Zanzibar and in particular Stone Town is one of those place that times have changed and the charm and Arab and Indian influences of the past trade are still clearly visible. It some how reminds me of my visit to Lamu Island in Kenya. In 2011 Ingrid and I decided it was time to take a walk back history and went to Zanzibar.
The greatest appeal for me to Stone Town mostly was the maze of narrow alleys lined by houses, shops, bazaars and mosques. The streets are extremely narrow but with growing tourism and the trade culture the town is crowded with human traffic, bicycles and motorbikes. The seafront on the other hand is has much wider streets and larger and also has more regularly placed buildings.
The history of Zanzibar is a mix of spices , slaves and ivory. The Arabs were 1st to arrive in the 8th century and ruled the seas for a long period explaining the predominant Islam religion and culture upto date. The Portuguese came in later and ruled for over 2 centuries and were also the one who build the 1st stone structure – The Old Fort. In 1968 the Sultanate of Oman took over Zanzibar Archipelago and were were at the same time ruling Mombasa, Kenya and the Swahili coast. By the mid 19th century, the island was the world’s biggest producer of cloves and the largest slave trading centre on the East African coast.
Britain’s influence on the island began in 1896 when they defeated the Zanzibar Sultanate in the shortest war in history, which lasted a mere 45 minutes. One year later the slave trade was abolished in Zanzibar, under the leadership of Hamoud bin Mohammed, ending a significant chapter in Zanzibar’s history. In 1964 Tanganyika and Zanzibar combined to form Tanzania.
Interesting Fact: The name Stone Town came from the tall, white buildings which were made out of coral stone during this boom period
We spent only 2 days in Stone Town which gave us just enough time to see some of it highlights. Here are some things to put on your list when visiting Stone Town
- Wander the narrow alleys
Here is one place where getting lost is not really a bad thing (to a certain point – I think). Stone Town is best explored on foot allowing you time to see the Zanzibari life. From the happy school kids to the scary scooter ride who will startle you with a screeching hoot or the galleries, coffee shops and markets – You are bound to enjoy the walk.
Stone Town is Unesco World heritage due it’s:-
- Outstanding material manifestation of cultural fusion and harmonization,
- For many centuries there was intense seaborne trading activity between Asia and Africa
- It’s symbolic importance in the suppression of slavery, since it was one of the main slave-trading ports in East Africa
- Stay in a Converted Hotel
Though we didn’t essentially stay in a converted Hotel like Swahili House or Emersion Spice we sis opt to stay Zanzibar Palace Hotel a charming boutique hotel in the heart of Stone Town. The hotel is within a tall, thin building wrapping itself around an atrium, with just three rooms on each of its three floors. In the nine rooms hotel Zanzibar’s rich history is integrated using Arabian, Indian and English designs
Tip: – Find a pretty well known landmark near your hotel and ask locals for directions to it if you get lost – ours was the Mercury Restaurant near a Big Tree lol
- Behold the grand architecture
With its influence of Arabs, Indians and the Brits, Stone Town architecture is something to behold. Each building seems to tell a story, with most dating back to the 19th century. A number of the historical buildings have been converted to galleries, museums and hotels. Despite the deteriorating state of the buildings they have a charm that is undeniable. Your typical Stone Town original architecture will include tall, white walls of elegant Arab mansions the romantic, latticed balconies carved out of wood by Indian craftsmen and/ or stained-glass windows in a kaleidoscope of colour.
- Admire the Zanzibari doors
You will find the Zanzibari doors at every turn. They are not your typical door but are incredibly intricate and embellished with brass studs originating from India, where they were once used as a defense against charging war elephants. In Stone Town, however, they were used only as decorative pieces and being a mark of the owner’s status, the doors are actually the most important feature of a house in Zanzibar.
The doors are at completely odds with the muted architecture that surrounds them.
- Tour the Old Fort
The fortress was built in the 17th century by the Omanis to protect the city from the Portuguese. Also known as the Omani fort it was built by the early rulers to protect the city from European invasions. It was later used as a prison and barracks before being used a depot for construction in the 19th century. It has a roughly square shape and the internal courtyard is now a cultural centre with shops, workshops, and a small arena where live dance and music shows are held.
- Visit the former slave market and Anglican Cathedral Church
Zanzibar’s history is tainted with slavery. The Anglican Church was built right on the spot of the former slavery market and this was deliberately chosen to celebrate the end of slavery. The altar was in the exact spot where the main whipping post of the market used to be. A monument to the slaves, as well as a museum on the history of slavery, is besides the church.
The narrow streets are lined with shopkeepers and vendors selling everything from spices, antiques and t-shirts to solid-wood carvings and chests. The jewelry and sarongs were sooo pretty 🙂
- Forodhani Gardens
This was a highlight for me. In Nairobi we really do not have a culture of full on street food. One thing that makes me adore and love South East Asia. The Forodhani garden is home to a daily night food market in Stone Town light up by oil lamps and happy tourists and locals.
The Zanzibar Pizza and sugar cane juice we my faves.
- Stob by Jaws Corner
Jaws corner is a courtyard of sorts where a number of the main “roads” intersect and everyone is welcome, Zanzibaris of African and Arab descent, old and young, locals and tourists. It is your spot to have your coffee black, unsweetened and with a tinge of Zanzibari ginger in the water.
Word has it that the name came up the same time the movie was released, and after the shark that was in that movie, but there are no sharks in the Indian ocean so don’t ask the relation.
- Watch the sun set from Africa House Hotel
Its 4pm and all roads lead to Africa House Hotel for sundowner drinks and shisha. The view is magical. The drinks are rather pricey comparatively but when you see the African setting in the horizon with the sea and boats lingering in its shadows – it’s all worth it.
- Visit St. Joseph Cathedral
The church was built by French missionaries between 1893 and 1898. The design of the church was based on that of the Marseille Cathedral and they bear some resemblance to each other though the Stone Town cathedral being much smaller. Its main architectural feature is twin spires (like those of Marseille’s church) that are one of the easiest elements of Stone Town’s skyline to spot from elevated places as well as from the ocean. The interior is painted with scenes form the Old Testament, all of which have been destroyed due to the poorly done restoration in 2014. The tiles and stained glass windows were imported from France.
Other cool things to do would include joining a spice tour, taking a stroll along the seafront, visiting the Darajani market, going on a sunset cruise, visiting the Palace museum, Old dispensary, Persian Bath or taking taking a trip to Prison Island or Chumbe Island.
We only had 2 days and hence were not able to do all but had a great time taking time to revisit the past as combine it with the present and hope for a better future.
Love & Love,