Africa’s Golden Triangle

Three ancient cities and their treasures have become symbols of African civilisation and power. Before white men came to colonise the continent, Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and Thulamela were centres of trade and culture. Their artefacts now reside in museums, but their stories still live in the stones. By Alison Westwood

The walls of the great enclosure at Great Zimbabwe
The walls of the great enclosure at Great Zimbabwe

Mapungubwe, 28 December 1932

The old man eyed the coins with something approaching desperation. What this white man was offering to pay for his secret would feed him and his family for months and times were hard. But to share this secret would call down a curse and he would rather eat locusts than risk that. Mowena dropped his gaze. “I cannot help you. Please, do not ask me again.”

The white man walked away shaking his head in frustration. The curiosity he felt about the hill had become tainted with a lust for gold, and the combination was consuming him. He heard footsteps and turned to see a young man hurrying through the dusty scrub.

“Let me see the money,” the young man demanded. Jerry van Graan opened his hand. The silver sparkled in the sunlight. “I will take you to the hill,” said Mowena’s son.

Jerry van Graan and his three friends scrambled through the narrow crack in the rock hidden by a wild fig tree. Their guide had turned his back on the hill and pointed behind him, overcome by fear. Jerry’s heart was pounding with exertion and excitement, but he was not afraid. At the top of the flat-topped hill, the four men paused to look at the view – a sweeping expanse of dry riverbed studded with baobabs and red-rocked koppies. Then they eagerly started their search.

The young man who was our guide pointed at the hill without a hint of fear as he drove us towards it. He led the way up the sturdy new staircase past the old fig tree and the four of us paused at the top to look at the view. Then we started our tour. Where Jerry van Graan had found graves crammed with burial goods, we found bare rock and wooden walkways.

We were not disappointed, being neither archaeologists nor treasure hunters. We had simply come to see a place where something important had started. Around 1200, when the rulers of these people moved onto this hill, they established a new type of city and way of life. It revolved around the concept of sacred leadership and became the model for many other cities and settlements, known as dzimbahwe.

Mapungubwe, the first dzimbahwe, was the capital of a gold and ivory trading kingdom that reigned over an area the size of KwaZulu-Natal. Huge quantities of meticulously crafted gold were found on the royal hill – the earliest known gold in Southern Africa. Gold beads were punched from tiny droplets of molten gold thrown into water. Gold bracelets were wound from hammered wire. Fragile golden objects were crafted from foil so thin that light could shine through it. The most famous of these was a gold rhinoceros.

For over 700 years, these treasures were protected by the legend of Mapungubwe’s fearful curse. Locals believed the hill was sacred to great ancestral spirits and merely to look at or point towards it would mean certain death. But by in the early 20th century, treasure hunters arrived, melting down the historic gold for trinkets.

Archaeologists recovered what was left of the gold and valuable artefacts, and sent them away to be studied and preserved. Today, strange holes in the sandstone and an unfinished game of marabaraba are the only signs of the vanished city on that hilltop.

Great Zimbabwe, about 1450

The Monomatapa stood alone on the flat-topped boulder and looked down at his empire. The wind whipped around him, tugging at his furs and rattling his golden beads. The lands of the conquered stretched far beyond the horizon. Below him, at the bottom of the royal hill, smoke was rising from thousands of cooking fires. An initiation song floated up from the high walls of the Imba Huru, the great enclosure.

Five kings had lived and ruled on this hill before him. Five times the royal huts had been buried and rebuilt. His people had built the greatest city ever known, with towering walls of grey stone. Men from places beyond the sea came to trade and to marvel. This was a sacred place and the spirits had blessed them. It was a safe place and no enemy could take it from them.  “Soon,” thought King Mutato sadly, “this will all be gone.”

More than 500 years later, I stood alone on the same flat-topped boulder as the wind blew hair into my eyes. Far below, at the bottom of the hill, I could see the high walls of the great enclosure. The sun was setting behind a rampart bristling with monoliths that pointed watchfully at a thin crescent moon. There were no sounds but the wind and no other people but my guide. They say even the spirits have left Great Zimbabwe.

