Of all the historians, anthropologists, archeologists, tourists, mystics and assorted crackpots who have visited this centuries-old site in recent years, none seemed to impress the park rangers more than a woman from New York named Martha.
Martha was an energetic middle-age woman with bright silver hair who introduced herself as a "research psychic" and asked to spend a night here under the stars. Her mission, she told the rangers, was to contact the spirits of the Great Zimbabwe, a mammoth collection of dry stone ruins whose man-made origins have been debated by experts for more than a century.
She scaled the rocks that evening and set up shop in the old stone fortress on a cliff 400 feet above the valley floor. When she descended the next morning, bruised and breathless, she was disheveled, but her face was rosy with excitement.
"The lady was very happy. She said the Queen of Sheba had come to visit. They apparently talked together all night," said Bernard Naborth, a veteran officer here who has seen his share of curious travelers. He paused. "We have so many visitors. I think everyone finds something of interest."
Ever since this ancient site 200 miles south of Harare was discovered by a Boer hunter named Adam Renders in 1868, it has stoked the imaginations of scholars, scientists and visionaries, attracted gold and treasure hunters by the score and fired the cultural pride of Zimbabwean nationalists and people of African descent the world over.
The ruins are Africa's largest and most dramatic south of the pyramids of Egypt, and as such, constitute proof that a rich and powerful black civilization once flourished in a part of the world that Westerners have traditionally characterized as barbaric, wild and primitive.
American civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, was one of many black leaders who have been inspired by this site through the years. In his 1946 book, "The World and Africa," Du Bois celebrated the Great Zimbabwe as emblematic of Africa's "extraordinary cultural past" and a symbol of pride for black Americans deprived of a sense of ancient heritage.
In the language of this nation's Shona people, Zimbabwe means "venerated place" or "house of chiefs." Great Zimbabwe, from which the 10-year-old country acquired its name, consists of the hilltop fortress, a conical watchtower and a number of imposing walled enclosures all made from chiseled granite about 700 years ago.
Last year, 71,000 tourists visited the Great Zimbabwe, the largest of a number of such sites that can be found in remote parts of Zambia and Mozambique as well as this country. Amid a landscape of boulders and forests, the ruins, scattered over 100 acres, project a stark beauty whose mystery has been enhanced through the years by the inability of early experts to fully agree on who built them or why.
The list of peoples put forward by Western archeologists and theorists as possible builders of the site reads like a Who's Who in ancient history: Chaldeans, Sabaeans, Persians, Mongolians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Hindus and Sardinians. Several experts have attributed the site to 17th-Century Portuguese traders and adventurers; others conjectured that these ruins were none other than the site of King Solomon's mines and the true source of the biblical gold of Ophir.
Priceless evidence that would have helped solve the mystery--gold objects, sculpted soapstone birds, jewelry, wall paintings and other artifacts--was hauled away by legions of treasure hunters and colonial profiteers who raided and ransacked the site until 1928, when the British colonial government passed laws protecting it.
The scholarly debates about the ruins in the first half of this century had one thing in common: Because of racial and cultural biases, few of the Western experts dared to consider that the Great Zimbabwe may have been designed and built by the Shona people themselves.
"Of one thing I do feel satisfied," wrote an Englishman named H. Maclear Bate in a 1940 study of the ruins titled "Report From the Rhodesias": "No African built those walls except under expert foreign guidance."
Zimbabwean archeologist Peter Garlake, explaining the racial attitudes of many researchers and explorers, wrote, "To them, the African simply had not the energy, will, organization, foresight or skill to build those walls. Indeed, he appeared so backward that it seemed that his entire race could never have accomplished the task at any period."
It was Garlake who wrote a 1973 book titled "The Great Zimbabwe," which remains the field's most respected and authoritative study. Using modern methods of radiocarbon dating and other archeological evidence showing that the Great Zimbabwe culture thrived between the 13th and 15th centuries, long before the arrival of the first European explorers, Garlake presented a strong case that the ruins were indeed built by the Shona people employing indigenous skills under the rule of a monarchy that flourished from gold trade with Arabs on the coast.
At the peak of their power, these Shona rulers, known as the Mwanamutapa, extended their rule throughout most of what is now Zimbabwe. The empire crumbled rapidly at the end of the 15th Century when its lifeline, the rich maize-producing farmland surrounding the Great Zimbabwe, was oversown and severely depleted.
This thesis is almost universally accepted by world scholars and archeologists today. But before Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, such notions were considered so heretical and politically volatile by the nation's white minority rulers that some scholarly manuscripts were censored and their authors harassed. "They see such expressions . . . as sedition against the present political structure," Garlake wrote.
Indeed, the idea that the Great Zimbabwe had African origins played no small role in galvanizing this country's nationalists in the independence struggle of the 1970s. It was nothing less than a patriotic symbol and a call to arms. As Benedict Mtshali, a leading Zimbabwean historian, once wrote, the ruins prove that "the African had a civilization that was not the white man's gift. . . . They are relics of an era of glory, splendor, power and achievement and give the lie to those who dismiss the African past . . . such a sense of history forges a people, gives them a sense of oneness and dignity."
Today the Great Zimbabwe is to this country what Chichen Itza is to Mexico and the Acropolis is to Greece--a cultural treasure whose value is measured not so much in entry fees from foreign tourists as in the education it nurtures and the national identity it sustains.
About 60% of the site's yearly visitors are Zimbabweans, many of them schoolchildren. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the sun-splashed ruins were filled with visitors who had paid about 10 cents each to get in, among them students, families and a troop of white South African Boy Scouts, all strolling amid the silent stones.
"It's a part of our history, but it's still very mysterious," said Munyaradzinngowe, 28, a Zimbabwean agronomist who, with his wife and sister, was enjoying a view of the valley. "I like it because it's a splendid place to spend the day."