Tag Archives: Islam

Granada: Encountering the Muslim past

An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.

In Granada, you are likely to hear two names in connection with the buildings from the Emirate: Yusuf I and Muhammad V. These two sultans consecutively ruled Granada from 1333 to 1391, except for a three-year period when civil conflict caused Muhammad V to take refuge at the Seville Alcazar and with the Marinid court in Fez, Morocco. Yusuf I became sultan when his brother was murdered, and Muhammad V became sultan when his father Yusuf I was murdered while at prayers in 1354. As you can see, ruling the Emirate of Granada was not for the faint-hearted!

The Madraza of Granada

[Visited on December 31, 2018]

Can you imagine defending your Ph.D. dissertation under a ceiling like this? It’s a possibility if you defend at the University of Granada!

One of the first places that Natasha and I visited in Granada was the Madraza, a higher learning institution founded by Sultan Yusuf I in 1349. As is commonly the case, the Madraza was associated with a mosque, in this case the main mosque of medieval Granada, previously located just across the street. When Ferdinand and Isabella completed the Reconquista by taking Granada in 1492, these institutions were the first to be affected. The Madraza became the town hall (and the neighboring mosque was destroyed to make room for the Catholic cathedral). Sumptuous carved wooden doors with paintings of Christian saints were installed at the Madraza, and an upstairs hall was recreated in fine Mudejar style for the “XXIV Knights Hall.” The ceiling is outrageous, with support beams and ornamentation in a riot of colors.

Not a square inch was left unadorned in this astonishing prayer hall for the Madraza.

Happily, the original prayer hall of the Madraza was boarded off during the early remodeling of the building, and a restoration in the 19th century has helped to highlight its original glory. The ceiling and walls of the prayer hall are simply magnificent, just as fine a room as one would expect to see in Seville’s Alcazar, with the added benefit that there are no crowds standing in line to see them. We lingered longer than strictly necessary to breathe in the beauty around us.

Those tiles at the bottom will be echoed in a subsequent post…

The Corral del Carbon

[The rest of this post stems from our visits on January 3, 2019.]

Our day started with a run to the Market at San Agustin and some souvenir shopping near the main cathedral in town.

The cathedral facade is so large compared to the plaza that it’s quite hard to photograph.

As we migrated through a maze of shopping stalls (finishing with some glorious embroidered silk scarves), our first destination hove into view. We were back to see the Monumentos Andalusies, and this time we were armed with tickets we had bought online!

The facade for Corral de Carbon is its loveliest external feature, but don’t miss its museum.

The Corral del Carbon was originally called “al-funduq al-jadida,” constructed by Muhammad V in the 14th century as a warehouse where travelling merchants could find accommodations for themselves and their wares. After the Reconquista, charcoal merchants used it as a sales floor, contributing its Spanish name. The structure has a magnificent entry, though its triple-decker internal structure has few original elements remaining.

I could imagine each of those doors opening to a tech start-up. This building has flexed with the times, even serving as a theatre!

In the ground-floor corner one can enter a small museum dedicated to explaining the Muslim conquest of the peninsula and the eventual dissolution and defeat of the kingdoms of Al-Andalus. It’s very well done, with a handy timeline, and it features many period paintings and woodcuts of Granada. I appreciated that the Mezquita Mayor (main mosque) was illustrated and located with respect to the main cathedral and royal chapel in Granada. The museum currently features a short film in which Granada is illustrated through text that medieval travelers and diplomats recorded about the city. I wrote in my Albaicin post that Casa de Zafra would be an ideal first stop in your Albaicin tour, but the Corral del Carbon is perhaps even better!

The Baths at Carrera del Darro

Looking down at the baths from Alhambra, we can see the mounded roof among the Renaissance buildings surrounding it.

In contrast to Carral del Carbon, En Bañuelo is in a structure that shows far more original elements; the renovations have largely tried to return the pieces to their original locations. The annotation and interpretation, however, are at a minimum. The ceramic segmented plumbing pipes are unlabeled, as the hot, tepid, and cold areas. Even a poster explaining when Muslims were required to be ritually clean would have been helpful. An arrow pointing to several stacks of bricks on the sub-floor, reading “hypocaust” would be nice, for that matter! As matters currently stand, visitors mostly say, “ooh, pretty arches!” and “ooh, star-shaped holes for daylight!” The 2014 article I linked at the top of the paragraph produced a three-dimensional photographic model of the entire complex. Archnet has several lovely photos from this site, and they note it dates from the 11th century, from the Zirid dynasty’s control of the city which ended in 1090 A.D.

I loved the daylight peeking through the ceiling of the largest chamber.

House of the Golden Oven

Come for the tracery and tile, stay for the woodwork.

Our return to Casa Horno de Oro with our Internet-acquired tickets ran much more smoothly. The structure follows a familiar design; it is a patio surrounded by a two-story structure. It was in a lovely state of preservation, though, and the carved arches and painted wooden ceilings were stunning. I found it difficult to acquire much history on the structure, but it appears to be a “Morisco” (Muslim who accepted conversion to Christianity) house for a wealthy family from the late 15th century.

Even if this is a restoration rather than an original, it’s gorgeous.

As we saw at Corral del Carbon, the site featured an exhibit, though not one that related to the history of the house. Three rooms had been hung with art photography from the Albaicin and Alhambra. They were nice additions. Natasha enjoyed three images taken through an horseshoe arch door of a busker interacting with tourists. It was a nice exhibition. I still want to know, though, where is the golden oven?

Basking in the sun, I decided it must be the golden oven.

From there, Natasha and I left in search of lunch. We trudged “over the hump” of the Albaicin, reaching the high ground of Mirador San Nicolas once more. We found a lovely Moroccan restaurant (Restaurante Teteria Marrakech) that could field gluten-free food. I took the easy route with lamb kebab and rice. We emerged to snap some photos from this famous overlook!

It’s a huge arc, so I snapped thirteen images to make this one. Can you spot my error in the snowline?

The Mother of the Sultan

If your son were the sultan, don’t you think you would want an observation tower on your home?

We had just one more site to visit from the World Heritage roster. The Palacio Dar al-Horra was constructed for Aixa, wife of Sultan Muhammad XI and mother of “Boabdil,” the last Sultan of Granada. It was a glorious home, and much of the decor was in good shape. The palace, already poised on very high ground, unusually features an observation tower. The view from up there was fantastic! I was wowed by Iglesia de San Cristobal, perched right at the top of an adjoining ridge. I also spent some time looking down at the old royal hospital, set in a square subdivided in both dimensions by a cross-hall.

The Royal Hospital (foreground) and the Plaza de Toros (background) were two sites we did not reach during our visit.

