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World Heritage Sites – in General & in Zimbabwe

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UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Background

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) gives the title of “World Heritage Site” to places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity and as such, have been inscribed on the World Heritage List to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.

The idea of  designating sites as having “outstanding universal value” grew out of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage and was proposed in 1972. The very first site declared was the Galápagos Islands, part of the Republic of Ecuador, in 1978

 As of June 2020, there were a total of 1,121 World Heritage Sites (869 cultural, 213 natural, and 39 mixed properties) exist across 167 countries. Italy and China share the distinction of having the highest numbers of sites in one country – 55 each.

The designation of World Heritage Site is a highly prestigious honor and bestows not only honor but also has economic implications as it enhances tourism.  World Heritage Sites may lose their designation when the UNESCO World Heritage Committee determines that the designated site is not properly managed or protected. Two sites have been completely delisted from the World Heritage List: the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman and the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites – in Zimbabwe

There are 145 World Heritage Sites in Africa, shared amongst 35 countries. The country with the highest number is South Africa, which has 10 sites. Zimbabwe has five sites, as follows:

Three sites of natural significance:

  • Mana Pools (Matabeleland North Province)  designated in 1984
  • Victoria Falls, designated (Matabeleland North Province) in 1989
  • Matobo Hills (Matabeleland South Province) designated in 2003

Two sites of cultural significance:

  • Great Zimbabwe (Masvingo Province) designated in 1986
  • Khami (Matebeleland Province) designated in 1986

(A third area is being considered (on a “tentative” list) – the “Nyanga Terraces”.)

Mana Pools

Mana Pools actually consists of three sections,  Mana Pools National Park and the Sapi and Chewore Safari Areas. Natural barriers created by the Zambezi River and the escarpment have protected the Mana Pools area from damage and development and it is a remote and relatively pristine wildlife conservation area of over 2000 square kilometers of river frontage, islands, sandbanks and pools, flanked by forests of mahogany, wild figs, ebonies and baobabs.  It is famous for its rich and varied game viewing by boat/canoe safaris, game drives and bush walks, the extremely rich birdlife, for challenging fishing and spectacular views across the Zambezi to the mountains in Zambia.

Mana Pools, elephants in the Zambezi

This is a region of the lower Zambezi that turns into a flood plain in the rainy season and fills large pools.  Mana means “four” in Shona  and refers to four important pools, the Main, Chine, Long and Chisambuk.  These pools dry up in the course of the winter and many people consider the best time of year to visit Mana Pools is between May and October, as large  numbers of game gather in search of water. Huge herds of elephant, buffalo, zebra, antelope and predators such as lion and hyena migrate here during the dry winter months. The river is also home to record numbers of hippopotamus and Nile crocodile, as well as more than 450 species of resident and migratory birds.

Mana Pools was designated a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance in 2013. (The “Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat” abbreviated to “Convention on Wetlands” is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. It is named after the city of Ramsar in Iran, where the convention was signed in 1971.)

Mana Pools - elephants feeding off trees

Victoria Falls (Mosi-Oa-Tunya)

Victoria Falls was given its name in 1855 in honour of Queen Victoria of Great Britain by the first European to see the Falls, a Scottish missionary called David Livingstone.  Livingstone was so impressed by the sight of the Falls that he wrote of  “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” Livingstone also mentioned an older name, Seongo or Chongwe, which means “The Place of the Rainbow”. However  the Lozi or Sotho language name, Mosi-oa-Tunya or “The Smoke That Thunders” continues in common usage and the Tonga call the falls Shungu Namutitima, meaning “Boiling Water”.

Aerial view of Victoria Falls

For a considerable distance upstream of Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River flows in a shallow valley across a flat basalt plateau extending hundreds of kilometres in all directions, with no mountains, escarpment, or deep valleys. Suddenly the full width of the river plummets in a single vertical drop into a transverse chasm 1,708 metres wide, carved by its waters along a fracture zone in the basalt plateau. While it is neither the highest nor the widest waterfall in the world, Victoria Falls is classified as the largest, based on its combined width of 1 708 metres and height of 108 metres resulting in the world’s largest sheet of falling water.

Victoria Falls from Devil's Cataract
Victoria Falls from Devil’s Cataract

There are islands on the crest of the falls that are large enough to divide the curtain of water even at full flood into separate parallel streams. The main streams are named, in order from Zimbabwe (west) to Zambia (east):  Devil’s Cataract, Main Falls, Rainbow Falls, Horseshoe Falls and the Eastern Cataract.

The spray from the falls typically rises to a height of over 400 meters (and sometimes even twice as high in times of high water) and is visible from up to 50 km away. Walks along the cliff opposite the Falls in the area called The Rain Forest are drenched in an almost constant shower and shrouded in mist.

The only outlet for the water that has leapt into the chasm is a 110-metre-wide gap about two-thirds of the way across the width of the falls from the western end. The whole volume of the river pours from this narrow cleft into the spectacular Victoria Falls basalt gorges.

Gorges of Victoria Falls, diagram & photo

Victoria Fall is the physical landmark which separates the two countries, Zimbabwe and Zambia, linked by an historic bridge within sight of the Falls.  The nearby National Parks contain among other wildlife hippos, rhino, giraffe, elephant, buffalo, impala, puku, and warthog. The area is also a breeding ground for four species of endangered birds.  Travellers to Victoria Falls can enjoy thrilling adventure activities including white water-rafting, bungee jumping, river cruises, flights over the Falls, fishing and game drives. 

