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The walls of Khami, Zimbabwe (Wikimedia Commons)

The Ancient Khami Ruins in Zimbabwe: the Capital of the Kingdom of Butua

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Around the middle of the 15th century AD, the city of Great Zimbabwe was abandoned. The abandonment of its capital city marked the collapse of the African Kingdom of Zimbabwe. One of the results of this event was the fragmentation of the kingdom’s former territories. In the north, along the Zambezi valley, the Karangas came to power and the Kingdom of Butua took control of the south. With the rise of these new powers, new zimbabwes (the word may be translated as either ‘large houses of stone’ or ‘venerated houses’), albeit on a smaller scale, were built to serve as their capitals. One of these zimbabwes was Khami, the capital of the Kingdom of Butua.

The Torwa Dynasty

Khami is located to the west of the Khami River, 22 km to the west of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city today. Khami was founded by the Torwa Dynasty, the first rulers of the Kingdom of Butua. It has been suggested that the Torwa were rebels or outsiders of the Kingdom of Mutapa. The Kingdom of Mutapa is said to be related to the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, as the first ruler of the former is said to have been a warrior prince from the latter. It has been suggested that at the end of the 15th century AD, the Torwa decided to break away and establish a new kingdom.

Great Zimbabwe and Khami

It has been pointed out that the Torwa Dynasty’s new capital Khami was built based on the architectural form of Great Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, Khami has its own peculiarities that set it apart from its predecessor. It has been claimed that the builders of Khami took note of the surrounding environment and adapted the original form accordingly. For instance, the stone found at Khami was different than that at Great Zimbabwe. The stone at Khami was harder to quarry and produced shapeless building stone. This rendered it unsuitable for building free standing dry stone walls, a feature of Great Zimbabwe. Therefore, the builders of Khami decided to improvise, and built revetments or retaining walls instead. It is said that this is the first instance of such an architectural form in the history of the region. Apart from the architectural innovations developed at Khami, the city is perhaps known also for its trade links.

Great Zimbabwe ruins, Masvingo, Zimbabwe (Macvivo/Wikimedia Commons)

Great Zimbabwe ruins, Masvingo, Zimbabwe (Macvivo/Wikimedia Commons)

The Torwa - Portuguese Trade

In Europe, the 15th century is also known today as the ‘Age of Discovery’. Around the same time as the building of Khami, the Portuguese had succeeded in penetrating the Indian Ocean. The Arab-Swahili trade system that once dominated the east coast of Africa was destroyed, and the seaport of Sofala in modern day Mozambique was seized by the Portuguese. From this base, the Portuguese began trading with kingdoms further inland, including the Torwas. Therefore, through the agency of the Portuguese, the Torwas were able to take part in the Indian Ocean trade.

At Khami, there is archaeological evidence for the Torwa’s involvement in the Indian Ocean trade. For instance, a diverse range of imported objects has been unearthed at Khami. Amongst these artifacts are 15th and 17th century Spanish porcelain, Rhineland stoneware, and Chinese porcelain from the Ming Dynasty. Many of these foreign objects are now on display in the Natural History Museum of Bulawayo. In exchange for these imported items, traditional trade goods, including gold and ivory, were exported. With the rise of European colonialism, slaves eventually became a commodity as well.

The End of the Torwas and the Fall of Khami

The fall of Khami came about around the middle of the 17th century. In the 1640s, a political dispute occurred amongst the Torwa rulers. A power struggle and civil war ensued, and the defeated party was forced to flee.

The Portuguese seized this opportunity to intervene in the conflict by sending a small army under the command of Sismundo Dias Bayao to Khami, which resulted in the fall of Khami. Nevertheless, the Torwas continued to stay in power until the 1680s, and ruled from their new capital about 150 km to the east of Khami.

One of the legacies of Khami is that the design of this city was adopted by its successors, such as Danangombe and Zinjaja, similar to its adoption of the architecture of Great Zimbabwe when it was built.

Ruins of Khami, Zimbabwe (1906) (Wikimedia Commons)

Ruins of Khami, Zimbabwe (1906) (Wikimedia Commons)

Featured image: The walls of Khami, Zimbabwe (Wikimedia Commons)

By Ḏḥwty


Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, 2007. Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe's Kingdoms (1000 - 1838 CE). [Online]
Available at:

Pikirayi, I., 2005. Torwa, Changamire Dombo, and the Rovzi. In: K. Shillington, ed. Encyclopedia of African History. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, pp. 1572-1573.

UNESCO, 2015. Khami Ruins National Monument. [Online]
Available at:, 2015. Khami Ruins. [Online]
Available at:



It is said that the Zimbabwe Ruins is haunted and people who have seen these ghosts will tell you they look like Arabs and the Arabs used to trade as far south as Zimbabwe.

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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