Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, Stone Town is a hotchpotch of cultures, architecture and languages.
Over the centuries, Stone Town has grown from a small fishing village on the peninsula of Unguja’s west coast to a thriving town, with an extraordinary history. From as early as 150AD Arab, Asian and Persian traders sailed across the Indian Ocean to trade with the Bantu people, naming the Africa’s east coast as ‘Zinj el Barr’, meaning land of the black people which later changed to Zanzibar.
Colonial rulers came and went, starting with the Portuguese in the 15th century who built a small settlement, which later grew into Stone Town. The Omani Arabs ousted them and a period of slave, spice and ivory trade began. Zanzibar became predominately Muslim, cloves and coconuts were grown in Stone Town and sold in their tonnes. The influence of the Arabs was more strongly felt as Seyyid Said bin Sultan made Zanzibar the capital of the Omani empire. The archipelago became a British Protectorate in 1890, with the Sultans implementing policy on a local level. Following the revolution of 1964, Zanzibar became independent and joined hands with the United Republic of Tanganyika to form Tanzania.
Walking around Stone Town, you can see the influence of the different cultures embedded in Zanzibar on the buildings around you and the on the faces of the inhabitants. Coral and stone houses boast imposing Zanzibar doors, with brass studs as a defence against charging elephants and carvings with scriptures from the Qu’ran.
Indian houses have courtyards behind the shop fronts and intricately carved balconies. Arab houses are characterised by their white washed walls, flat terraces and small windows to preserve the modesty of the women. The roof top walkways from house to house have been destroyed, so these days the women walk the streets, covered in diaphanous ‘buibuis’. Men sit on the ‘barazas’, the stone ledges outside the house, playing games, talking and greeting visitors much in the same manner they did a century ago.
“Watoto wangu wawili kutwa wagombana bli usiku hulala salama salimini mlango”
– My two children quarrel all day but sleep peacefully together at night – the two halves of a door.
A SWAHILI RIDDLE
The evolution of huge carved doors as an expression of status and wealth in Zanzibar’s society began in the Swahili era. But it reached its zenith in the nineteenth century due to the buying power of the wealthy Omani Arabs combined with the skill and artistry of Indian carvers.
Richard Burton, when visiting Zanzibar in 1858, commented: “The higher the tenement, the bigger the gateway; the heavier the padlock, the more huge the iron studs which nail the door of heavy timber and the greater the owner’s dignity” The iron studs, mentioned by Burton and still prominent on the doors of modern Zanzibar were a throwback to Indian defences against war elephants. War elephants may have been unknown in Zanzibar but the door fitted in perfectly with the Arab ideal of a domestic residence that could also serve as a defensive purpose. Many doors had smaller windows or doors built into them to let people pass through them allowing only one visitor at a time.
Apart from their massive and thick construction, the main feature of Zanzibari doors was the decorative carving that adorned the frame, the central pillars and the semi-circular area above the door. Traditionally, a rope or chain pattern ran around the outermost strip of the door to enslave evil spirits and keep the family of the house safe from harm. The inner frame and middle post were carved with abstract motifs such as lotus, rosette patterns, or a decorative theme reflecting the owner’s profession; the owner of a fleet of fishing boats, for example, might choose a pattern of scales.
In later years, the traditional Islamic prohibition of the portrayal of living creatures were relaxed leading to the depiction of lions or eagles in palaces such as the House of Wonders. A door’s carving almost always-included pious verses from the Qu’ran sometimes picked out in gilt.