The palace followed the model of the Corral del Carbon and Casa Horno de Oro by hosting a quality exhibition. Their focus was the advanced technology of Al-Andalus (especially in comparison to other European kingdoms of the time). The displays showed advances in Mathematics, Astronomy, Medicine, and Agriculture. Certainly the Muslim’s ability to handle arid climates came in handy. Their insights at water management introduced many new terms to Spanish, and a new growing season became possible, along with the ability to skip fallow periods for fields because the Moors brought new crops to the peninsula.

The Palace offers its own magnificent view of Alhambra!

We gazed down at Granada from our high perch. Natasha pointed below us to the medieval wall for the Albaicin. We had tried to find a good view of it only to realize we had been walking alongside it. I discovered a cat sleeping in the garden and tried to encourage him to come play. We sighed with contentment.

Cordoba: the Mystery of the Mezquita

An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.

December 23, 2018

Our leisurely pace in Cordoba had caught up with us; today was a Sunday, the next day was Christmas Eve, the day after that was Christmas, and then we were on a train to Sevilla. Which of those days would be the right choice for the Mezquita, one of the most distinctive places of worship in the world? We arrived at 15:00 (3PM) on a Sunday, when the Mezquita opened to tourists. The Patio de los Naranjos was filled with people, and the lines to acquire tickets and enter the church were extensive. We resolved to wait for the crush to pass; I ran back to the hotel for a camera lens while Natasha read a book among the orange trees. When I returned half an hour later, the lines had evaporated. The site operators know their business!

The channels running away from this fountain water the orange trees throughout the patio.

I am hesitant to write my experience of the Mezquita because the atmosphere inside feels weightier than the words I would use to describe it. I will start with some facts, though, and hopefully I can find the way to express how it makes me feel. The site of the Mezquita has been important since at least the time of the Romans. The Visigoths built a basilica in memory of St. Vincent here in the sixth century A.D. A display of the floor mosaics is visible through a section of glass floor near the Mezquita entrance, and stone altar pieces and bas relief are visible at a display in the southernmost building corner, near the mihrab (pulpit).

This sixth century work shows that Christianity among the Romans had an enduring influence on their successors, the Visigoths.

Abd ar-Rahman I created the first mosque on this site in 786-788 A.D., using some of the footings from the basilica of St. Vincent. Subsequent rulers extended its scope serially in three major bursts (under Abd ar-Rahman II in 838-848, al-Hakam II in 962-966, and al-Mansur the dictator in 991-994). The initial architect, Sidi ben Ayub, was able to move construction along very rapidly because he was able to draw upon a huge supply of columns liberated from Roman and Visigothic structures across the Iberian Peninsula. His designs incorporated these columns in a grid of double arches, all painted in red and white alternating stripes. After three major expansions, the Mezquita was the second largest mosque in the world (after Mecca), incorporating almost 1300 columns and covering almost six acres.

A great forest of columns and double arches!
Here’s a better look at the double arches.

Cordoba was one of the first cities to fall to Ferdinand III in the Reconquista (in 1236, 151 years after the capture of Toledo by the Christians). Its position as the former Muslim capital set it up for retaliation. Ferdinand III, however, understood that the Mezquita was more than a mosque in a conquered city. The structure was “sanctified” by sprinkling holy water with salt, mounting a cross on its highest tower, and dedicating it to the Virgin Mary. This treatment may reflect the sentiment of a contemporary archibishop from Toledo who claimed it was the most beautiful mosque in the world! Ferdinand III did, however, remove church bells from the Mezquita that had been looted by al-Mansur two centuries earlier from the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela.

The Mudejar altar at the Villaviciosa Chapel

The first major Christian alteration to the Mezquita came almost two centuries after the Reconquest of Cordoba. In 1371, Mudejar craftsmen had altered the mosque to include the small “Villaviciosa Chapel” for Christian services near the site of the Visigothic Basilica. At the close of the 15th century, a bishop sought to demolish the center of the Mezquita to make room for a large nave, but Queen Isabella ruled against this option (I will write more of her in upcoming posts). Their compromise removed five rows of columns for a somewhat larger rectangular chapel. Natasha and I liked this design quite a lot; it connects with the rest of the Mezquita quite naturally while still clearly representing a Christian Church. A large area is roped off-limits for tourists as a large number of Christian burials have been made in the floor.

The mihrab’s upper inscription is in Kufic script from the Qu’ran, surah 32:6 and 40:65. The lower is Qu’ran surah 59:23.
The vault over the mihrab is special, too.

Our steps drew us forward to the wall of the Mezquita closest to the river. The mihrab corresponds to the pulpit of a Christian church; this one dates from the expansion under Al-Hakam II (961-976 AD). The structure is intended to amplify the voice of the Imam while leading prayers. Normally the mihrab faces Mecca, but the design of the Mezquita points the mosque in a more southerly direction. The final extension of the mosque by al-Mansur widened the prayer hall so that the mihrab no longer fell in the middle of this wall. The ceiling above the mihrab was carved from a single block of marble, and the mosaics to either side were made in gold. I liked that Al-Hakam II incorporated two pillars from the mihrab created by Abd ar-Rahman I, his ancestor, in making the new mihrab.

How could we possibly still be in the same building?

Less than fifty years after the construction of the Villaviciosa Chapel, the Mezquita was profoundly altered by an Architect With Ideas. The main chapel, begun in 1523, is more in line with what the bishop had requested of Queen Isabella. Hernan Ruiz I designed a massive Gothic cathedral near the center of the structure, with supporting buttresses, a tall choir, and a soaring nave. Emperor Charles V, who had never even visited the Mezquita, decided that the work could go ahead. When Natasha and I first encountered this part of the Mezquita, though, we were dismayed. The main chapel has since been redecorated by artists in a style called Mannerism (we thought Baroque). The clash in style between the main chapel and the rest of the Mezquita is very jarring. From the outside of the structure, this cathedral looks like an elephant crouching on the level arched arcades of the Mezquita. Natasha and I looked around for a few minutes, glancing at the New World mahogany choir stalls, but soon we needed to step away. It felt distinctly wrong to be in a cathedral in the middle of this mosque.

The bell tower marks the rear left edge of the Mezquita Patio of Oranges. The tall building to its right is the Gothic cathedral thrusting into the sky. This image was shot from the far side of the river.

The royal chapel is apparently a Mudejar masterpiece, but one can only look at its heights since its doors are closed. In walking through the church treasury, I was flabbergasted at a massive ornamented tabernacle (used for transubstantiation ceremonies). It stood far taller than I did! I enjoyed the craftsmanship of the bishop’s staffs. The goldsmith and inlay work with precious stones was stunning, whether we looked at a 15th century crucifix or a 17th. At the exit from the treasury stood an old clock mechanism dating from the 17th century. Those engineers built to last!

Detail from the processional cross of Bishop Mardones, 1620 AD

Seeing such a unique mosque disrupted by the construction of a cathedral in its core filled me with a sense of frustration. The Mezquita was reaching its final size around the time that St. Sophia at Novgorod was being built. The engineering skill of the Moors revealed itself in the far greater openness and height of the Mezquita structure. At St. Sophia, moving a couple of meters to either side is likely to block your view by the massive support columns. The Catholic rulers of medieval Spain wanted to make a statement about the superiority of Christianity over Islam, and they chose to repurpose the Mezquita as part of that message. At the same time, however, I am relieved that much of the mosque’s final structure remains to be seen today.

The bones of the building show through.

Natasha got a sly smile on her face as we were finishing our time inside this remarkable building. She pointed up to the wall near the cathedral’s boundary. We could see an original arch peeking out next to the wall, and the original flower and leaf design with Kufic script was still there to speak its vision of paradise!

Zanzibar: the Victoria Garden Museums

An index to this series appears at the first post.

Our last full day on Zanzibar gave us a chance to visit a pair of museums grouped around the Victoria Garden.  They don’t get much attention in the guide books, but we enjoyed our look at the Zanzibar Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum.  Just what would we find beyond the archway at the southern traffic circle of Stone Town?

Rather than scurrying about as our time on the island drew to a halt, Natasha and I relaxed with a bit of light shopping during the morning.  We began with a couple of women’s collective arts stores in the Hurumzi district at first.  We liked some appliqué pillows, though they were priced a bit higher than we thought appropriate.  We saw some shirts and shorts that might look nice for me, but again their prices were high (going to $30 USD for shorts seems excessive to a frugal mind).  We enjoyed a couple of antique shops.  At one, Natasha found a box with pivoting lid intended for salt and pepper; she acquired that for holding earrings.


A coin minted in India features a British monarch but is used off the cost of Africa…


The High Court of Zanzibar

At another, I spotted an Imperial British coin from India featuring Queen Victoria. I think my brother might use that with his students to show that Africa and India were actively trading with the rest of the world around the time of the American Civil War.  I also found a Quran in Arabic that I wanted for my brother’s classroom.  We returned to a T-shirt shop near our jetty from last night to purchase some T-shirts for little ones in the family.  It was a good run!

From there, we took the road south past the High Court and State buildings (photos of government buildings are not permitted, though I snapped the High Court without realizing what it is).  The way ahead was blocked, so we headed away from the coast, and happily that course led next to the Victoria Gardens. This park, also called the People’s Gardens, was dedicated to the people of Zanzibar by Sultan Hamoud in 1899 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  A 1996 renovation has produced a park that still looks a bit ragged, but some of the trees there are still rather pretty.  A large house adjoining the garden that was originally constructed as the British Residency now serves as the State House: the official residence of the Zanzibari president.

Zanzibar Museum of Art


The Peace Memorial now houses the art museum.

The park adjoins a complex of two museums that we both enjoyed.  For 6000 Tanzanian shillings ($2.70 USD), we gained access to both the Peace Memorial Museum (now the Zanzibar Museum of Art) and the Natural History Museum.  The Peace Memorial building dates from 1920 during the reign of George V.  It was constructed in honor of those who lost their lives in the “Great War,” commemorating the “victorious peace.”  Why would Zanzibar have cared who “won” World War I?  As it turns out, the British used the island as a repair base for its navy.  The “Battle of Zanzibar” saw the German cruiser Königsberg sink the British cruiser Pegasus during 1914.  The Peace Memorial building looks quite unlike other World War I memorials that I have seen, such as the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City.  One might easily mistake it for a mosque, with its high dome surrounded by six smaller domes!


The minaret of the Mnara Mosque may date to the seventeenth century.

As I mentioned, the building now houses an art museum.  Visitors are not going to see long galleries full of oils flanked by a massive sculpture garden, though.  I would highlight a few items as worth seeing.  The first is a set of miniatures.  Since Stone Town has dilapidated quite a bit, it can be hard to imagine this city in its prime.  The minaret for the Malindi / Mnara Mosque, is one of the oldest structures standing in Stone Town, sharing an unusual pillar form with two minarets in Mombasa and another at Lamu.  The mosque supporting that minaret was constructed in 1834/5 (Sheriff pg.51).  It now abuts buildings on almost all sides, so the miniature version at the museum is the only way to see the mosque as a separate structure.  “Zanzibari mosques are very plain and unobtrusive, hardly distinguishable from domestic buildings.  They normally form a continuous line with neighbouring domestic houses…” (Sheriff pg. 5)


The Old Dispensary (1899) incorporates a strong Indian influence.

The Old Dispensary is a major landmark in Stone Town.  Its story revolves around a fabulously wealthy Ismaili businessman of the late 19th century named Tharia Topan.  As one measure of his wealth, a tract of land he owned in the Ng’ambo (the other side of Creek Road) was so large that it contained 1300 huts (Andriananjanirana-Ruphin pg. 101).  When he decided to create a hospital to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, he spared no expense.  He chose a plot of land that would be prominent on the coast (though the extension of the port later blocked its view), and he brought architects and craftsmen from Bombay to create a building better suited as a palace than as a hospital.  The building uses teak imported from India throughout its structure.  He crafted a golden trowel for the ceremony of laying the building’s foundation stone and shipped it to London for exhibition.  Unsurprisingly, he was knighted in 1890, but a year later he was dead.  He never got to see the completion of his triumphant creation (Battle pg. 91-99).


This evocative statue is displayed without details.

Next, the museum gives a corner chamber to the topic of ceramics, mostly a set of pots and vases.  On a shelf, though, stands a small statue of a chained female slave, looking down but not defeated.  I was really moved by the work, especially since our visit to the Slave Market Museum had reinforced the importance of female slaves in the role of “concubine” or “second wife.”  Many of these women decided against accepting freedom since it would mean separation from their children and other violations of dignity.  I had noted that the Slave Market Museum relied heavily on photographs and text; incorporating this statue could add depth to their presentation.  As it stands, the statue is presented without annotation of sculptor, date, or even title.

Natasha called my attention to Mr. Naaman‘s brilliant recreation of an 1840 photograph by Gillian depicting Stone Town from above.  What makes it brilliant?  The artist made it entirely by pasting together fragments of different banana leaves in 2005, using different species to achieve different shadings.


Stone Town, executed in banana leaves

Everywhere Natasha and I have gone in Zanzibar, we have been greeted with Jambo (“Hello”), Karibu (“You are welcome”), or Hakuna Matata (“No worries”).  I learned another phrase from a museum piece showing a woven fish trap.  It reads “kuingia demani,” which means getting into problems that one doesn’t know how to solve.  I think we can all relate to that!

Natural History Museum


Natural History doesn’t get a dome.

Visitors to the Art Museum are also encouraged to visit the small natural history museum next door.  We were both worried that the chamber would be filled with dusty Victorian taxidermy animals. While some stuffed animals were indeed present, we encountered a few things that kept our attention.  For me, the first was a partial skeleton in a glass box locked in a wire cage on the wall.  The description indicated that the skeleton represented the bones of a dodo bird from Mauritius (a gift of W. Harold Ingrams, Esq.).  This might not seem so remarkable, but remember that the last accepted dodo sighting took place in 1662!  These bones are either fakes, or they are more than three and a half centuries old.