Matobo Hills

The Matobo Hills commence some 35 kilometres south of Bulawayo and cover an area of about 3100 km² of which 424 km² is the Matobo National Park and the Lake Matopos Recreational Park. (The current name “Matobo” reflects the correct vernacular pronunciation.) The hills were formed over 2 billion years ago by volcanic activity and granite being forced to the surface. Over the millennia this has eroded to produce a dramatic landscape of immense smooth “whaleback dwalas”, strewn with piles of balancing boulders and interspersed with valleys of thick southern Africa bushveld  vegetation.

Matopos National Park

The national park is the oldest in Zimbabwe, established in 1926 as Rhodes Matopos National Park, a bequest from Rhodes. Part of the national park is set aside as a 100 km² game park, which has been stocked with game including carefully protected white rhinoceros.

Rhodes' Grave

The huge rock formations provide abundant natural shelters and have been associated with human occupation from the early Stone Age. Archaeological evidence indicates that the site has been occupied for at least 500,000 years. . The rock faces are covered with prehistoric paintings of humans, animals and birds dating back at least 13,000 years and illustrating evolving artistic styles and socio-religious beliefs. There are about 20 000 cave-paintings and petroglyphs, the largest concentration in southern Africa.

Matobo rock painting

The Matobo Hills still provide a strong focus for the local Zimbabwe community, which use the shrines and sacred places linked to traditional and social activities, particularly for the Mwari religion. Dating back to the Iron Age, Mwari is the most powerful oral tradition in Southern Africa. The site hosts a three-week-long ceremony each August, where more than a thousand pilgrims gather to dance and perform rituals among the rocks and terraces.

Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe is an ancient city in the south-eastern hills of Zimbabwe near  the town of Masvingo. “Zimbabwe” means “houses of stone” and the “Great” distinguishes the site from the many hundreds of small ruins, now known as “zimbabwes”, spread across the Zimbabwe Highveld.

Conical tower in Great Enclosure

Great Zimbabwe was an important political and trading centre associated with the East African Arab trade network, dealing mainly in gold but also copper, ivory and slaves.  Construction on the city began in the 11th century after the decline of the Mapungubwe center in present-day northern South Africa (Mapungubwe cultural Landscape is another World Heritage Site.)  Notable artifacts found at the site have included beads and porcelain from China and Persia and Arabian coins together with ancient soapstone figurines. It was also a centre of great spiritual significance (and remains so to this day). It was abandoned in the 15th century because of severe environmental degradation due to overpopulation and fell into ruins. Smaller groups accompanied the hereditary King, the Monomutapa, into the north of Zimbabwe. Political power and trade shifted to a new sent at Khami, near Bulawayo.

Lichen on the walls of Great Zimbabwe
Lichen on the walls of Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe features a valley and mountain covered in  massive curving walls, sometimes 12 m high and 6 m thick, constructed from millions of granite blocks fitted together without mortar. The stone city spans an area of 7.22 square kilometres which could have housed up to 18,000 people in its heyday. It  is the largest stone structure south of the pyramids.


Khami is the second most important archaeological site in Zimbabwe after the Great Zimbabwe. It served as the seat of the Torwa dynasty in Zimbabwe for about 200 years  between 1450 and 1650,  and came to prominence after Great Zimbabwe had been abandoned.  It was still occupied in the 19th Century.

Khami Ruins, platforms

Both ruins belonged to the same cultural tradition and have the same lay-out in sectors (in the case of Khami seven areas that were occupied by the royal family) while the valleys and open spaces were occupied by commoners. Excavations have revealed well-planned buildings especially at the Hill Complex, which was occupied by the king or paramount chief.

Khami Ruins, walling

There is however a significant difference architecturally as Great Zimbabwe tends to have free-standing walls and Khami tends towards platforms on which houses would be constructed. This is explained by the fact that the stone found at Khami was harder to quarry and produced shapeless building stone. The builders thus found it easier to produced retaining walls instead of free-standing walls.. The complex was first built up by creating terraces of rough walling. These stable walls were then covered up by quality walling of dressed stone blocks. Each terrace was highly decorated with either a checkerboard pattern, herringbone, or a cord pattern. The terraces leaned inwards so that gravity would not cause collapses. They then had wooden poles probably for the guards to hold on to as they walked along the high and steep walls.

Great Zimbabwe vs Khami building technique
Great Zimbabwe vs Khami building technique

There was an additional advantage to the terrace system. The area around Khami, being riverine, is hot and had problems with malaria. Building on platforms made the houses cooler than those in the open areas below and also reduced the problem of malaria for the lucky royals who lived in the elevated areas.

Khami was a major centre for trade over a long period of time. Excavations have produced imported goods like Ming porcelain and Spanish silverware, German stoneware and Portuguese trading goods.

Ziwa and Nyanga Terracing (On the “Tentative” list)

The Ziwa National Monuments display evidence of human occupation for all the major archaeological periods identified in Zimbabwe’s history including Stone Age deposits and rock art sites as well as the remains of a vast late Iron Age agricultural settlement dated to the 15th century. This settlement is marked by a large variety of stonework structures including stone terraces running along contours of hills and steep landscapes to create terraces and field systems, pit structures to house livestock, hill forts, and stone enclosures; iron smelting and forging furnaces and numerous remains of daub-plastered housing.

Ziwa Ruins, NYANGA
Ziwa Ruins, Nyanga
Paddy Pacey

Zimbabwean field guide and trainer of aspiring guides

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