Around Zanzibar and particularly in Stone Town, you'll come across massive, carved and decorated doorways, some on imposing frontages and others tucked incongruously down narrow alleys.
When a house was built in Zanzibar, the door was traditionally the first part to be erected. The greater the wealth and social position of the owner of the house, the larger and more elaborately carved his front door. The symbolic designs and quotations from the Koran were intended to exert a benign influence. Patterns include waves of the sea climbing up the doorpost, representing the livelihood of the Arab merchant to whom the house belonged, and frankincense and date-palms symbolising wealth and plenty. Some designs are thought to date from before the Koran: the stylised lotuses could be associated with Egyptian fertility symbols, and the fish could possibly represent the Syrian protecting goddess Atargatis, or the ancient fish-god of the Egyptians.
Many doors are studded with brass spikes and bosses. This may be a modification of the Indian practice of studding doors of medieval castles with sharp spikes of iron to prevent their being battered in by war elephants. In ad915, an Arab traveller recorded that Zanzibar Island abounded in elephants, and around 1295 Marco Polo wrote that Zanzibar had 'elephants in plenty'. But the elephants must have been extinct long before the Arabs built houses in Stone Town, and the studs and bosses seen today are purely decorative.
The oldest carved door in Zanzibar, which dates from ad1694, is now the front door of the Peace Memorial Museum in Zanzibar Town.