We puzzled over a really large vertebra standing on a small table. It must have been a foot across on the central column.  At first we thought it might be from an elephant when Natasha snapped her fingers and realized it was from a whale.  My attention was also grabbed by the jaws of a largetooth sawfish (Pristis microdon) and a common sawfish (Pristis pristis).  They look something like a chainsaw blade with inch-long teeth sticking out on either side. Outside the building, Natasha noticed that the museum was once home to giant tortoises.  Gladly, the animals have been moved to nearby “Prison Island,” where we hope they have more room to maneuver.


Sawfish teeth

Abyssinian Maritim Restaurant

For dinner, Natasha and I decided to break from Tanzanian food (which we like) to enjoy an Ethiopian restaurant we had spotted near the SW corner of Stone Town.  The restaurant had large posters of sites in the country to tell some of the nation’s history.  Because we started accumulating insect bites the moment we sat down, we decided to move to a more internal table; sadly, the insect bites continued.  We realized from the menu that our dinner was going to cost substantially more than we had been spending.  A normal lunch at a local food joint might cost 12 or 13,000 shillings.  We opted for a vegetarian entrée for me and a chicken entrée for Natasha, and we added a bottle of water and a spiced Ethiopian tea on top.  The total bill came to 49,000 shillings ($22 USD), so ultimately it was “much of a muchness.”

We wandered north toward the tourist area when Lady Hellen appeared at her shop door.  Where had we been?  Didn’t we know she was waiting for us?  Laughing, we stepped inside.  Natasha found two refrigerator magnets, and I bargained for a watercolor of a Zanzibar door that would form a nice triptych with our dhow and street paintings.  She seemed nonplussed at the small purchase, but she still showed good grace.


Our three watercolors: town, dhow, door

Our efforts to get back to our hotel produced an unusual result.  I headed for the southeast corner of the Old Arab Fort, and then I marched us into the maze of alleys.  The Friday evening crowd on the streets had collectively decided to close up the shops.  Somehow I got us entirely turned around, and we popped back out near Freddie Mercury’s house!  This time Natasha took the fore, and she charged us back into the maze.  Once again, we took a wrong turn, and we bounced out of the maze near Lady Hellen’s art shop!  We decided to play it safe with our last effort.  We headed south and east along the belt road, and then we walked northeast along a familiar track back to our New Mkunazini Road, bought one last bottle of water, and then collapsed into our room at last!

Zanzibar: chasing Princess Salme and dialing up a dhow

An index to this series appears at the first post.

In just moments, today’s itinerary changed from loose and open-ended to complex and fascinating.  Natasha and I had bestirred ourselves from bed with little notion of how we would spend our day.  I wanted to capture some photographs, but after that?  Who knows!  Instead, we tackled three tourist goals in a single day.

The Hamamni baths

The warren of pathways through Stone Town are starting to seem familiar to us after five days in the area.  Still, the maze to the west of the Darajani Market is challenging.  After I misdirected us all the way south to New Mkunazini Road, Natasha took the helm to guide us to an Arts Collective in the neighborhoods north of that road.  We liked the paintings and shirts, but we didn’t make a purchase.


The antechamber has a fountain to wash your feet.

We were happy to discover that the Hamamni Baths were directly opposite the collective.  These baths were constructed for public use by the Sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, between 1870 and 1888.  Hold on to that name, since he figures into another story from today.  The Bath complex is quite large, featuring a foot-washing fountain, changing rooms, both hot and cold baths, shaving areas, and other spaces.  Constructing these baths was considered a key service expected of a Muslim ruler, since believers are occasionally obligated to perform a full bath by their religion.


Hungry cats are a common sight in the streets of Zanzibar.

After we became lost in the winding alleys again, Natasha was able to steer us to Hurumzi street, where we had found the offices for Eco and Culture Tours of Zanzibar.  Our goal was its neighbor, the Princess Salme Museum at the Emerson Hotel.  Sadly, its doors were still closed.  We decided to take the opportunity to check in with Eco and Culture again to make plans for that evening (see below).

The Princess Salme Museum


Emily Ruete (image from Wikimedia Commons)

As we stepped back into the road, we saw a gentleman dismount his bicycle to open the front door of the Princess Salme Museum.  We were in luck!  At first, Natasha and I were inclined to simply pay the admission to enter the museum, but when we realized that the gentleman, Said el-Gheithy, was the founder of the museum, we opted for the guided tour instead.  Along the way, we learned that he had consulted in the process of establishing a room to Princess Salme’s memory in the Palace Museum that we had seen two days before.  He was delighted that we had so many questions about his favorite topic!  The museum is not a large one, but it is packed with information on Princess Salme that helps to explain why she was such a lightning rod for the Sultans of Zanzibar:

  • She intervened in a succession struggle, allying herself with the losing side.
  • She left court without requesting permission.
  • She converted to Christianity from Islam.
  • She married without requesting permission (and changed her name to Emily).
  • She allied herself with German interests even though the Sultans favored the British.

When the original Sultan of Zanzibar died in 1856, a succession crisis followed because inheritance of his title was not based on birth order but rather perceived ability to rule.  His son Majid eventually won out over his son Barghash, and Barghash went into exile in India.  His brother would rule as the first Sultan of Zanzibar until his death in 1870.  Their sister Salme was one of very few women in Zanzibar who could write, having taught herself by copying text from the Quran on a camel scapula.  Barghash had enlisted her aid in the succession crisis, so she was hardly favored by the brother who won.


A few of the books that emerged from Emily Ruete and her children

Princess Salme continued using her pen throughout her life, taking controversial stands about the equivalence of extreme poverty in the developed world with slavery in the world where she had come of age.  Her three children who lived to adulthood each continued in prominence, and her descendants now live throughout the world.  I was very glad to see her memory detailed in such vivid terms by Said el-Gheithy.

Sunset in a dhow


Dhows can also sail upwind.

We had returned to Eco and Culture to schedule a sunset cruise in a dhow, the type of sailing vessel that launched Zanzibar to such economic importance for Indian Ocean trade.  The tour guide met us at 4:15 outside our hotel.  Rather than leaving from the port, our dhow met us at a stone staircase just below Tippu Tip’s ruined mansion.  Our boat, named the “Cimiya,” was a smaller model since our cruise would involve only two crew and two passengers.  It had been constructed just three years before.  It is essentially identical to the smaller boat in image above, using a single “lateen” sail.  Natasha and I scrambled over its metal ladder, and the captain powered up its outboard motor to push us into the channel.


Ahoy there!

