Golden lure of the ancient city

Among a bevy of lodges throughout the nation ‘ particularly in the Matopos and Hwange ‘ this is Touch the Wild’s masterpiece. Built in harmony with the rocks of the region, giant boulders are the showpiece of the lodge which was opened in 1996. They are complemented by an enormous selection of traditional artefacts from around the African continent. In its walkways among some 1 8 cottages, mirroring the essence of Great Zimbabwe, there has been genius at work. While the main building may be a royal palace, the place of abode for tourists offers each a miniature kingdom within an ethnic cloak. The Lodge at the Ancient City is, of course, a springboard in to the great ruins themselves and it was here that I was guided by one of the most entertaining historians one is ever likely to find in Africa. The bearded Prosper Rusike, scholar, philosopher, seeker after the historic truth, is sometimes likened to Moses himself. Prosper is a poet of nature. You cannot afford to be old or tired in his presence. He will take you up hill or down dale with effortless ease, all the while pouring out a history that brings tears if not pride to those who love their ancestry. For the ruins of Great Zimbabwe were shrouded in mystery for generations. And after it revealed its physical secrets to a Victorian world it was the subject of a bitter war between antiquarians. Prosper binds you in the web of intrigue, lifting the granite veil to reveal a kingdom of epic proportions. He passionately destroys the myths that the ruins were built by the Arabs or the Phoenicians represented by the Queen of Sheba. When the German explorer Karl Mauch penetrated the city covered in a thick undergrowth in 1871, the area had been reduced to a kraal. His life was in danger and it was he, as a geologist not an archaeologist, who first set in motion wild romantic theories about the origin of the site. Worse was to come. Mauch was followed by the treasure hunters and antiquarians rummaging about the area and destroying valuable evidence that would have been a godsend to modern archaeologists. Prosper labelled their blundering and plundering a disaster, disturbing the whole pattern of the ruins which would have revealed vital evidence today. The old-time archaeologists who for 50 years favoured such theories in a great battle over the history of the buildings have given way to a new breed of scientists who through radio-carbon dating and other evidence have positively identified the architects as African. The myths that the Arabs were involved with the building of Great Zimbabwe stemmed from its link with the gold trade, a romance that later inspired Rider Haggard’s ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ and led to an intense quest bordering on mutilation by Victorian pioneers. While gold and ivory gave development an external stimulus, however, bringing an exchange with cotton and silk goods, pottery and beads from the East through the Arab settlements on the African coast, this has since been overrided by the political importance of the site. The centre of an empire from the 12th to the 15th centuries, the structures were, in fact, the work of a Shona civilisation who originally took refuge there during a period of turbulence. Over time the hilltop community grew both in affluence and power and at the start of the 12th century, surrounded by. monumental granite boulders, the first stone-enclosed residences were built. With the limitations of the 80-metre hilltop, which the Victorians called the Acropolis, the king and his attendants moved into the valley below while the hill complex became the centre of religious activity and was occupied by the nation’s priests and most powerful spirit mediums. The Great Enclosure on the valley floor thus became the most important monument in Africa next to the Egyptian Pyramids. It was in the valley that the masonry skills and architectural designs reached their peak, the chevron-patterned walls being built with such harmony and precision that in many places a knife blade could not be fitted between the granite blocks. History has offered a wide-ranging discourse ‘ and discord ‘ as to the purpose of the massive structures, built with a million stones, although its creation as a fortress has long been discounted. The imposing hilltop royal residence could never have withstood a siege because of lack of water. Mystery still centres, however, on the magnificent conical tower in the Great Enclosure, which housed the king’s wives. Variously it has been labelled a shrine for “phallic worship”, a measuring device, a watchtower, a chieftain’s grave and even a sacrificial anthill. Randall-Maciver, the archaeologist who first overthrew the Arab concept, considered it a symbol of the chieftain’s power but the latest theory by those who have worked intensively on the site is that it is a symbolic grain bin. Such widely differing approaches help to give a shadowy intrigue to Great Zimbabwe whose society eventually vanished from the face of civilisation. The site is generally believed to have been abandoned because the environment could no longer sustain a population which at one time numbered between 12,000 and 18,000. They are believed to have taken their gold ‘ some 4,000 Ibs, it has been estimated ‘ with them as “liquid cash”. Prosper dismisses any theory of invasion because there has not been the discovery of bones on a big scale. Rather he points to the possibility of a power struggle with important decisions being made by the leadership. He is convinced that the history of the empire that prospered for 300 years can provide a way into the future. “It is both a culture and the heart of the nation”, he declares. From a journey into the past, we wend our way back to the present creation of the Lodge at the Ancient City, there to enjoy a succulent meal in rich high-backed chairs. We are treated like royalty, as once were the kings of Great Zimbabwe.

March 2006
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