Zimbabwe’s Rulers Use a Monument’s Walls to Build a Legacy

The Great Zimbabwe, a Unesco World Heritage site near Masvingo in southern Zimbabwe, is a ruined city founded in the 11th century. Believed to have been the capital of the Shona people, it gave the nation its name.

GREAT ZIMBABWE NATIONAL MONUMENT, Zimbabwe — Black Africans could never have built the Great Zimbabwe monument, or so the white rulers used to say.

Clearly, it was made by the Phoenicians or other visitors from faraway places, they insisted. Never mind that archaeologists and carbon dating had confirmed the obvious: that the monument was constructed by the ancestors of the Africans living nearby.

The Great Zimbabwe, a Unesco World Heritage site that is one of the few surviving precolonial monuments in sub-Saharan Africa, has long been the continent’s fiercest archaeological battleground. Europeans used its supposed foreign origins to justify their domination. Liberation fighters used it as a rallying cry for their cause, eventually naming their newly independent nation after it.

But the fight over the Great Zimbabwe did not end with independence.

As President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party have clung to power through violence, they have increasingly turned to the Great Zimbabwe for vindication.

In the monument’s elegantly curved stone walls — at the center of a ruined city where thousands lived centuries ago — Zimbabwe’s current leaders have also found a rationale for their party’s 37 uninterrupted years in power.

Last year, Mr. Mugabe — the world’s oldest head of state, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence — held an enormous celebration for his 92nd birthday at the Great Zimbabwe.

Mr. Mugabe spoke of the “majestic Great Zimbabwe monument whose African origins the imperialists wished so much to denigrate.” Then he ate a slice of a cake baked in the image of the monument that weighed 92 kilograms, or 203 pounds.

“Whether it’s the Rhodesians or the ZANU-PF government, they always want to try and milk some political glamour out of this very illustrious story,” said Nelson Chamisa, an opposition leader who served between 2009 and 2013 as the information and communication technology minister of a coalition government, referring to the white minority who controlled the country known as Rhodesia until independence.

But the Great Zimbabwe, Mr. Chamisa said, remained off limits to any opposition events.

“We’ve never tried in the past to go there,” he said. “Our colleagues in ZANU-PF guard it jealously. They would probably think that we want to snatch away its legacy.”

Sprawling across 2,000 acres in southern Zimbabwe, the Great Zimbabwe was a city founded in the 11th century and inhabited, at its peak, by more than 10,000 people.

Stone walls, rising as high as 32 feet and held together without mortar, formed large enclosures in which lived various communities. It was believed to be the capital of the local Shona people, who built similar, though smaller, communities throughout the region. Zimbabwe means “house of stone” in the Shona language.

Located near gold fields, the Great Zimbabwe was also part of a trading network extending up the East African coast to the Arab world, Persia and China. Perhaps because of the depletion of gold and a decline in trade, the Great Zimbabwe was abandoned around 1450.