I must admit I was a little frustrated at first to learn that the boat’s course would take it south, so I would not be able to acquire a “magic hour” photograph of the famous buildings of Stone Town.  The course, we took, though, gave Natasha and me a look at the government complex (High Court of Justice and State House) for the island as well as its chief medical complex, the Mnazi Mmoja Hospital.  From there, we mostly saw public beaches and a rent-controlled apartment complex (in nice condition and an easy walk to the beach).  Despite the presence of some threatening clouds in the distance, the winds were pretty light during our transit, but the sail stayed full-bellied (the captain had killed the engine once the sail was up).

I enjoyed the peace of sailing.  I am reminded of the sense one gets when riding in a hot air balloon, that the balloon is holding still while the world moves by at a stately pace.  Our little snack of nuts, bananas, and cassava chips seemed like the right mix in the gathering dusk.  The first mate was very talkative, so some of the potential romance of the cruise was a bit diminished.  Just the same, it was highly enjoyable, and I’d recommend it to others.

Natasha and I were dropped off at the same place we had boarded, so we set off on foot through the maze of Stone Town passageways.  This time we found ourselves on Hurumzi Street, where we briefly considered a tourist restaurant before realizing we hadn’t brought much cash onto the boat (and the credit card machines were out of order again).  We stopped by the hotel and then ate at Lukmaan’s, the diner where I never skipped a hot cup of chai tea.  We had a lovely chat with the Patton family, YouTubers who have been teaching their three daughters about the world by visiting it, one country at a time!  With that, we were off to bed.

Zanzibar: turtles in the Jozani Forest and tradition in Jambiani village

An index to this series appears at the first post.

Natasha and I were really excited about our tour of the southeast coast of Zanzibar today.  We contracted with Eco and Culture Tours Zanzibar for their South East Coast Day Trip with emphasis on the Jozani Forest, the ancient mosque at Kizimkazi, and the Jambiani village.  This tour company started life as a non-governmental organization to build job opportunities and to retain cultural memory in the the town of Jambiani Village.  I had read about it as part of our 2009 Bradt Tour Guide to Zanzibar; even the Introduction mentions the hopes that Kassim Mande, who organized citizens of Jambiani Village for this effort, has for the future of Zanzibar. Imagine our surprise, then, when we learned that Kassim Mande himself would be our tour guide!  He was accompanied by our driver, Ali “Hakuna Matata” and Kassim’s tour guide-in-training, Maryam.  We all left from our hotel at 8:30 AM and struck out to the east in an air-conditioned mini-van.

Driving out

Creek Road had been the eastern boundary for our activities on the island, except for the spice farm visit.  As we passed through the rest of Zanzibar City, we got the chance to see how the non-tourist sector lives.  A fair bit of it resembled the sprawl of other cities.  We passed the Kariakoo theme park, reminding me of Cape Town’s Ratanga Junction, but looking a bit more like the rides one sees at a state fair.  In a particularly densely populated area, Kassim pointed to the new Mwanakwerekwe Market, built to serve the larger city.  The highway we were driving had been built for one lane of traffic in each direction, but we frequently zoomed around mopeds and other travel vans.  The island has an informal system of trucks and buses called “dala dalas,” and we saw several groups of pedestrians waiting at benches or half-buried tires beside the road for the next dala dala.  The drivers of the dala dalas seemed to place the same value on human life that the shuttlebus taxis in South Africa do.


The soursop

Kassim urged us to stop the van at Tunguu, where we visited a spice garden intended to support the village rather than the export market.  He gave us a unique fruit called a “soursop” or “graviola,” but he cautioned that it would be four or five days before this one would be ready to eat.  He plucked a small, pale green fruit from a tree for each of us.  Its taste was extremely tart at first, but Natasha and I both came to like the taste quite a lot!  It is called a “kamias” or “bilimbi.”  We continued south on the highway to a stretch where magnificent, century-old mango trees lined either side of the road.  These trees are associated with the Bi Khole ruins, a country house for one of the princesses during the time of the Sultanate.

Jozani Forest


A 2017 population census revealed that more than 5800 red colobus monkeys remain in the wild.

From there, we were only a short distance away from the entrance to Jozani Forest.  Kassim handed us over to a younger fellow for a tour of three key attractions to the area: the red colobus monkeys, the tropical forest, and mangrove swamps.  Our group walked a half kilometer down a road when suddenly we were standing below trees filled with a family of monkeys.  The guide helpfully explained that we should not interact with them or stand directly below one, and the reason for the latter became apparent very quickly!  They were beautiful little critters, and they seemed to tolerate the presence of the tour group without fright.


You would not have to dig far to reach the water table!

The tropical forest was lovely.  The mix of trees and underbrush seemed familiar to me from my visit to the tropical forest in Puerto Rico, but there were some key differences.  The screwpine plants seemed like enormous yuccas to me; I don’t think I could touch the tops of its leaves.  I was also surprised to see the proliferation of mahogany trees.  The guide pointed to a eucalyptus tree and explained that these obviously were not endemic to Zanzibar, but some of them had been intentionally planted in order to reduce the water table in the area, which can lead to swamp-like conditions and flooding.  This area has very little risk of forest fire, happily.


Mangroves help cushion intertidal zones.

The last of the three areas highlighted for the forest was the mangrove swamp.  I had encountered mangroves before in the lagoons near Fajardo on Puerto Rico.  The ones in Jozani were pretty remarkable.  The tree roots run down into the water of the marsh, with the trunk suspended a couple of feet above the water’s surface.  The trees propagate themselves by sending straight shoots down into the mud.  Natasha really loved the little crabs climbing around on the roots.


“Move along! Nothing to see here!”

Turtle Sanctuary


These sea turtles couldn’t wait for their next snack!

On our way back from the mangroves, Natasha spotted the sign for a turtle sanctuary, and we decided to make it part of the tour.  Our tour guide brought us into the facility, another example of community engagement to create new job opportunities to preserve the environment.  The site featured a pond full of green turtles keeping company with a hawksbill sea turtle; all of these spend almost all their time in the water. Natasha got to feed them, and they were soon trying to swim their way past each other to eat the salad she sprinkled into the water. They were really lovely animals, though that hawksbill was a piece of work!  The facility was also home to a monitor lizard, a python, and their prime attraction: four Aldabra giant tortoises.  We walked into the tortoise enclosure and soon found the two males eating leaves.  Natasha and I both got the chance to stroke their necks. The two female tortoises were smaller, and Natasha didn’t get too close since they can be a bit testy.  I love the fact that in Afrikaans, the word for a little tortoise is “skilpadjie,” which literally means “little moving rocks.”


Even a giant tortoise needs a snack from time to time.

As we shot south along the highway, Kassim stopped for some mangoes, since he learned we loved the fruit.  He promised that the farmers in that area produced the best mangoes in the world.  We would taste the evidence at lunch.  Soon, we hit the traffic circle at Kufile that led to the first Arab settlement on Zanzibar.  Kizimkazi (it’s fun to say out loud) is home to the oldest Mosque in East Africa.  A lintel inside the mosque records the original construction took place 1107 A.D., and the structure was rebuilt in 1770 A.D. Unfortunately, nobody was available to open the mosque for our tour, but we were still able to touch the original wall.  Natasha thought that its ribs suggested that the original mosque had been on grander scale.


