Monomotapa, Mutapa, Ophir, and King Solomon’s Mines

1794 Bolton Wall Map of Africa with known areas circled.

1794 Bolton Wall Map of Africa with known areas circled.

Anyone looking at map of Africa predating 1800 will be immediately struck by its overall blankness. Despite Africa’s known coastline the interior was a mystery. However, looking at this same map, it is perhaps more interesting to take note of the parts of the interior that have been mapped. Until the mid 19th century, Africa was a largely unknown continent, however, there are a few places that appear in considerable detail on even the earliest maps. These include Morocco and Algeria, Egypt, Nubia and Abyssinia, the Niger Delta, the Congo, parts of South Africa, and the land of just opposite Madagascar, noted on old maps as Mutapa or more commonly Monomotapa. It is this last area, the Kingdom of Monomotapa, on which this post will focus.

Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe

Our story begins with the well known ruins of Great Zimbabwe. The construction of these magnificent stone structures began around 1150 AD and continued over the next three hundred years. We unfortunately know little of the history of Great Zimbabwe or its builders, however, most evidence suggests that they were a Shona people who migrated from the south. At the time, the nearby Zimbabwe hills were extremely rich in gold and other mineral resources and an active trade network, largely facilitated by Arab traders from the Swahili coast, was established. Evidence at various archeological sites around Great Zimbabwe suggests that, by 1400 AD, this trading network extended from the Swahili coast to India and China.

Around 1300 or 1400 a prince of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe conquered a territory to the north and established the Kingdom of Mutapa. Within the next fifty years years Mutapa had attained ascendancy, asserting control over much of southeastern Africa. The ancient capital at Great Zimbabwe was abandoned in favor of a more northerly capital with easier access to the Indian Ocean trade routes via the Zambezi River. Arab merchants, seeing a trade opportunity, established posts on the coast and inland along the Zambezi River at Sena and on the Solafa River at Solafa where the gold of Zimbabwe could be traded for luxury goods from India and China.

Zoom on Monomotapa from 1794

Zoom on Monomotapa from 1794

Such was the state of the Empire of Mutapa, or as the Portuguese called it Monomotapa, when the explorer Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the 1490s. Tome Lopes, who accompanied De Gama on his 1502 voyage to India, wrote an important narrative of the journey that was widely read back in Portugal. Impressed with the abandoned ruins of Great Zimbabwe and convinced that they could not possibly be the product of an African people, Lopes was the first to identify Mutapa with the Biblical land of Ophir and King Solomon’s Mines. Even Milton jumped on the idea in his epic poem Paradise Lost, where he also associated Monomotapa and Ophir. Back in Portugal, the reports of De Gama and Lopes led to covetous expectations for the region. In 1505, a joint military and trading venture had taken control of the Arab trading centers of Sofala and Sena. The association of Monomotapa with Ophir also lead to an dramatic overestimation of the wealth to be found in the Zimbabwe hills.

Monomotapa from Sanson's 1691 World Map

Monomotapa from Sanson's 1691 World Map

Within fifty years, on the opposite side of the world, Hernan Cortez and Francisco Pizarro had conquered the Aztec and Inca Empires. Gold and wealth had begun to flow into Spain by the galleon. Dom Sebastian of Portugal, seeking to match Spain’s conquests in America with his own conquests in Africa, sent Francisco Barreto to Monomotapa to take over the kingdom’s legendary gold mines. Barreto’s push inland was initially successful with a number of important military victories to his credit. However, before he could push further inland toward the coveted mines, he was forced to return to Mozambique in order to answer slanders made against him by a rival, Antonio Pereira Brandao. This delay proved disastrous, for most of Barreto’s soldiers had in the meantime become sick and many ultimately died of malaria and other tropical diseases common to the region. Barreto himself also fell ill and died at Sena in 1573.

1730 Covens and Mortier Map of Monomotapa

1730 Covens and Mortier Map of Monomotapa

It was left to Vasco Fernandez Homen, Barreto’s deputy and successor, to finally push inland via Solafa. When Homen finally reached in mines he sought at Manica, he discovered their output to be much poorer than expected. By this time they had been exploited for several hundred years and King Solomon’s Mines were close to running dry. As for the Portuguese in Africa, they did not attempt another military conquest of the region, but did maintain their trading centers. By the end of the 17th century, the Kingdom of Mutapa had destabilized from within and was facing pressure from the Rozwi empire to the north. Ultimately, they were forced to turn to the Portuguese for military support and paid for it with vassalage. Despite support from Portugal, control of Mutapa changed hands several times vacillating between independence, Rozwi dominion, and the Portuguese vassalage.

In 1885 H. Rider Haggard revived interested in King Solomon’s Mines with the publication of his genre defining novel of the same name. Its publishers in London, Cassel and Company, touted King Solomon’s Mines as “The Most Amazing Book Ever Written.” Today it is considered to be the first novel of the “Lost World” genre.


Oliver, Roland & Anthony Atmore (1975). Medieval Africa 1250-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 738. ISBN 0-52120-413-5.
Owomoyela, Oyekan (2002). Culture and customs of Zimbabwe. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 163. ISBN 0-31331-583-3.
Stewart, John (1989). African States and Rulers. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc.. pp. 395. ISBN 0-89950-390-X.

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12 Responses to “Monomotapa, Mutapa, Ophir, and King Solomon’s Mines”

  1. sire says:


    but the link on the first map doesn’t work…

    good article anyway

  2. Net says:

    Very interesting…do you mayby know what the legendary vigita magna is called today? [The vigita magna is the legendary river on which lay the frontier cities of Monomotapa.]

  3. Liezl says:

    I would like to know if the spculation that Great zimbabwe was the capital of Monomotapa can be true.

    • Kevin Brown says:

      Dear Liezl,

      It is most likely only partially true or not true. While the ruins of Great Zimbabwe were at various points contained within the Empire of Monomotapa, they had been abandoned by the time the first Europeans arrived. At least one early account notes that the King of Monomotapa kept several wives there, but otherwise, it was uninhabited. Great Zimbabwe was a political center for the African civilization the predated Monomotapa and from which the early settlers of Monomotapa were descended. It is commonly believed, as we note in our article, that Monomotapa was founded by a Prince of Zimbabwe, but was always considered a separate kingdom.


  4. Dear Kevin,
    I hit by accident on your article, very interesting.

  5. Aude says:

    Thanks for this article, I am drawing up a presentation of the Empire of Monomotapa and it was very useful !

  6. Alice muigua says:

    Like the topic of the great zimbabwe but require details of who constracted the ruin?

    • Kevin Brown says:

      Not really the point of this article. The actual builders of Great Zimbabwe are mysterious but were most likely an indigenous African kingdom that predated the rise of Monomotapa.

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