There is a spirit of place, however. These are, after all, the greatest African ruins south of the pyramids and most of the mighty stone walls are still standing. Explorers in the late 19th century could not bring themselves to believe such a magnificent city could be the work of indigenous people. Archaeology is not an exact science and, in the case of Great Zimbabwe, it was more fallible than usual. It was a speculation gleaned from signs twisted to suit the politics and prejudices of the times.

Myths of the Queen of Sheba, Prester John and spacemen persist, despite the fact that since Gertrude Caton-Thompson’s excavations in 1932, archaeologists agree that Great Zimbabwe’s builders were African. That’s about all they agree on. Nobody can tell you exactly who these people were, where they came from, why they built a city there or why they abandoned it.

“We  say that it was built by the original Shona people of Zimbabwe,” said my guide.

Since Shona is an umbrella term for most of the tribes who live in central Zimbabwe, it wasn’t much of an answer. Beyond the reach of history, Great Zimbabwe keeps its secrets.

Thulamela, about 1600 AD

The makhadzi had a headache. The court musicians had been caterwauling all morning and they would probably carry on all night. She knew the installation of the king required these ceremonies, but she wished they didn’t have to be so noisy. The ritual sister stifled a yawn and twisted her golden bracelet as another group of nobles dragged themselves across the floor and began their observances.

You couldn’t blame the people for wanting to celebrate. Since the old king hadn’t coughed up the king stone, they had waited six years for his body to disintegrate. She herself had fetched the small round river pebble, smeared it with crocodile fat and presented it to the new king to swallow. The king must be like a crocodile: ferocious and dangerous. He would fear no enemies  and live for many years. It was her job to make sure of this. The makhadzi sighed. A woman’s work was never done.

“Sjoe, this must have been a lot of work,” I said, looking at the maze of stone walls lying like rocky pythons across the hillside. “How long did it take you?”

“It took eight of us 18 months to rebuild these walls using the original stones,” said Eric Maluleke. “And the work is never done, because baboons come looking for lizards and tear the walls down again.”

Baboons, weather and time are the enemies of the ruins at Thulamela but, for once, man is not. Unlike Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe, Thulamela was found and explored by people who protected it.

High on a hill in the remote Pafuri section of the Kruger National Park, the remains of walls were discovered by a park ranger in 1983. Slowly, as artefacts were uncovered, it became clear that Thulamela was an offshoot of Great Zimbabwe at least 400 years old.  It would take another 13 years until Sidney Miller, who was excavating the ruins, discovered the skeletons of a tall woman buried with a golden bracelet and beads, and a murdered man who might once have been a king.

For the first time in the history of archaeology, the local community was actively involved in a project to unearth the past. When the graves were found, the excavations were halted while Vavhenda and Mashangaan communities who had once lived in the area were consulted. Their decision: excavate the graves, study the bones and rebury the dead according to ritual. The ancestors would be treated with dignity and respect. The park and the local community made sure of this.

University of Pretoria, October 2007

“I’ll leave you to have a look,” the assistant curator said softly. The dimly lit room marked the close of a triangle that had led me nearly 3,000km across southern Africa. It held thousands of antique beads, exquisite pots, copper ingots, gold and ivory armbands. On twin pedestals were the golden sceptre and rhinoceros – Africa’s crown jewels. Just a few kilometres from my starting point in Johannesburg, the Mapungubwe Museum at the University of Pretoria displayed more treasures than I had seen on my whole journey.

Why had I travelled so far to look at a bunch of rocks? I hadn’t found gold, ghosts or skeletons. I hadn’t found the answers to any mysteries, or even (let’s be honest) learned much about archaeology. I had stood on three lonely hills and stared across empty valleys. I had imagined myself a king, a queen, an explorer. I had been told some facts but heard much more that was fiction. In the Golden Triangle, the stories are everything.

First published in the February 2008 issue of Getaway Magazine

One thought on “Africa’s Golden Triangle

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  1. Great post – I went to Great Zimbabwe as well, amazing place. It did feel like Mugabe was trying to use it for political purposes though.

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