The 18th century mosque incorporates elements of a 12th century mosque.

We passed on to Makunduchi, a district capital at the southeast corner of the island.  We paused to acquire more bottles of water. Ali “Hakuna Matata,” our driver, was concerned about the rate we were burning gasoline.  Unfortunately, fuel stations all over the island had been running short of petrol.  He checked a local station but was turned away empty-handed.  We continued on our course to Jambiani Village.

Jambiani Village

I was unsure what to expect of Jambiani.  It appears that the village is of two minds: resorts and hotels seem to have acquired large stretches of the beach, and the traditional village forms an additional layer of town just inland of the hotels.  The village itself is a mix of two-story foreign-owned houses and one-story shops and homes for locals, some of which use old-style construction of woven plant fibers and some of which use cinder block construction.  We noticed quite a lot of half-finished cinder block buildings, and Kassim laughed that Swahili culture is pragmatic; people build when they have the money to do so, not when they have saved enough for the entire project.

Our slow progress through the tour (with an added stop at the turtle preserve) had thrown off our arrival time at the village.  Just the same, we got the chance to see traditional rope manufacture.  The fibers came from coconut husks, pounded and soaked in sea water. These were twisted together into strands, and those strands were then braided and rolled into rope.  The other demonstrations were to demonstrate the grating of coconut or the production of lime from coral rock.  The ladies had given up on our arrival, since they expected us before noon!


Coconut is a versatile building material.

We did, however, have a lovely lunch at the Okala Restaurant.  I could hardly take my eyes off the surroundings since the building is constructed of woven coconut leaves and timber.  It seems that weavers assemble panels of woven leaves and then these panels are assembled into buildings on a frame.  Our chairs, too, were constructed of timber frames with cowhide lashed into place (I must say they were comfortable, too!).  Our meal was a familiar one, rice pilau with tuna in a coconut curry and spinach stewed in onions.  We were delighted by the flavors.


I am a natural for the beach.

From there, Natasha and i were left some free time to enjoy the lovely beach at Jambiani.  Kassim explained that it was one of the top ten beaches in the world.  We rather liked it.  We found a shady spot beside a restaurant building and looked out to sea.  In the distance, we could see waves breaking on a ring of coral.  The beach was nearly empty, but a few Masai did come by to ask if we wanted to buy bracelets or necklaces.  Sand crabs scuttled in and out of their holes, bringing a bit of sand up with each passage.  It was ridiculously beautiful.  Natasha took a turn walking in the surf, and then I got my chance to dip my hands in the Indian Ocean.  I would recommend the experience to anyone.


Happily, this ghost crab did not object to our towel’s location.

With that, it was time for us to head back home.  Kassim had a special treat for us.  Knowing that Natasha loves baobab trees, we drove to a really massive specimen at the corner of the village.  I think it would take ten adults to form a ring around its base!  After a brief tree-hug, we headed back north.  Ali, our driver, kept looking nervously at the gas gauge.  When no cars were in front of a gas station, he ignored it, but when he saw other cars, he pulled in.  In two or three cases, we were disappointed; no fuel was for sale.  When we got closer to Zanzibar City, we saw petrol stations with lines of cars in front, but they didn’t want to keep us waiting while they managed the fuel situation.  Ali dropped us off at the Darajani Market, and Maryam walked us back to our hotel.  Our adventure to the Southeast coast of Zanzibar was at an end!


Jambiani baobab

Zanzibar: the Palace Museum and penury

An index to this series appears at the first post.

logoToday’s adventure in Zanzibar started off on uncertain footing as a key problem with Tanzanian Tourism took center stage: How could we pay for stuff on an island without reliable ATMs or credit card networks? We began our day by running over to Eco and Culture Tours, a company that previously operated as an NGO to build economies in smaller towns of Zanzibar. We scheduled a half-day tour for tomorrow that would take us to three key sites in the southeastern part of the island. The cost, however, was higher than all the Tanzanian shillings we had on hand, and our credit cards were not usable. We paid approximately the first half of the bill, and then we headed out for an ATM.

One might be excused for thinking that acquiring local money as simple as walking up to an ATM, typing in a PIN, and selecting an amount, but this was sadly not the case. We tried multiple ATMs (including Barclays Bank) near the Darajani Market without success. We trundled down to an ATM for CRDB that had been reliable for us on prior days, but both ATMs were out of service. We walked to the heavily touristed west side of Stone Town to use the Barclays, National Bank of Commerce, and Diamond Trust ATMs. Barclays was entirely out of operation, NBC threw a system error when I tried to specify the amount of money, and Diamond Trust could only operate with Visa cards.


The beach facade of the Palace Museum

Natasha and I resolved to break into our supply of dollars quite sparingly until we could find another option. We walked up the beach road to the Palace Museum, which occupies a prime location on the beach front between the Arab Fort and the Custom House where we had attended a concert the preceding night. Our bottle of water cost a dollar, and the admission to the museum was only $6 USD for both of us. We dismissed the guide, explaining that we had no shillings.


A look into the upper stories of the Palace


Was this water jug inexpensive export-ware or a priceless diplomatic present?

The Palace Museum is really something to see. The ceilings are tremendously high, and some of the items in the building are truly one-of-a-kind. Natasha found that some of the objects that were not highlighted were in fact hugely remarkable. A display cabinet on the first floor used a layer of crystal rather than glass. Some of the tables holding artifacts incorporated hand-painted tiles. In particular, the Chinese vases found in several rooms were likely to be extremely valuable, dating from the late 18th century. These vases, however, were frequently covered with a substantial layer of dust on every upper surface. Because the palace was occupied by the royal family until 1964, the museum also contains items of furniture from the 1950s and 1960s, eras that struggled to produce a “stately” look.


Guess which chair holds the Sultan!

I appreciated the museum tale of two people, in particular. The first was Said bin Sultan of Oman, who moved his court to Zanzibar in 1828. Arab traders had a substantial footprint on Zanzibar for centuries before that, but the first Sultan of Zanzibar decided to invest all his efforts in transforming this island into an economic powerhouse. Much of the stone construction of Stone Town dates from 1830 and onward, reflecting his decision to make this island his capitol.  Sayyid Said apparently once claimed, “I am only a merchant.”


Seyyid Said bin Sultan and his son, Seyyid Majid bin Said were the first and second Sultans to rule from Zanzibar.

The second noteworthy person highlighted by the museum was Princess Salme (Emily Ruete), a daughter of Sayyid Said bin Sultan, born in 1844. Having spent her first seven years at the Mtoni Palace to the northeast of Stone Town, she moved to the Beit el Sahil palace (the one in which the museum stands today) for her later years. It was while she lived at this palace that she met and fell in love with Heinrich Ruete, a German merchant. She was baptized as a Christian and married him in 1867. Her autobiography, “Memoirs of an Arabian Princess,” was one of the first glimpses into the lives of Arabian royalty for the Western world.


