An early European explorer described it:
"Among the gold mines of the inland plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers there is a fortress built of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them.... This edifice is almost surrounded by hills, upon which are others resembling it in the fashioning of stone and the absence of mortar, and one of them is a tower more than 12 fathoms high. The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies court.--Višente Pegado, Captain, Portuguese Garrison of Sofala, 1531
Built consistently throughout the period from the years 400 AD to the 15th century, the ruins at Great Zimbabwe are the oldest and largest structures located south of the Sahara desert yet to be discovered on the continent of Africa. At its peak, estimates are that the ruins of Great Zimbabwe had as many as 18,000 inhabitants.
It was traders from Portugal who were the first foreigners to come to the remains of the ancient city in the early 16th century. Theories abounded as to the origin of the ruins. A number of racially-biased and white supremacist theories that put forward the idea that the Great Zimbabwe was built by foreigners such as Greeks, Romans and King Solomon, were propounded. These theories never found even a single shred of historical evidence to back them up. It is now generally accepted that Great Zimbabwe was in fact built by Africans whose descendants now live in Southern Africa, if not entirely in Zimbabwe. Built entirely of stone, the ruins span of 1,800 acres and cover a radius of 100 to 200 miles. The ruins can be broken down into three distinct architectural groups. They are known as the Hill Complex, the Valley complex and the Great Enclosure. Over 300 hundred structures have been located so far in the Great Enclosure.
Estimates are that the earliest residents of Great Zimbabwe, the Shona people, started around 400 AD. Construction and occupation of the city continued through the 15th century. The type of stone structures found on the site give an indication of the status of the citizenry. Structures that were more elaborate were built for the kings and situated further away from the center of the city. The thought is that this was done in order to escape the disease incurred by being bitten by the tsetse fly. What little evidence exists suggest that that Great Zimbabwe also became a center for trading.
Nobody knows for sure knows why the site was eventually abandoned. Perhaps it was due to drought, perhaps due to disease or it simply could be that the decline in the gold trade forced the people who inhabited Great Zimbabwe to look for greener pastures.
See also: History of Zimbabwe