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Khami - The forgotten capital

Khami - The forgotten capital

Khami Ruins
Khami Ruins

It is tough being the successor to a legend. This fact might help to explain why the ancient city of Khami remains the least known and under-visited World Heritage Site in Zimbabwe. Fewer than 6,000 people wander through the twisting stone passages and scramble up the slopes of the terraced hills in a single year. Victoria Falls probably receives that many people in a week. Khami has much to recommend it and not just for the discerning visitor. Fascinating history, beautiful views and the marvel of a stone-walled city so artfully built it seems to have grown from the fabric of the land.

Khami was the capital of the Torwa Empire from around 1450 to 1644, when it was destroyed by fire during a vicious civil war. The rulers almost equalled the wealth of the elite at Great Zimbabwe and chose to express their power through the construction of stone-lined terraces that created platforms. On top of these platforms they built their houses and compounds.

The king lived on the highest point, which hardly seems to be an impressive mound, until you realise that the entire hill has been sculpted and changed by these skilled ancient builders over two centuries. Literally, they left no stone unturned, and their consummate building skill is evident in the manner by which they incorporated large boulders into their walls. Modern architects would hardly do as well.

Originally started as a minor trading post, Khami's proximity to the Matabeleland gold- fields, Zambezi hunting grounds, and Batswana salt and copper fields, assured it would grow to prominence. Like Great Zimbabwe, from which it wrested its independence and thus political power, gold was the major trade item.
First the Arabs and then the Portuguese travelled far and wide to acquire this precious metal, swapping glass beads, exotic porcelain and stoneware, spices, perfumes and even alcohol (gin seems to have been popular, judging from the bottles found at sites in the region) for gold and other trade items. Vast cattle herds, carefully cultivated fields, and iron production were the main measures of wealth for the local population.

Architecturally, the site is composed of a complex series of stone-built platforms. Decoration of the walls is profuse. The longest decorated wall in the country is found here at the aptly named Precipice Ruin. The elite in the society lived atop these platforms, building large and elaborate huts. As at Great Zimbabwe, the general population lived in the valley below, in simple huts made from mud plastered onto a wooden frame and roofed with thatch. Over 7,000 people are thought to have lived permanently at the site at its peak.

The site has been extensively restored in the last decade following international standards created in part in Zimbabwe by Zimbabweans. The restorations included dismantling walls and stabilising their foundations before rebuilding them so carefully each stone was placed in its original position. This mammoth task was ably done by National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe, but the expense and effort was worth it to see this unique site rise from the obscurity of time to take its rightful place as testimony to the skill and legacy of the ancient builders.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 13, June 2013)

Read more about the region in our destination guide:
Bulawayo Destination Profile