!”

They lay, he said, somewhere to the west of the port of Sofala, in what is now Mozambique, on the east coast of Africa. Had not King Solomon brought his gold from distant Ophir? “Ophir, sir – only the name had changed slightly, that is all – Ophir, Sofala.”

Mauch could not resist the thought of another gold discovery. He made plans to travel with the missionary in search of the mysterious ruins. But things went wrong, and when he set out in 1871, he travelled alone.

It was a difficult journey through territory uncharted by European explorers. Mauch hoped to buy his way along the route with presents for local chiefs. That scheme fell through when tribesmen plundered his baggage. Lost and friendless, he was found by Karanga tribesmen and taken before their chief, Mapunsure.

Mapunsure had already had dealings with white men. One of them, a hunter called Adam Render, spent a great deal of time in his territory. The chief was cunning, and could see that in time more white men would come to rule the land. He realised that his chances of maintaining his power would be greatly improved if he could be seen to have European friends.

He therefore welcomed Mauch as a guest, and kept him – to all intents and purposes – a prisoner. Without the chief’s help the geologist could not hope to find his way back to civilisation. And that help was not forthcoming.

It was a mixed blessing for Mauch, who could at least explore the surrounding territory. It was on one such trip that he first saw the wall-crowned crest of Zimbabwe.

He was determined to investigate the ruins more closely, but here another problem cropped up. Zimbabwe was in the territory of Chief Mugabe, who, at the time, was having a slight difference of opinion with Mapunsure.

Mauch argued and pleaded until at last they let him go to the ruins. So it was that he discovered not one ruin, but two. On a high hill the rampart, built of rough stones, massively high and thick, rose from the very edge of the cliff to make a fortress as secure as any. This Mauch called the Acropolis.

And half a kilometre further south, across a small sandy valley, lay the second ruin. Its circular wall was over six metres high, and was built more neatly than the fortress, although both were built without foundations.

Mauch measured and sketched and wrote, and noted that both ruins had thinner dividing walls inside, many in a state of collapse. He was intrigued by a ten-metre high conical tower in the second ruin, the Great Enclosure. He climbed to the top to discover that it was not hollow, but solid.

By now local tribesmen were getting suspicious. They were the descendants of the builders of the huge citadel, but their tribes had long forgotten its purpose and used the “stone houses” as a burial place for their chiefs.

What was the white man doing among the walls of stone, muttering to himself? Was he making magic, raising the ngozi – the spirits of their ancestors – for some evil purpose? They advised their chief to stop his visits to the ruins.

But the geologist was not put off so easily, and began visiting the ruins by night, stumbling over boulders and through thorny undergrowth. It is little wonder that some of his measurements were later found to be inaccurate.

It was nearly a year before Mauch escaped the “hospitality” of Mapunsure and made his way back to Europe to announce his discovery.

Of King Solomon’s mines, he said nothing, putting forward instead a theory about Zimbabwe that today seems just as absurd: the hill ruin, he said, was a copy of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, built by wandering Phoenicians!

Since then a number of archaeologists have dug at Zimbabwe and, despite plundering by treasure hunters, excited by rumours of gold hoards in the 1890s, have pieced together the history of the lonely citadel.

Using methods and equipment unknown in Mauch’s day, they have established that the area was first inhabited 2,000 years ago by primitive Bushman hunters. In time, these were forced off the land by early Iron Age men, who came to scratch the surface of the earth for gold.

Before William the Conqueror was king of England, thatched huts were being built at Zimbabwe: perhaps when the Magna Carter was signed, the first walls on Zimbabwe hill were already raised.

As the years went by, other tribes joined the Karanga and lent their skills to the work. They shaped their blocks of stone more finely, laid them better and built in the valley beside the hill. The Great Enclosure alone needed nearly a million of the blocks. They prospered, and, with their gold, bought from the trading tribes on the east coast porcelain and fine pottery from China and glass from Arabia. Coins from many parts of the Ancient World have since been found among the old stones.

In their search for gold, they travelled all over what is now Rhodesia, Botswana and the northern areas of South Africa. The ruins of their settlements are now scattered throughout these areas, although none matches the massive majesty of Zimbabwe.

At its height, their kingdom stretched from the Limpopo River in the south to the Zambezi River in the north.

But in the 1830s, when the “Black Napoleon”, Shaka, forced many Nguni tribes out of their territories in the south, they fled north and found Zimbabwe in their path. They destroyed it and settled, leaving the citadel for the ngozi, and using the Great Enclosure as a kraal for their cattle.

But the spirit of Zimbabwe has not died: Africans in Rhodesia who are fighting to take over the running of the country, will rename it after the citadel on the hill – Zimbabwe.

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