Emily Ruete (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The Palace Museum reinforced the message that the United States was key to the rise of Zanzibar. The United States signed a “Most Favored Nation” treaty with the Sultan in 1833, the first of many such treaties by an interval of six years. Similarly, the United States established the first consulate on Zanzibar in 1837. Even this early in its history, the United States had demonstrated that it had an unquenchable thirst for luxury goods.


A look across the Palace grounds toward the House of Wonder

I was glad that the Palace Museum was open, given that its next door neighbor, the House of Wonders, was closed for entirely necessary repairs.  The Palace Museum is about the same age as South African democracy (1994), and it is clear that every bit of investment there will make a difference in telling the story of the Sultans of Zanzibar!

Natasha and I attempted two more ATMs at the northern side of Stone Town, but we were again stymied. At each bank machine, we encountered other tourists who were frustrated at how to get local currency. We were glad, however, to find the Passing Show Restaurant near the latest ATM. I enjoyed vegetarian ugali with two cups of tea, and Natasha went with the chicken curry ugali and a Stoney Ginger Beer. We wandered through the maze of back streets behind the Darajani Market until we reached the New Mkunazini Road. Happily, the ATM that had been out of service in the morning had returned to life! We refilled our wallets and acquired another 1.5 liter jug of cold water.


Once a madrasa named for Ian Smith and then a Muslim academy, this building later became an orphanage.

Natasha decided to rest for a while, so we agreed to meet at 6PM at Mother’s Restaurant (we had enjoyed it a couple of days before). I wandered back to the shoreline along the northwest side of Stone Town and shot photos of the buildings. I was happy to find a high vantage in a pedestrian walkway leading up to a former orphanage, and I shot some panoramic photos there and along the beach.


This image knits together the Forodhani Gardens (at left) with the House of Wonder and the ruins of the Arab Fort (at right).


Detail of the primary window in the tower of the House of Wonder

I was glad to get the chance to visit Tippu Tip’s house a bit further south. His life story showed an incredible tenacity to accumulate wealth for himself at the expense of others. Today his once glorious mansion stands in ruins.


An inebriated person occupied the front step of the one-time mansion. This portrait of Tippu Tip appears at the National Museum of Tanzania.

I joined Natasha at the restaurant and we enjoyed our rice, beans, and spinach with fried snapper. I tried to ignore that the fish head kept staring at me.

Zanzibar: too close to the fire

An index to this series appears at the first post.

We awoke this morning (the 30th) to a terrific din upstairs.  It sounded very much like the ceiling had collapsed in a room on the floor above us.  Natasha poked her head into the corridor and learned from a fleeing resident that his room had been on fire.  Any thoughts we had about the earliness of our waking (5:30 AM) vanished, and we hurriedly jammed our things into bags and rushed downstairs.  The hotel staff felt it wasn’t a big deal; the fire was out, wasn’t it?  At no point had we heard a smoke alarm.  I scanned the building from the outside and saw nothing amiss.  Eventually we accepted a key to a different room on the first floor where we hurriedly showered and then piled into a taxi for the ferry dock.


Photo courtesy of Ctrip

We arrived just after 6 AM in a teeming mass of people, all trying to board a ferry to Zanzibar for the new year holiday.  Our hotel taxi dropped us at a special office that handled business class tickets.  Our broker took me through the locked door of the ticket office, where he arranged for the sale of two Azam Marine tickets (with returns on January 6th) for $160 USD.  Locals would have paid 140,000 shillings (~$63 USD) for the same booking.  The fare depleted quite a lot of the dollars we had on hand, but we anticipated handling the rest of our bills with debit cards and the shillings we had already acquired.  With tickets in hand, Natasha and I went for breakfast in the capable hands of Abdullah, one of the porters.  We enjoyed the omelets, but it seemed downright weird that they supplied us each with a cup of very warm milk for me to dip a tea bag and for Natasha to dump in a pouch of instant coffee.


Photo by Incat Crowther

Boarding the ferry was again expedited with the help of our (now two) porters, who simply ignored the long queue of people with economy tickets.  We were processed through metal detectors by a tough-looking sergeant who held a baton like he was born to use it, and then we waited 45 minutes in a departure lounge.  We chatted with a group of Spanish teachers on holiday.  When the doors opened to let us onto the catamaran, we fell in with the crowd and occupied a couple of the business class seats.  I think I fell asleep just minutes after we pushed away from the dock.  When I awoke, Natasha spent some time asleep.  Her eyes fluttered open as we completed our two hour transit (the distance is around 84 km), making a sharp turn for the new harbor at Stone Town, which is the old part of Zanzibar City.


Panorama of Stone Town, as seen from the ferry (cropped from Colors of Zanzibar)

My navigation to the Riverman Hotel (near the Anglican Cathedral at the center of the east side of Stone Town) was stymied by my picking the wrong way to turn as we left the harbor.  There are pretty clear streets in a band around the outside of Stone Town, but the middle streets are quite narrow and poorly labeled.  I took us much too far south when Natasha noted that she wasn’t going to be able to walk too much further with her two heavy backpacks.  The heat and humidity were quite overpowering, I must admit!  We hired a cab who drove us clockwise around the whole loop to reach our hotel.  He even walked my bag to the hotel, which was around half a kilometer from the parking lot.

When we reached the hotel, we learned that air conditioning was not actually available, but the manager promised he would have a great room for us the following day.  For now, we had a relatively small room with a large, canopied queen bed, with mosquito netting all around it.  The recurrent trouble we encountered was that credit cards would not be usable (despite the contrary information on Booking.com).  I hiked out into the sun to find a working ATM.  I was glad to see the green and white logo of the CRDB once again.  To pay the $350 USD bill for seven nights, I needed to withdraw the maximum number of shillings twice from the machine.  I crossed my fingers that the bank didn’t clamp down a security lock on my card.  The manager seemed impressed that I had circumvented the currency problem so quickly.

Natasha and I ventured out for lunch soon thereafter.  We found a delightful hole-in-the-wall cafe called “Mom’s Restaurant” that served us pilau with spinach and beans in coconut sauce.  We had a lovely chat with two Koreans who had decided to make their own life plan rather than follow some of the rigid rules of Korean society.  From there, we wandered south-west, eventually reaching the traffic circle where we had hailed the taxi earlier in the day.


This arch at the Kenyatta and Vuga Roads circle served as a strange attractor to our wandering paths through Stone Town.

This time, we found a tourism service that had several cool tours available.  We signed up for one tomorrow morning (Dec 31) that supplied a history tour of Stone Town, and we signed up for a second one for January 1st that drove us to see a nearby spice farm!  We paid 62,000 shillings for the first part, denuding our wallets of most of our remaining local currency.  We’ll owe a similar amount tomorrow.  Our chat with the staffer (from nearby Kenya) was really pleasant, and we discussed the possibilities of a return trip to see the north of Tanzania (Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti, Olduvai Gorge, and the Ngorogoro Crater).


