Zanzibar. Just the name conjures up images of east meeting west, spice, adventurer explorers and tropical paradise. Just a scant few miles off the coast of Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar is actually part of a small archipelago that includes Pemba and several smaller islands stretching out to the Indian Ocean.
Sitting somewhat in the middle of the eastern coast of Africa, Zanzibar’s history spans 1,000 years or more. Serving as a trade link between East Africa, Persia and Asia, it’s most colorful history probably spanned between the 12th and 15th centuries when it was an important and rich city-state supplying slaves, gold, wood, ivory and more to India and Asia while importing textiles, spices and glassware from its trading partners — Arabs, Indians and Asians. This trading brought an immense mix of cultures to Zanzibar that can be seen today in its architecture, artwork and residents.
Though spending several days on the tiny island I was most eager to explore the winding and seemingly endless alleys through the UNESCO designated World Heritage Site of Stone Town – the heart and soul of Zanzibar’s rich history. It was here in the 1860’s that more than 50,000 slaves passed through on their way to Arabia, Persia and islands in the Indian Ocean where demand grew due to expanding plantations and the fact that Islamic law prevented the enslavement of Muslims. In 1873 a treaty between Zanzibar and Britain effectively stopped the “legal” slave trade. Though underground dealings continued for a decade or more after. Though Africa colonization was well under way by the mid 1800’s, it was the horrific human rights atrocities that spurred mass missionary movement to the African continent.
And one of the major attractions in Zanzibar’s stone town is the Aglican cathedral which stands and shares on the site where the old slave market operated. Here slave auctions saw more than a half-million Africans sold and shipped abroad. The auctioneer would bring out a group of slaves chained and tied together to exhibit to clients. With a stick he would beat on the shoulders and backs of the slaves. Those who broke and fell to their knees were sold for less while those standing commanded more.
The colorful and sometimes aromatic markets of Zanzibar are places where cultures merge, mingle and meld.
In the mid 1800’s behind those slots in this stone wall imprisoned black people from East Africa awaited their fate to be sold as slaves to Arabs, Asians and Indians.
Winding my way trough the narrow walkways where motorcycles and scooters whiz by and pedestrians give these two wheeled “pici picis” the right of way, I cruise by the old fort, built by the Portuguese during their temporary hold on Zanzibar in the 1700’s. Woman in colorful dresses sporting matching veils, some of whom covering their entire body save their eyes illustrates the diversity of the Islamic population of Zanzibar where groups of four sects of Muslims live together among Christians, Hindu, Buddhists and more. Passing by the Manamni Persian baths I’m told the story of Sultan Barghash, who built the massive “House of Wonders” less than a kilometer away. Mosques, churches and temples all are crammed into the tightly packed village known as Stone Town.
But perhaps one of the architectural features that Zanzibar is known for are the elegantly carved and appointed doors to the houses, shops, museums and more. There are two distinctive shapes. One rectangular and the other like a curved arch sloping the top of the door. The angular favored by the Muslims because they are more easily closed and secured while the curved archway doors favored by the Indians. Both doors feature protruding sharply pointed brass handles which were functionally used as a design element to prevent elephants from knocking down the doors. Some of the several hundred year old buildings and attractive doors featured balconies while others the balconies absent. Again those sans balconies were Muslim households because the women were not supposed to be outside where they could be seen, while the Indian women lived in a more open society and performed chores and relaxed on these balconies.
The narrow alleys of Stone Town in Zanzibar are great places to wander and get lost.
The old fort in Stone Town.
Above and below infamous Zanzibar doors reflect the multi-cultural history of this tropical isle.
There’s a huge population of felines on Zanzibar, particularly in Stone Town. The town has a program where the animals are captured and neutered in an effort to control the population.
But perhaps the most famous door every carved on Zanzibar was commissioned by the Sultan for his “House of Wonders”. After an exhaustive process of interviewing and considering designs, he commission who he thought was the best artisan to build the best door on the island. After he was finished the sultan maimed the artists hands so he could never build a door better than that belonging to the Sultan.
Sitting on the fringe of the historic part of Stone Town is an equally interesting Market. Segmented by vegetables, fish, meat, textiles, spices and more the market is a noisy and often smelly gathering place where commerce, trade and conversations all take place in this hectic center where villagers from all over the island journey to on weekly or more frequent trips. Dulla dullas (public transport mini-busses) cram the thoroughfare outside the marketing contributing to the noise and commotion by honking their horns while boys and men lean precariously out of the vehicles shouting destinations in Swahili like side show hawkers.
Attracting a lot of attention with my beaming white face and red nose poking through my helmet that was clearly not rented with my Honda XLR 250 from which I’m traveling and touring this tropical isle. “Karibu” I’m greeted in Swahili, meaning “welcome”. Asante sana I reply with my few Swahili words, thank you very much. Tanzania and on Zanzibar there isn’t much English spoken outside of the cities. Other languages include Chaggu, a local tribal dialect that shares a few phrases and words with Swahili. But in Eastern Africa Swahili is king and I’m doing my best to take hold of a few phrases and key words. Upon hearing this Mzungu spout out Swahili I am returned with a huge smile and a string of words I wish I could understand. One friendly Zanzibar native wants to serve as my tour guide. Clearly in need of a shower and perhaps some toothpaste he sports the typical African cap that fits comfortable on top of his head. He tells me that Zanzibar is really Unguja – the Swahili name for the island which distinguishes it from the name of the archipelago – Zanzibar. Zanzibar is derived from Arabic “Zinj el Barr” which means “land of t he blacks.”
Dalla dalla mini-busses are a fixture in Tanzania. Skilled the locals are at cramming more people, animals and products into these.
Beyond the historically rich and culturally colorful Stone Town, Zanzibar offers the tropical beach paradise that provides excellent pictures for travel brochures so after a long day wandering and riding Stone Town I make a plan to set out for the beaches and inner island villages.