How to Use a Monument to Build a Legacy


The Great Zimbabwe has long been one of Africa’s fiercest archaeological battlegrounds. How have current and former leaders used the monument as a symbol of power? (New York Times)

Where is Great Zimbabwe?

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources, including today’s simple locator map.

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe include this beautiful conical tower. Photograph by James L. Stanfield, National Geographic
The ruins of Great Zimbabwe include this beautiful conical tower.
Photograph by James L. Stanfield, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas


  • How has Great Zimbabwe been used as a symbol of power?
    • As European explorers colonized the region, they refused to believe such a monument to civilization could be created by local Africans. They attributed the ruins to the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, or a previously unknown European expedition in southern Africa. (So, racism.)
    • Robert Mugabe, the 92-year-old Zimbabwean president who has led the country since its independence in 1980, has built his entire political identity by associating himself and his party with Great Zimbabwe.
      • In his independence speech, Mugabe said that his people were gaining ‘a new history and a new past.’ The Great Zimbabwe would finally be theirs.”
      • At his 92nd birthday party, Mugabe “spoke of the ‘majestic Great Zimbabwe monument whose African origins the imperialists wished so much to denigrate.’”
      • Around 2000, Mugabe began holding events at Great Zimbabwe, including national holiday celebrations, the annual party convention, and Mugabe’s own elaborate birthday parties.
        • Zimbabwe is supposed to unite around that monument, and, in identifying with the Great Zimbabwe, ZANU-PF [Mugabe’s political party] is an organization that is intricately linked with that glorious past and should be permanently in power because of that claimed linkage with the past,” said one expert. “It’s manipulation of the highest order when it comes to the past.” Great quote.
    • A “Zimbabwe Bird,” one of the stone artifacts uncovered at the site, is part of the Zimbabwe national flag.


  • Why is Great Zimbabwe important to historians and Zimbabweans?
    • Great Zimbabwe is a crucial part of history as it is one of only three pre-colonial monuments in sub-Saharan Africa. The other two, “the rock-hewn churches in Lalibela and the city of Aksum, [are] both in Ethiopia, which is, significantly, the only African nation that was never colonized.”
    • Great Zimbabwe is a testament to the sophistication and ingenuity of the local Shona people. “There was no cement, no mortar; people were doing it just using their bare hands, and these structures still stand. Even before the settlers came here, there was civilization,” says one tourist.


  • How is Great Zimbabwe under threat today?
    • Despite Mugabe’s reliance on the symbolism, he has not invested in preservation or conservation of the monument.
    • Even local Zimbabweans are not always familiar with the monument. “Maybe some passers-by built this,” says one local, as he kept an eye on his cows, a couple of which had disappeared behind one of the Great Zimbabwe’s stone walls. “Maybe some white people.”


  • Can you think of other monuments that leaders have used for political purposes?
    • All over! Controlling the historical narrative is a key tool of those in power, or trying to be in power. (The past is alterable: Ask Big Brother if Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.)
      • The Great Wall of China served as a powerful symbol of Chinese emperors. Today, it serves as just as strong a symbol of the economic and political power of the People’s Republic of China.
      • The Arc de Triomphe (Paris) and Brandenberg Gate (Berlin) were constructed to commemorate national unity. During World War II, these monuments served as a powerful backdrop to the Nazi march through France and Germany. After Nazi defeat, triumphant Allies marched beneath these arches in victory.
      • Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia and a powerful symbol of the Khmer civilization. During the French occupation, Angkor Wat served as a symbol of France’s far-flung colonial empire. Under the regime of the Khmer Rouge, when the country was called Democratic Kampuchea, a stylized outline of Angkor Wat appeared on the national flag. Today, a more naturalistic image of Angkor Wat adorns the flag of Cambodia.



New York Times: Zimbabwe’s Rulers Use a Monument’s Walls to Build a Legacy

Nat Geo: Where is Great Zimbabwe? map

UNESCO: Great Zimbabwe National Monument

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