A milkshake and an ocean restoreth my soul.

From there, your heat-stroked travelers wandered in search of cool refreshment.  We found a restaurant on the beach and watched the waves roll in and the dhows sail by.  Natasha enjoyed some iced lemon tea, and I happily slurped a chocolate milkshake!  We wandered along the beach a bit.


Many kinds of boats compete for anchorage near the harbor at Stone Town.

Soon we headed back to the hotel, passing by a series of mosques in the center of Stone Town.  We had heard the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer throughout the day.  Of course Natasha knew just the right words to greet the older gentlemen sitting on the mosque steps (“Salaam-Alaikum”).  We returned to the hotel room, drained from the heat.  We had reached Zanzibar.  Who knew what might come next?

Robben Island, sun-blasted and separate

December 13, 2016

If I were planning only a week in Cape Town, I would have visited Robben Island much sooner.  After my first year in Cape Town had passed, I was glad that at last I could set foot on the island that Nelson Mandela made famous.  What can this island show to a visitor from a different nation?

First, it is worth noting that Robben Island is one of only eight World Heritage Sites in all of South Africa, and it is one of only two in the Western Cape (the other is the Cape Floral Region, extending into the Eastern Cape).  Its history has reflected the many resources the island can provide, ranging from port to post office to hospital to military outpost and to prison.  An excellent timeline showing its uses throughout history was produced by the Robben Island Museum.  Its name derives from the Dutch for “seal island.”  One of the last creatures a visitor is likely to see when boarding the boat for the island, in fact, is a seal.  A colony of seals occupies an area near the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront.


A photo of the V&A Waterfront from May, 2015

The ride to the island does not take long, only about 35 minutes on one of the modern, fast ferries.  My friends and I stayed below deck since I don’t deal well with direct summer sunlight.  The crew were pretty efficient in ensuring that the passengers knew about life vests and about having too many people on the bow or stern viewing areas.  In no time at all, we pulled abreast of the island.  The island covers an area just over five square kilometers, and its shoreline is dotted with low structures around the old medium-security prison where the guards (and now the museum docents) live.  The crossing to the island may have been short for us, but winter storms can make it quite perilous.  In the past children moving between the island and mainland for school frequently missed days of classes because the ferries could not run.


The Cape of Storms did not defeat us!

Once we left the boat, we all boarded buses to get our tour of the island.  I would suggest that you open a separate tab in your browser to view a free map of the island from Slingsby Maps.  In driving southeast along the coast road, we soon passed a sizeable, crumbling cemetery.  Our guide explained that in 1845, a leper colony near Caledon was moved en masse to Robben Island.  The Moravian missionaries who had cared for the ill moved with the 70 people in their care.  Many mentally ill patients were also shipped to the island.  Today, the only building standing from that period is the beautiful Church of the Good Shepherd, designed by the architect Sir Herbert Baker but built by the community living on the island.


The Robert Sobukwe house is at the left. The rest of the buildings housed dogs.

Our introduction to the island’s significance in Apartheid history began as we arrived at the Robert Sobukwe complex.  I first learned his name in driving to the University of the Western Cape; the institution is on the well-traveled Robert Sobukwe Road (the M10 highway).  He was a graduate of Fort Hare University and completed Honours at U-Wits, becoming a compelling intellectual in favor of the Defiance Campaign.  He is remembered for founding the Pan-Africanist Congress in 1958 as a breakaway group from the African National Congress.  At the age of 35, he was put in prison because of his resistance to the pass laws.  The Apartheid government then passed a law with a clause making it possible for them to incarcerate him in prison indefinitely without reference to a particular crime.  Mr. Sobukwe was kept in isolation from human conversation for almost all of the remaining years of his life, six of which took place at Robben Island.  As the tour guide explained the harshness of his detention, I heard a series of little gasps from the bus passengers around me.


The limestone quarry is very bright, even at a distance.

The limestone quarry is a site that appeared in the movie “Long Walk To Freedom” because of its significance in the life of Nelson Mandela.  As a prisoner, he was forced to toil here for thirteen years.  The point was to keep prisoners busy since the limestone was not particularly useful.  The other quarry on the island, however, produced blue stones from which many of the buildings were constructed (including the prison and the church).  In practice, the limestone quarry became a place of education, where prisoners read and conversed.  The harsh lighting, however, took a toll on Nelson Mandela’s vision.


The Kramat is the building with the green dome. The structure at the left is a guard tower.

Our visit to the maximum security prison started with a reminder that the island had served as a prison much further back in history.  The Moturu Kramat remembers the life of Sayed Adurohman Moturu (d. 1754), one of the first imams in Cape Town.  He was exiled to Robben Island for the last fourteen years of his life.  The Kramat remains an important point of pilgrimage for the Muslim community.


Our host regales us with tales of this prison from the 1980s.

Being inside the maximum security prison was unsettling.  We were led into a long narrow room, with a bunk bed at one end.  Our host explained that he had been a prisoner in the maximum security prison from 1983 to 1990.  He had been incarcerated for sabotage and other crimes associated with his work in the armed resistance to Apartheid.  The room we were in had once housed around 50 prisoners.  He showed a menu for people from the Indian or Cape Coloured populations and another for the black prisoners, demonstrating that the government had ensured the black prisoners were fed worse than others (and he had personal knowledge, since he had served as part of the kitchen crew during his prison term).

I found myself distracted by this man’s history.  He had acknowledged that he had taken up arms against the government of his country.  How could a person change from insurgent to museum docent in one lifetime?  He related that he had been terrified of public speaking when he was invited to become a guide to the museum (he had been unemployed at the time).  At his first tour, he had frozen with stage fright until some of the elderly people on the tour had begun asking questions.  Ten years later, he knew just how to hold an audience in the palm of his hand.  I admired his skill.


The leadership wing of the prison. The black pole held up one end of the tennis net.

In the last phase of the tour, we moved to the wing for high-level political prisoners.  We gathered in what had been a tennis court lined with blue stone walls.  On just the other side of the wall, a line of small cells had held leading figures of the ANC as well as other resistance organizations.  The cell itself is unremarkable, other than being smaller than what many of us would consider a bathroom of acceptable size.  How could a place like this have been the training ground of the future leaders of South Africa?

Robben Island discharged its final prisoner from the maximum security prison in 1991.  In 1994, its most famous former prisoner was elected president of South Africa.  By 1996, no prisoners remained on the island, and in the following year the Museum was opened.  In 1999, the Island was named a World Heritage Site.  Two decades after the prisons were emptied, this American could stroll around, trying to make sense of it all.  For my part, I think I will need to keep contemplating this remarkable place in which I find myself if I ever hope to understand it!