Theodore Bent and The Round Towers of Zimbabwe

The Round Towers of Zimbabwe

James Theodore Bent [1852-1897] was an English explorer and archaeologist who [amongst other things] made the first detailed examination of the “round towers” in the Great Zimbabwe.

Theodore Bent

In 1889 he undertook excavations in the Bahrein Islands of the Persian Gulf, and found evidence that they had been a primitive home of the Phoenician race.

After an expedition in 1890 to Cilicia Trachea, where he obtained a valuable collection of inscriptions, Bent spent a year in South Africa, with the object, by investigation of some of the ruins in Mashonaland, of throwing light on the vexed question of their origin and on the early history of East Africa.

He made the first detailed examination of the Great Zimbabwe.

Bent described his work in The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1892).


Aerial view of Great Zimbabwe

The ruins at Great Zimbabwe are some of the oldest and largest structures located in Southern Africa, and are the second oldest after nearby Mapungubwe in South Africa.

Its most formidable edifice, commonly referred to as the Great Enclosure, has walls as high as 36 feet (11 m) extending approximately 820 feet (250 m), making it the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara Desert.

Great Zimbabwe - Twin Towers Photograph

The curious aspect of the “round towers” in the Great Zimbabwe is their conical shape that echoes a Phoenician temple in Byblos and the nuraghs of Sardinia.

Great Zimbabwe

At point E there is a raised platform immediately in front of the large round tower, covered with a flooring of thick cement, supported by large stones loosely packed together, into which a monolith had been stuck.

This platform was connected with the sacred enclosure by a flight of cement steps, and was presumably used for religious purposes.

In dealing with the two remarkable round towers which stood in the sacred enclosure, one cannot lay too much stress on the symmetry of the courses and the accuracy with which they have been built.

They stand in the centre of the sacred enclosure, which was floored with cement.

By digging to their foundations we were able to get very accurate measurements of them, and found that the circumference of the smaller one corresponds exactly to the diameter of the big one, and the diameter of the big one is apparently equal to half its original height, and its circumference again is equal to the diameter of the round building on the Lundi River.

Great Zimbabwe - Twin Towers

The battering of the big tower is carried out with mathematical accuracy, the slope of the curve being perfectly regular, and is produced by placing the superincumbent stones in a slightly receding position, so that with the aid of a monkey rope we were able to climb to the top.

A few courses below the summit, which would seem to be very much in its original condition except on the south side, where Herr Mauch confesses to have pulled down the stones of several courses, runs a dentelle pattern, marked D on the plan, formed by placing the stones of one course edgeways.

This pattern is the same as the lower one given in the illustration of Matindela ruins, p. 137 ; but unfortunately, owing to the demolition of the upper courses, it is impossible to define its extent.

Matindela Ruins

The tower would seem to have been thirty-five feet in height, and the summit to have been a level of about four feet in diameter.

By digging below this tower, and pulling out stones from the sides, which we carefully replaced, we demonstrated to our satisfaction that it was solid. It was built on nothing but the soil of the place, and was erected over nothing ; the foundations go down for one foot below the floor of cement which covered the enclosure, and it has been preserved to us simply by its solidity, its long through stones, and the way in which the stones have supported one another.

We investigated the smaller tower very thoroughly, and found it also solid.

Great Zimbabwe - Tower

The religious purport of these towers would seem to be conclusively proved by the numerous finds we made in other parts of the ruins of a phallic nature, and I think a quotation from Montfaucon’s ‘ L’Antiquite Exphquee ‘ will give us the keynote of the worship.

‘ The ancients assure us that all the Arabians worshipped a tower, which they called El Acara or Alquetila, which was built by their patriarch, Ishmael.’

‘Maximus of Tyre says they honoured as a great god a great cut stone ; this is apparently the same stone resembling Venus, according to Euthymius Zygabenus.

When the Saracens were converted to Christianity they were obliged to anathematise this stone, which formerly they worshipped.’

Soapstone Birds

This tower doubtless corresponded to the sacred tower of the Midianites, called Penuel, or the ‘Face of God,’ which Gideon destroyed (Judges viii. 7).

Allusions to these towers are constant in the Bible, and the Arabian historian El Masoudi further tells us that this stone or tower was eight cubits high, and was placed in an angle of the temple, which had no roof.

Turning to Phoenician temple construction, we have a good parallel to the ruins of the Great Zimbabwe at Byblos ; as depicted on the coins, the tower or sacred cone is set up within the temple precincts and shut off in an enclosure.

Coin of Byblos

Similar work is also found in the round temples of the Cabiri, at Hadjar Kem in Malta, and the construction of these buildings bears a remarkable resemblance to that of those at Zimbabwe, and the round towers, or nuraghs found in Sardinia may possibly be of similar significance.


Petrie - Nuraghes

MM. Perrot and Chipiez, in their ‘History of Art in Sardinia,’ speak of these nuraghs as forts or temples, around which the primitive inhabitants of the island once lived.

They are ‘ truncated cones, built with stone blocks of different sizes, narrowing to the top.

The stones are unhewn as a rule and laid on without mortar.’

Here too we have a parallel for our monoliths, menhirs of unhewn stone, and also for the phalli, specimens of which are found ,carved on stone (p. 57, figs. 49 and 50), and here too the intricate plan of the fortresses suggests at once a parallel to those at Zimbabwe ; hence it would appear that the same influence was at work in Sardinia as in South Africa.

Phallic Block

In Lucian’s ‘ He Syria Dea,’ which we shall have occasion again to quote when discussing our finds in Chapter VI., we find a description of a temple at Hierapolis, in Mesopotamia, in the propylaea of which, he tells us (§ 16), ‘ there stood two very large phalli, about thirty cubits high.’

Our tower at Zimbabwe stood apparently twenty cubits high and ten in diameter.

He further says (§ 29), ‘ These phalli are solid, for when a priest had to ascend he had to put a rope round himself and the phallus and walk up.’

Herr Mauch, in his account of Zimbabwe, alludes to a sacrifice which took place here amongst the natives in his day (1871).

This ceremony seems to correspond very closely to the sacrifice celebrated elsewhere in this country to the spirits of their ancestors.

It is pretty evident that another tribe of Kaffirs dwelt near Zimbabwe at that time, who looked upon the circular building as sacred ; whereas the present people do not seem to look upon it with any religious superstition, which will account for the growth of vegetable matter inside only during late years.

This was further evidenced by our excavations in this building ; we found but little depth of soil, very little debris, and indications of a Kaffir occupation of the place up to a very recent date, and no remains like those we afterwards discovered in the fortress.

The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland – Theodore Bent – 1895

The word kaffir is a term used in South Africa to refer to a black person.

Now widely considered an offensive ethnic slur, it was formerly considered by whites to be a neutral term for South African blacks.

The word is derived from the Arabic term kafir (meaning “disbeliever”), which originally had the meaning “one without religion”.

In 1904 Richard Hall reported that there are many similar conical towers in Zimbabwe which appear to have been “used for the purposes of Phallic worship”.

Conical Tower - Zimbabwe

20. Cones, conical buttresses, and platforms.

These are believed to have been used in the astral worship of the ancients.

At some of the larger ruins we find conically shaped towers, pillars or buttresses of solid masonry, which have wide bases and narrow tops with cemented platforms, the summits being approached by a flight of steps.

The platforms always command a good view of the rest of the ruins.

At Umnukwana the base of the conical buttress, which is on the west side of the building but faces the east, is ten feet in diameter and four feet at the summit, and is approached by steps.

At Lundi the conical buttress faces north-east, at Little M’Telegwa it faces south-west, and at Ingangase it faces west.

At Chum Ruins the base of the conical buttress, which is on the south-west side and faces the south-west, is eight feet in diameter and four feet on the summit, and is approached by steps.

At Umtelekwe (Sabi) there are two rounded buttresses with granite steps leading to the summits.

The rounded buttress in No. 2 Ruin at Khami, which commands a view of the whole length of the gully-approach, may have been a look-out.

At any rate, its purpose is doubtful.

Sir John Willoughby, in Further Excavations at Zimbabwe, describes a curious conglomeration of buttresses on the south side of No. i Ruin at Zimbabwe, which leads up to, and apparently culminates in, the highest point of the outside wall, which commands a view of the interior of the temple.

The buttresses, Sir John says, are carefully built on the outside, but their interiors are simply filled in with a mass of stones piled one upon the other.

The high platform at Thabas Imamba Ruins, which is approached by a flight of twelve steps, is believed to be the summit of a conical tower, but owing to the ruins having been filled in, it is at present impossible to make an examination.

Each ruin of the first Zimbabwe period so far discovered, and which is situated on a kopje or on a precipitous bluff, has a natural platform on the summit of the rock protected on the outside by the precipice only.

These are believed to have been sacred inclosures used for the purposes of Phallic worship, and would have held a large number of. worshippers.

The Ancient Ruins of Rhodesia : Monomotapae Imperium
Richard Nicklin Hall – 1904

The Phoenician associations highlighted by Theodore Bent are underlined by the ancient coins that have been found in the vicinity and the evidence of gold mining presented by Michael Tellinger.



