December 31, 2017
Stone Town is the crown jewel of Zanzibar. It has just about everything a tourist would want, with new mystery around each corner, other-worldly charm, and a well-developed history. When I visited Venice in the 1990s, I loved wandering until I got lost in the maze of passageways, and Stone Town offers a very similar experience. I hope you’ll enjoy my tale of this remarkable place!
We think of coral as something to be preserved, but the substantial coral reefs around Zanzibar made these calcium carbonate “rocks” the most abundant building material in the area. Large coral chunks were mixed with lime to create thick walls to keep the tropical heat and humidity out. Buildings were constructed close together to keep the passageways shaded from the sun. Most of the construction took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today, motorbikes and bicycles compete with pedestrians in the warrens of Stone Town.
The Arab Fort is still quite a powerful sight, though it is one of the oldest stone structures in the city. The site was first used for a Portuguese church, but the destruction of Portuguese power at the end of the seventeenth century meant that the Omanis were the ones to fortify this site. Today the fort sits between the House of Wonders (Beit al Ajaib, 1883) and the Forodhani Gardens (1936). Over its long history, the fort has served for defense, a prison, a slave holding area, and then a British ladies’ tennis club, staffed by volunteers from the Girl Guides (the Girl Scouts are a later parallel). It now houses a amphitheater for arts events, and the interior hosts many booths for vendors of African art, clothing, and henna tattoos.
As we walked through the tangle of passageways, Zanzibar’s sumptuous doors kept drawing our eyes. They were frequently made of Burma or East African teak (the former is now quite rare in the wild). Kevin, our guide, noted some of the differences between Arab and Indian styles. Indian doors generally comprise at least two parts; the “female” door incorporates the center post, and the “male” bears a chain lock. Many doors feature an array of brass studs; this design element reflects grand doors in India designed to withstand the attack of a war elephant. Many doors we examined featured a motif of clove plants, reflecting their dominance as an export for this spice island. A repeating motif on the door frame resembled the chains of slaves. No history of Zanzibar can be complete without including its role in the slave trade.
Our tour passed east across Stone Town, and we encountered the Catholic cathedral, built at the end of the nineteenth century by French missionaries after an earlier success with a mission in the 1860s. The church is most easily spotted from the water; the neighborhoods of Stone Town press close to it, and there’s barely a plaza in front of its entrance. I would have loved to have seen the interior, but apparently the Old Testament art was damaged in a 2014 restoration.
Our walk passed by Jaws Corner, Zanzibar’s local traditional coffee corner. At most hours of the day, you can watch elderly men play dominoes and solve the problems of the world. The small plaza is surrounded by “baraza:” stone benches that are typical of Stone Town. Small flags flutter in the breeze from lines high above the corner. In the last couple of years, a new mural of a famous shark has been added to decorate the space.
Our navigation led us to New Mukunazini Road (where we’d found a working ATM), so soon we had reached the eastern boundary of Stone Town. Our destination was the Former Slave Market, now a museum dedicated to memory of the lives destroyed by the East African slave trade. The facility is supported by the World Monuments Fund.
The museum is notable for the local detail that it conveys to the visitor, with historic photos of the people and places that drove the East African slave trade through this island. The boards were able to explain the complexity of the groups interacting in the African interior, such as the Angoni who fled from the violence in 1830s South Africa, or the Yao, a group that joined with the Portuguese to enslave others. The museum also names individuals who made a fortune from slavery, such as Mlozi, who used an army of mercenaries to capture slaves in the Great Lakes region; Rumaliza, Sultan of Ujiji, who became wealthy from trading both slaves and ivory (once a tusk has been cut from an elephant, the group found slave to carry it; both could be sold at the same site); and Tippu Tip, who became outrageously wealthy in the diverse nation-scale economy he managed.
I was moved to learn that the United States served as a principal driver for the ivory trade, since ivory played a similar role to that of plastic in today’s economy. The museum has quite a lot to say about the end of the slave trade (only the third treaty for this purpose “stuck” in Zanzibar: 1873). I was saddened to learn that the government never worked out a proper plan for how to improve the lives of former slaves. For most, repatriation was unlikely (slaves abducted as children might not be able to detail their former homes), and concubines might find that accepting freedom meant leaving the children they bore for former masters. The museum houses two storage cellars where slaves were once secured, and a chain is still there to tell the story of physical bondage for resistant slaves.
With that, we returned the area outside the museum, and we were in the Anglican cathedral yard. On this Sunday, the church was full of parishioners singing Christmas songs! We stepped inside, and I recorded some of the lovely singing we had enjoyed from the nearby Riverman Hotel. Construction of the cathedral came in 1879, just six years after the closure of the slave market.
From there, we walked into a modern market along Creek Road. I haven’t had a lot of exposure to duriens or jackfruit from my years in the United States, so I was delighted to see them in person. We stuck with purchasing more cool water; durien fruit, in particular, does not smell particularly nice, even if it tastes good. Our next stop was the British Darajani Market, built in 1904, with divisions for fish, beef / goat meat, and a world of fruits and spices. it was glorious, once we got past the fly-ridden meat areas! The spice section seemed to have every possible flavoring on display. I was reminded of the shop we had passed earlier in the day that distributes a red spice made from baobab seeds. We acquired a bag to munch later.
As we passed from the market stalls behind Darajani, we passed the Emerson Hotel on Hurumzi. Our guide mentioned that a museum dedicated to Princess Salme was next door, and Natasha and I made a mental note to check into it later in the week. Our path meandered past the rear portions of the beachfront palace, and then we had arrived at the House of Wonders!
The second sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, constructed the House of Wonders (Beit al Ajaib) in 1883 as a ceremonial palace and reception hall. The building was named the House of Wonders due to its inclusion of electric lighting and of an elevator. Its appearance is unmistakably British colonial, perhaps because it was designed by a British marine engineer. The wide verandas and tall ceilings (made possible by iron columns) make for a very distinctive shape. Recent collapses of internal and external structures, however, have closed the history museum inside; significant restoration work was underway during our visit.
We had just one more stop before the end of the tour. We came to a crowded spot on the road, and we saw signs on the wall of a hotel that explained that this was the building that Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the rock band Queen, first called home! His parents were Persian in origin, but they lived in Zanzibar at the time of his birth. His original name was Farrokh Bulsara. Mercury’s origins help to explain some of the lyrics used in his songs, such as “bismillah,” which means “in the name of God.”
After lunch at the Lukmaan Restaurant (with knock-me-over hot chai tea) and a nap at the hotel, we returned to the streets for our first swim on the island. We reached a beach right at the point of Stone Town. At 4:30 the beach was quite empty; we took turns guarding the backpack and swimming. Katharina, a German woman who had joined our tour of Stone Town, joined our group. We had all gotten the same idea about a swim. As the sun dipped toward the horizon, more locals came out to enjoy the water. A fair number of guys demanded the chance to talk with the women. Natasha rather enjoyed a “fat chat” with a 12 year old who wanted to practice his English. Katharina, on the hand, had to explain that the “no touching” rule would be enforced quite vigorously.
On our walk back, we enjoyed a yummy drink of sugar cane squeezings, flavored with lime. Natasha and I came back to the Lukmaan Restaurant for dinner and then retired to our room. Neither of us was awake when the New Year arrived!