5 of the best ancient ruins in Southern and East Africa (and why you should visit them)

Posted on 26 August 2013

From the Cradle of Humankind in Maropeng to lost ancient civilisations such as at Mapungubwe National Park and Great Zimbabwe, historical sites provide a great journey into the earliest history of humanity. These sites tell us a story of human societies through the ages and give us a chance to walk in the shoes of our ancestors. They are a window into the very core of  our desire to survive as  a species. By visiting places like Machu Picchu, Peru, (hike to Machu Picchu on an Inca Trail adventure) we learn how our early humans successfully – and sometimes not entirely successfully – devised means to survive (check out 10 of the most fascinating lost cities of the world).  We also step into a  fascinating world brimming with history and  broaden our understanding of our planet.  If you’re interested in human civilisations through the ages, here is a list of old sites worth visiting in Southern and East Africa.



1. Great Zimbabwe


The Great Zimbabwe ruins are a prime example of pre-colonial African civilisation.

Photo by Richard Pluck

Located in the lowveld outside of Masvingo, in the southeastern part of Zimbabwe, Great Zimbabwe was established between the eleventh and fifteenth century by early Shona people. Built mostly from granite blocks, the 800-hectare settlement was divided into three areas:  the Hill Ruins, the Great Enclosure, and the Great Valley. Each of the of the areas was occupied by a different part of the population and the hills are considered to have been a royal city. Due to its well-organised structure, the city soon became a powerhouse, trading with countries across the globe during the Middle Ages (Persian and Chinese artifacts dating back to the fifteenth century have been found in the area). However, by the nineteenth century, Great Zimbabwe had been abandoned.


Why you should visit Great Zimbabwe

The architecture, artifacts and ruins in Great Zimbabwe tell a story of a bygone-era in Zimbabwe. If you are interested in piecing together Southern African history, the ruins are a great place to start.

Read: Stop waiting for Robert Mugabe to lose: visit Zimbabwe now for more reasons why you should visit Zimbabwe.



Stone Tours and Adventures

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2. Khami Ruins, Zimbabwe

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Khami Ruins National Monument is located west of the Khami River, 22 km from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Photo by Lars Lundqvist.

Image by Lars Lundqvist

After the fall of Great Zimbabwe in the mid-sixteenth century, a new capital known, Khami, rose west of the Khami River, 22 kilometres outside of Bulawayo. Like its precedent, the settlement was constructed mainly from a mixture of granitic sand and clay, and separated into various areas based on a hierarchy with the chief occupying the hills. Led by the Torwa family of the Butua Kingdom, Khami became a major trading post. Artifacts such as seventeenth-century Spanish silverware and sixteenth-century Rhineland stoneware have been found in the area. Unfortunately, the settlement was abandoned during the Ndebele invasions in  the nineteenth-century, closing behind a chapter of Zimbabwean history.


Why you should visit Khami

Khami ruins survived the influx of treasure hunters in the 1800s and most of its history is still intact. The rise and fall of the capital between the 16th and 19th centuries makes it a great bridge between Great Zimbabwe and modern Zimbabwe.



Exploring Tourism

Tel: +26-(0)-377-2588-926, email [email protected] , www.travelozimbabwe.com

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3. Adam’s Calendar, Mpumalanga, South Africa

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The mysterious Adam's Calendar is one of the oldest stone circles in the world. Photo by Andrew Collins

Photo courtesy of Andrew Collins.com

Re-discovered in 2003 by Michael Heine, Adam’s Calendar is a mysterious ensemble of rocks arranged in a circular shape around two stones boulders. Located  in the hills of  Emngwenya (formerly known as Waterval Boven) in Mpumalanga, Adam’s Calendar which dates back 75 000 years is aligned with the geographic cardinal points of planet Earth, as well as marking solstices and equinoxes, and is considered one of the earliest monolithic calendars.


Why you should visit Adam’s Calendar

The calendar can still be used accurately today, and provides insight into African societies’ understanding of the sun’s movement. There is also evidence of trade with civilisations outside of southern Africa. Artifacts such as coins, swords, symbols and statues from ancient Egypt, Greece and the Inca Empire have been found in the area.  The calendar stands as an example of the earliest human innovation, and visiting it will give a perspective on how long ago our ability to adapt and invent began.



Tel: +27-(0)71-522-3153, email [email protected]www.michaeltellinger.com

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4. Mapungubwe, Limpopo, South Africa


The famous golden rhino is one of the many artifacts discovered at Mapungubwe. Photo by Scott Ramsay.

Photo by Scott Ramsay

Over 1 000 years ago a great African kingdom known as Mapungubwe thrived at  the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. The rise of Mapungubwe can be attributed to its well-organised agricultural system and trading relations with areas such East Africa and India. Mapungubwe, which had a population of approximately 5 000, had  a settlement system based on hierarchy. The leaders lived on the hill while most common folk resided below the hill. Despite its success, Mapungubwe was abandoned early in the twelfth century until it was rediscovered in the 1930s. The area was declared as a World  Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in July 2003. South African National Parks (SanParks) also declared the area, its wildlife and surrounding savanna, Mapungubwe National Park in 1999.


Why you should visit Mapungubwe

Mapungubwe holds one of the largest collections of ancient artifacts in Southern Africa. Objects made from gold, copper and iron, with the most famous being  the golden rhino, were found in the area. Located in the Mapungubwe National Park, the site is surrounded by beautiful African savanna.  The national park is home to wildlife species such as elephants, lions and gemsbok. So if you’re looking for a great wildlife safari with a touch of ancient history, you have to visit Mapungubwe National Park.



Ariye Tours

Tel: +27(0)15-962 -0047, email [email protected]www.ariyetour.co.za

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5. Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania


Kilwa Kisiwana Ruins, south of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

Image by Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs

A couple of mosques, a palace and numerous houses are the remaining traces of Kilwa Kisiwani, once a great trading port on the southern coast of Tanzania. Founded in the ninth century, Kilwa Kisiwani’s location on the Indian Ocean allowed it to become an attractive destination for trade on the east coast of Africa in the 1300s. Artifacts such as Persian faience and Chinese porcelain found in the town’s ruins are evidence of the town’s trading relations outside of Africa.

Why you should visit Kilwa Kisiwani

Together with the nearby Songo Mnara, Kilwa Kisiwani bears the marks of the earliest infiltration of Islam in East Africa. Both sites have mosque remains with Kilwa Kisani housing a large dome structure called the Great Mosque, the oldest mosque in East Africa (related: The great mud mosque of Djenne, Mali, visible from space). Originally built in the 13th century, construction on  the mosque was completed in the 15th century. A large palace known as Husuni Kubwa is also one  of the buildings worth seeing in the Kilwa Kisiwani. The palace which was abandoned before completion, was originally built by Sultan al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman  in the 14th century. Another building worth seeing on the island is the Gereza (prison) constructed on the ruins of a Portuguese fort. Besides the buildings, the collection of  ancient Chinese and Islamic artifacts make visiting the site worthwhile.


Easy Travel & Tours

Tel: +25(0)522-2121-747 , email [email protected]www.easytravel.co.tz

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