IN the electric silence of the African dawn, the evocative stone ruins and intact citadels of Great Zimbabwe can transport the traveler to a mighty African civilization that began more than 1,000 years ago.
The unique architecture of the massive stone walls, cut and packed with awesome precision, the mysterious conical towers and the narrow passageways, defined by towering walls, allow the imagination to run wild. Situated in the southern midlands of what is today Zimbabwe, Great Zimbabwe was the nucleus of a powerful city-state that reached its zenith between the 11th and 15th centuries, according to archaeologists. It was the powerhouse of a unique southern African economy, the capital of a great commerci al empire with its own iron- ore mines and metal smiths. The kingdom of Great Zimbabwe encompassed all of present-day Zimbabwe and spilled over into large parts of Botswana and Mozambique.
The settlement at Great Zimbabwe, thought to cover about 720 hectares (1,778 acres) and contain some 20,000 people, was a pastoral and agricultural community. For reasons that remain a mystery, the mighty dynasty underwent a sudden demise in the 15th century.
For three centuries, until it was located - first by renegade American sailor Adam Renders in 1867, then made known to the world by German adventurer Carl Mauch - Great Zimbabwe was thought to be only a legend, considered by many the Biblical kingdom of Ophir. Many found it difficult to believe that Africans could have had such a sophisticated culture.
From what has since been discovered, Great Zimbabwe was Africa's greatest civic state, founded when the Iron Age Shona tribe - the largest and dominant ethnic group in present-day Zimbabwe - settled around some small granite hills near this southern midlands town.