The mainstream rejects the notion that Zimbabwe was once an ancient gold mining centre with Semitic connections and the theories of Theodore Bent [and others] “have not been accepted”.

The conclusions at which Bent arrived as to the Semitic origin of the ruins in Mashonaland have not been accepted by archaeologists, but the value of his pioneer work is undeniable.

The Great Zimbabwe area was settled by the fourth century of the common era.

Between the fourth and the seventh centuries, communities of the Gokomere or Ziwa cultures farmed the valley, and mined and worked iron, but built no stone structures.

Construction of the stone buildings started in the 11th century and continued for over 300 years.

This has resulted in a severe case of mainstream waffle and hand waving as they attempt to divert attention away from the architectural evidence and bluff their way around the DNA evidence that confirms the Lemba people are of Semitic descent.

The construction of Great Zimbabwe is also claimed by the Lemba.

This ethnic group of Zimbabwe and South Africa has a tradition of ancient Jewish or South Arabian descent through their male line, which is supported by recent DNA studies, and female ancestry derived from the Karanga subgroup of the Shona.

The Lemba claim was also reported by a William Bolts (in 1777, to the Austrian Habsburg authorities), and by an A.A. Anderson (writing about his travels north of the Limpopo River in the 19th century) – both of whom were told that the stone edifices and the gold mines were constructed by a people known as the BaLemba.

Robert Gayre strongly supported the Lemba claim to Great Zimbabwe, proposing that the Shona artefacts found in the ruins were placed there only after the Bantu conquered the area and drove out or absorbed the previous inhabitants.

Lemba DNA

The Lemba are a southern African Bantu-speaking population claiming Jewish ancestry.

Allele frequencies at four different Y-specific polymorphic loci, as well as extended-haplotype frequencies that included data from several loci, were analyzed in an attempt to establish the genetic affinities and origins of the Lemba.

The results suggest that > or = 50% of the Lemba Y chromosomes are Semitic in origin, approximately 40% are Negroid, and the ancestry of the remainder cannot be resolved.

These Y-specific genetic findings are consistent with Lemba oral tradition, and analysis of the history of Jewish people and their association with Africa indicates that the historical facts are not incompatible with theories concerning the origin of the Lemba.

The origins of the Lemba “Black Jews” of southern Africa:
evidence from p12F2 and other Y-chromosome markers.
A. B. Spurdle and T. Jenkins
Am J Hum Genet. 1996 Nov; 59(5): 1126–1133.

Sadly, some of the waffle and hand waving is not very edifying.

Tudor Parfitt described Gayre’s work as intended to “show that black people had never been capable of building in stone or of governing themselves“, although he adds: “The fact that Gayre… got most of his facts wrong, does not in itself vitiate the claims of the Lemba to have been involved in the Great Zimbabwe civilisation.”

It is obvious that the interpretation of site in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was coloured by racial prejudice on the part of white European explorers and, later, settlers.

Convinced that so complex a monument could not be of indigenous African origin, explorers, antiquaries and archaeologists ignored, misinterpreted and wilfully destroyed evidence.

The excavations carried out on the site for more than a century have shown beyond any doubt whatsoever that Great Zimbabwe is an entirely indigenous monument.

Great Zimbabwe – Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews – 13 September 2011

Welcome to the world of Politically Correct History.

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5 Responses to Theodore Bent and The Round Towers of Zimbabwe

  1. I visited Zims during 2001 and visited one of the ruins. The unusual thing was the small stairs, designed for people of small stature, pygmies for example. I’ve tried to walk on those steps and it is not possible. Even the stone doors were not high enough. So who built these structures?

    Yet Mugabe reckons his people built them. Obviously politicians make statements without actually thinking (of the unintended consequences) too much.

  2. malagabay says:

    Still so much to discover…

    Back in 1904 they were looking at between 2000 and 1100 BC.

    The Ancient Ruins of Rhodesia : Monomotapae Imperium
    Richard Nicklin Hall – 1904

  3. malagabay says:

    And back in 1904 they were very convinced about the Phoenicians having occupied the the site.

    The Ancient Ruins of Rhodesia : Monomotapae Imperium
    Richard Nicklin Hall – 1904

  4. Pingback: William Betham – Round Towers Resolved: Origins | MalagaBay

  5. Daniel M says:

    The phoenician theory had the same base: blacks couldn’t do it. Bantu theory is based on archeological researchs. There is a huge difference between both. “But there is a tower similar to a asian tower and blablabla…” Well, there is columns in Egypt and Greece, It doesn’t mean egyptians were the original greeks.

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