Today, a great city, and a great civilization, in
the African plains. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
The nation of Zimbabwe takes
its name from an ancient masonry city called Great
Dzhimbahwe. It's near Nyanda -- once called Fort
Victoria. The bleached bones of this city tell us
much about medieval African civilization.
The ruins run for almost a mile. They weave about a
cliff face and down into the valley below. These
fine masonry husks were once buildings that served
The center is the so-called Great Enclosure. It's
the structure that was called a Zimbabwe. It's an
outdoor amphitheater or temple.
We walk the winding stone paths of the city through
walls of beautifully set unmortared stone. We see
what Europeans want to call an acropolis. We see
dwellings. We're astonished at the reach of this
empty city. It goes on and on.
Carbon dating tells us more. Iron-age Rhodesians
began the city after AD 200. Then they abandoned it
until the 9th or 10th century. The masonry went up
in the 11th century -- just before the Gothic
cathedrals in Europe. The city lasted until
colonialism and slavers had splintered African
civilization. People still lived there 200 years
White souvenir hunters found Great Zimbabwe in the
late 19th century. They savaged the place. We've
had to reconstruct much of what we know from stolen
relics in the museums of Europe and South Africa.
The city was a great and peaceful trading center.
We find no military fortifications. Here was art
from all over the world: Ming Celedon, Nankin
porcelain, Persian faience, and Arab glass! But the
native art arrests our eye: sculpture in soapstone
and schist -- objects of copper, iron, and gold.
Then, an even greater surprise. We move away into
Rhodesia, Botswana, and even South Africa. What do
we find? Great Zimbabwe is only one of hundreds of
abandoned Zimbabwes. This city was once the rule.
It wasn't the exception at all.
The Shona people, who built the Zimbabwes,
practiced a highly personal, familial religion.
Each Shona chieftain had a holy Zimbabwe. Tribal
representatives gathered in them to hear their
So we gaze upon civilization of the highest order
here. We see centers for art, dance, and human
concourse. This, and the other Zimbabwes, remind us
how little we've seen of Africa, when we've
expected to see only jungle.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds