Journey to Great Zimbabwe: Functionalities and expressions of walls

by Sunday News Online | Sunday, Aug 12, 2018 | 144 views
Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe

Phathisa Nyathi
OUR first port of call at Great Zimbabwe is the Great Enclosure which is arguably the biggest single structure within the cultural edifice. As observed earlier, it is nearly rivalled by the two structures on the Hill Complex.

Again, we pointed out that big as it might be, the Great Enclosure is beaten by the two Hill Complex structures only if the built place was a settlement with a resident kin or ruler of sorts.

In African terms, the king or ruler would occupy the highest point within a town. This is true even among the Ndebele where a topographic map of KoBulawayo (Old Bulawayo) shows that King Lobengula occupied the highest place within the settlement.

Socio-economic and political status find expression in physical height. On account of these observations which contradict known African cosmological ideas, Great Zimbabwe, as a royal town, is thrown into serious doubt. In the meantime, let’s scrutinize other material aspects which, hopefully, shall illuminate and interpret the grandiose lithic complex.

We come face to face with a colossal wall built out of stone bricks without the use of mortar. The dressed granite stones present a façade of meticulous stonework on both sides of the wall. Undressed portions of stones are hidden within the thick wall.

We observe too that the walls are broadest at the bases and taper towards the top.  This is a practical consideration which lends stability to the wall. The stone wall’s centre of gravity is near ground level and that lends stability to the walls.

One conclusion we may draw is that the builders were skilled stone masons, itself an indicator of advanced technology.

Similar technology was possessed by the builders of Egyptian and Sudanese pyramids. There are stone structures in other parts of the world such as in England (the Stonehenge), the Middle East and South America.

It is not the enormity of the walls though that we seek to concentrate on. Rather, it is how stones have been positioned in space. Materials used could have been clay, as in Timbuktu, wood, as at KoBulawayo, grass/ reeds, burnt mud bricks etc.

Materials for use are chosen on the basis of many considerations, e.g. availability of natural materials, established tradition, available technology and skills, considerations of socio-political and economic status, climate and ecology, inter alia. As a result, walls may be different depending on above factors and the purposes for which they were built.

Among the best known walls in the world are the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall in Germany (since breached and collapsed).

Walls have been built to keep out potential invaders or to separate enemies. Defence considerations led to the construction of castles in some European countries such as in England and Scotland. In most cases such defensive walls are robust and made out of hard materials such as stone to make the walls difficult to breach. There are smaller walls such as those that are integral parts of houses.

Some of these may be fashioned out of ice as is the case with igloos of Eskimos in the Arctic region. Some walls are made out of clay/ mud or burn mud bricks.

Such less grandiose and robust walls serve to keep out elements, provide privacy and sometimes demarcate various disparate functions within a settlement. Walls may differentiate sections of a settlement on the basis of gender, age, socio-economic and political status, sacred places from profane ones, inter alia.

Temporary walls may be erected for once off cultural functions. Such walls may be built on an annual basis or as and when they are needed.

Walls may be decorated through painting or through relief. It is here that the story begins. A wall is primarily functional; it has some utility that it serves such as keeping out elements or providing some privacy. In addition to that primary function/ utility, a wall may have some secondary role.

A functional wall carries some beauty when decorated or embellished. Aesthetics is being added to a wall. Aesthetics is for artistic consumption by those who glean a wall.

At Great Zimbabwe dressed stones were arranged in a circular design. Whereas colossal walls must surely have served some function(s), they also bore some aesthetics attributes, in African terms. Let us, for now, say we are not sure of the functions performed by the stone walls. However, circularity expresses something that we know about. A circle has no beginning or end.

It thus represents fertility, continuity, eternity, endlessness and immortality. This is so even before we consider embellishments on the stone walls which has its own story, a story that may shed light on the functions of the entire cultural edifice and the stone walls more specifically.

The stone walls thus serve some function while at the same time expressing aesthetics laden with functionality. In functionality there is aesthetics or beauty. Similarly, in aesthetics there is functionality, for example, the functional message being conveyed effortlessly.

The resulting aesthetics serves a functional purpose, namely a message within the context of beauty. In this particular case, the message or function is about fertility as enshrined in circularity.

Looking up at one part of the robust wall, we observe the presence of chevron designs in two rows. We shall get to these later and listen to their story over and above their aesthetic expression and rendition. Is there a message in the choice and use of stone? We do know that important instructions have been inscribed in rock, for example the Ten Commandments were inscribed on stone tablets.

Rock is said to be of all ages on account of its imperishability or resistance to erosion and weathering. In practical terms therefore, rock or stone, in particular igneous rock, expresses the idea of solidity, permanency, continuity, endlessness and eternity.

Great Zimbabwe was built more than two thousand years ago and yet it is still very much in existence. It is the nature of the rock that lends it the idea of permanency.

We thus should view the vast stone walls at both the functional and literal level and also at the symbolic or metaphorical level.

As admitted above, we are yet uncertain of the functions of the stone walls. What we may surmise is what they express on account of their circularity.

Nowhere are the walls straight, nor do we find right angles on these walls. Curved lines are found everywhere. Here the walls were built to reflect the cosmos: as above, so below.

Cosmic eternity has been infused into the walls. It is eternity that we saw as being resident in the cosmos, one that is not based on sexual reproduction. As pointed out earlier, continuity is also expressed outside of  sexuality.

We shall see, as we proceed, whether the idea of continuity and endlessness is expressed through symbolised sexuality. It would be interesting to note some reiteration or complementarity of the same theme of eternity but this time expressed through sexuality.

Next we shall look up the high stone wall and explore the chevron designs which, interestingly, occupy only a portion of the wall of the Great Enclosure, more or less coinciding with the position of the double walls with a narrow passage.

 Please note that this is a repeat of last week’s article. — Editor.

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