Some travel to relax, some to escape and some to find themselves; of late I find myself travel a lot for ‘history’. To understand why places are the way they are, how places seemly so far apart are connected and eventually how I’m connected to these places!
It was many years ago, on a trip to visit the district of Belém in Lisbon, Portugal – the place from where the pioneering Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama set off on an impossible journey to find an alternate route to India and landed on the shores of my hometown of Calicut in Kerala – I first heard the name: Zanzibar!
On returning from that trip I read a version of how Vasco da Gama ‘discovered’ the route to India. Apparently he had recorded in his diary that:
Upon his arrival at the port of Zanzibar in East Africa he saw a docked ship three times bigger than his own. He took an African interpreter to meet the owner of that ship – Chandan, a Gujarati trader who used to bring pine wood and teak from Kerala along with spices and take back diamonds to India.
Although it is now widely accepted that Vasco da Gama followed the Gujarati trader to reach the shores of India, other accounts state that the reluctant trader was in fact taken captive by the Portuguese and was forced to show them the way; in any case, as the saying goes – the rest is history!
A few weeks back I was finally able to make a trip to see this tropical island for myself. Today, Zanzibar (which is actually not one island but a small archipelago) is a semi-autonomous region which is part of the East African nation of Tanzania. In fact, the name of the country is a clipped compound of the names of the two states that unified to create it: Tanganyika and Zanzibar.
Zanzibar has some ridiculously picturesque tropical beaches with crystal clear waters
As you can see in the above images Zanzibar is a tropical paradise with immense natural beauty, nonetheless, to keep focus on the historic significance of this island the rest of this post will concentrate only on its oldest settlement and symbolic heart – Stone Town.
This world heritage designated town consists of some 2,000 coral-stone buildings, organised into different quarters and is a fascinating agglomeration of various cultural influences and architectural traditions from the East African coast and the world of the Indian Ocean. These quarters are bound together by an intricate network of narrow streets and lanes, which are so intimate that it is almost possible to walk from one end of the town to the other without having to brave the hot tropical sun.
To further understand and decipher the built form of Stone Town it is important to delve into the history of this town and the island in general. Although the town has its roots as a typical Swahili settlement, perhaps as early as the tenth century. Sometime in the seventeenth century Stone town became capital of Queen Fatma who ruled over the indigenous people of central Unguja (the main island of the archipelago). During this time the town was also settled upon by immigrants from Yemen and other Swalihis from the Kenyan coast. The Swahili architecture (which forms the bed rock of much the town) was predominately plain on the outside with people mostly experimenting internally with whatever limited available local building materials.
However, all this dramatically changed after 1698, when Zanzibar become part of the overseas holdings of Oman. (As someone who grew up in the Middle East I confess that I had no idea that Oman had a history of colonising many places along the East African coast.) And in 1832 in an unprecedented move the Omani ruler ‘Said bin Sultan’ even moved his court and capital from Muscat to Stone Town! He then went on to establish a ruling Arab elite and encouraged the development of clove plantations, using the island’s slave labour* (read more about this dark side of the history of this paradise island in the foot note to this post).
Although there are many structures in Stone town that point to the strong Omani presence in the city – none are as prominent as the Old Fort, also known as the Arab Fort. It was built in the 17th Century by the Omani’s, on the site of a Portuguese Chapel. The oldest building in Zanzibar was meant to shield the Arabs from the Portuguese and also served as a prison and execution point. The fort is located on the main seafront – which reminded me of the beautiful corniche of Mutrah in Muscat, Oman – adjacent to another landmark building of the city, the House of Wonders (former palace of the Sultan of Zanzibar), and facing the Forodhani Gardens (all of which can be seen clearly in the above aerial photo).
The other ethnic group to have a very deep impact on the architecture of Stone Town were the Gujaratis traders (mostly from the port of Cambay). But in terms of architecture: unlike the Omanis (who built introverted structures influenced by the Islamic conception of privacy), the Gujaratis built structures – that immediately transported me to the Pols (housing clusters) of Old Ahmedabad and also brought memories of walking along Gujarati street back home in Calicut – with elaborate windows and balconies, with delicate fretwork and coloured glazing!
This Indian Architectural influence reached its apogee in this building – the ‘Old Dispensary’ – built on a grand scale by Tharia Topan (an Indian Merchant from Bombay, again the link between this building and many structures in the older parts of Bombay like Fort, Colaba or Girgaon are very apparent here). Fortunately, this building was meticulously restored recently by Conservation Architect Dr. Archie Walls and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and now houses the Stone Town Cultural Centre.
A few streets away from the previous building I ran into this beautiful house in the quarter of the town known as Hurumzi (named after the Persian Gulf island of ‘Hormuz’ in present day Iran). Interestingly, between the 10th to 17th centuries (when Zanzibar was gaining prominence in international trade), Hormuz island was the capital of the Kingdom of Ormus – a powerful naval state with a large and active trading fleet and a powerful navy.
As I meandered through the narrow lanes of Stone Town one thing became obvious – the majority of the architecture in this town was externally very subdued, barring of course the elaborately carved main door of the houses, which ends up being its most prominent architectural element. The size and craftsmanship of these doors were (and to some extend still is) considered a mark of status and wealth of the house owner. And upon closer inspection of the motifs used on them, I realized it is possible to even distinguish the ethnicity of the household. It’s easy to understand why these doors have become one of the most emblematic images of Stone Town, here’s a few more varied examples from across the various quarters.
Many of these doors were probably made from teak wood sourced in Kerala.
As I came to the end of my short stay in Stone Town I found myself pondering about everything I saw here and I was once again reminded of what brought me here. Of the familiarity of these narrow streets and lanes that only a few days back I had not known existed; and the similarity of these elaborate wooden doors to the ones back home in the old quarter of Kuttichira, Calicut – a city that was historically closely knit to the maritime spice trade by the monsoon dhows exactly like Zanzibar!
Here’s a map of the places mentioned in this post for quick reference.
All photos © Sahil Latheef | including the aerial photos shot using a DJI Mavic Pro drone camera
* The unfortunate dark side of the history of this island – The East African slave trade!
After the Arab and Swahili traders won control of the Swahili coast and sea routes during the 9th century they embarked on setting up an extensive slave trade network that stretched across the Indian Ocean. These traders captured Bantu peoples (Zanj or “Black”) from the interior in present-day Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania and brought them to the coast from where they would be shipped to various destinations.
In fact, it is from here that island gets its name – from Arabic “Zanjibār”, which is a compound of Zanj (‘Black’) + bār (‘coast’).
Zanzibar was once East Africa’s main slave-trading port, and under Omani Arabs in the 19th century as many as 50,000 slaves were passing through the city each year. Under strong British pressure, the slave trade was officially abolished in 1876, but slavery itself remained legal in Zanzibar until 1897.
Today, there aren’t many markers of this cruel past but there is an excellent East Africa Slave Trade Exhibit with a series of displays and informative panels and the ‘Monument to the Slaves’ both within the compound of the Anglican Cathedral in Stone Town very close to where one of the world’s last open slave markets was situated.
This moving sculpture reminds visitors and locals alike, of the atrocities committed on this very spot centuries before was created by the Scandinavian artist Clara Sönäs.
- Zanzibar Stone Town: An Architectural Exploration – 2008 by Abdul Sheriff and Javed Jafferji
- Historical Zanzibar: Romance of the Ages – 1995 by Abdul Sheriff and Javed Jafferji
- Lonely Planet Tanzania – 5th Edition, 2012 by Mary Fitzpatrick and Tim Bewer; Zanzibar Archipelago (Chapter)