Places to visit in Zanzibar Town
One writer has compared the old Stone Town of Zanzibar to a tropical forest where tall houses stretch to the sky instead of trees, and the sun filters through a fretwork of overhanging balconies instead of foliage. Its labyrinth of twisting streets and alleys is a stroller's paradise, with new sights, sounds or smells to catch the imagination at every turn: massive carved doors, ancient walls, tiny tempting shops with colourful wares and bustling shoppers, old men chatting on a stone bench or hunched over a traditional board game, kids with battered homemade toys, ghetto-blasters at full volume, thin cats curled in patches of sunlight, little boys hawking cashews or postcards or fresh bread, bright flowers in pots and window-boxes, golden-orb spiders weaving their giant webs on a stunted tree, the sound of the muezzin calling from the mosque and the scent of cloves or ginger or lemongrass – and everywhere the echoes of Zanzibar's rich and fascinating history, the sultans, shipbuilders, explorers, slave markets, merchants and exotic spice trade.
Stone Town was originally built on a peninsula which has probably been inhabited since the first people arrived on Zanzibar (although the creek that separated its eastern edge from the rest of the island has now been reclaimed). Ras Shangani, at the western tip of the peninsula, is thought to have been the site of a fishing village for many centuries, and at least one of Zanzibar's early Swahili rulers, the Mwinyi Mkuu, had a palace here.
In the 16th century, Portuguese navigators built a church and trading station on the peninsula as it had a good harbour and was easy to defend. When the Omani Arabs began to settle on the island in the 18th century, they built a fort on the site of the church, and today's Stone Town grew up around the Fort.
Most of the houses you see today were built in the 19th century, when Zanzibar was one of the most important trading centres in the Indian Ocean region. The coralline rock of Zanzibar Island was easy to quarry for use as a construction material, so that many of the houses were built in grand style with three or four storeys. Previously most of the houses on Zanzibar had been much smaller, built of mangrove poles and palm thatch, making the fine white buildings in Stone Town even more exceptional.
Today, nearly all of these old houses are still inhabited, although many are in a very bad state of repair. The coralline rock was a good building material but it is also soft, and easily eroded if not maintained. Crumbling masonry, along with dilapidated woodwork, is sadly an all too familiar sight in Stone Town – and in some places where the surface has disintegrated it reveals the rough blocks of ancient coral beneath.
However, since the end of the 1980s and through the 1990s, several buildings in Stone Town have been renovated. The Zanzibar government, with assistance from the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (the Habitat Fund), plans to preserve many more, eventually restoring the whole Stone Town to something like its original magnificence. The Stone Town Conservation and Development Authority has been established to co-ordinate this work, although it is sometimes hampered by a lack of co-ordination with the local government authorities.
During the 19th century, many of Stone Town's inhabitants were wealthy Arabs and Indians. Consequently the houses were built in two main styles: the Arab style, with plain outer walls and a large front door leading to an inner courtyard; and the Indian style, with a more open façade and large balconies decorated with ornate railings and balustrades, designed to catch sea breezes and dispel the humid atmosphere.
Many of the buildings have doors with elaborately carved frames and panels, decorated with brass studs and heavy locks. The size of the door and the intricacies of its decoration were signs of the family's wealth and status. Today the Zanzibar door has become a well-recognised symbol of the town and island's historic and cultural background, and many new buildings incorporate one into their design – either a genuine one removed from an old building, or a reproduction.
Among the houses and tucked away in the narrow streets you will come across mosques, churches and other public buildings, almost hidden in the maze. Stone Town also has a few streets of shops, some of them still called bazaars. Some shops are very small, no more than a kiosk, with a few dusty food tins or a couple of jars of sweets on the shelf; others are larger, catering for locals and visitors, with a wider range of foods, books, fabrics, furniture and electrical goods. There are also antique and curio shops (bargain hard here!), and an increasing number of places selling a wide and inventive selection of locally produced arts and crafts, aimed specifically at the growing tourist market.
As you explore the narrow streets with all their historic links, remember that Zanzibar Town today is very much a real community, where people live and work. It is not a museum piece created for tourists. You should not enter any private house or courtyard unless expressly invited to do so, and before you peer through a window or doorway, stop and ask yourself – would you appreciate a stranger doing the same in your home? You should also show respect for local sensibilities (see Clothing
in chapter 4). Mosques are not usually open to non-Muslim visitors. Taking photos of buildings is generally acceptable, but you should never photograph people without their permission.