Zanzibar City, the capital of Zanzibar, consists of the new area, simply called “the other side” and the old one: Stone Town. Stone Town was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000.
Forget New York, Stone Town is the true definition of a melting pot. The Persians were the first to establish a trade base here back in the 3rd century amidst the local Bantu people. The first mosque in the Southern Hemisphere was built by these traders right here.
Trade attracted merchants from India, Indonesia and China and the local culture incorporated these new elements. The Indian culture is evident in the exquisite wooden balconies of many buildings.
In the 1500s, the Portuguese took over control of the island but with a very hands-off approach to its administration by putting in place Arab sultans and giving them wide latitude. In 1631, the Sultan of Mombasa killed off all the European settlers after which act the Portuguese decided to bring in European rulers to Zanzibar. The people of Stone Town grew dissatisfied with this development and invited the Sultan of Oman to help them overthrow the Europeans. The Sultan gladly did this and kept power for himself of course. Stone Town came to be ruled by the Sultanate of Oman until the death of Said bin Sultan in 1856 which caused his two heirs to quarrel. Britain saw the opportunity and stepped in to settle the dispute by dividing the area to be ruled among the two sons: Majid then became the Sultan of Zanzibar while his brother Thuwaini became the Sultan of Oman.
Majid bin Sultan made Stone Town one of the wealthiest cities in East Africa by promoting the trade of, unfortunately, slaves. These slaves were “bought” from their villages in East Africa for almost nothing and employed in carting ivory into Stone Town. Once the ivory had been sold off, the slaves were next. It was a no-losses business model. Stone Town had become the epicenter of the slave trade.
Slaves were sent from Stone Town into all corners of the world: Arabia, Oman, Persia, as well as the new continent. Both the slaves’ and the traders’ cultures came to shape Stone Town’s culture and made some merchants very wealthy. At this time, slave traders were proud of their trade and built their houses to reflect this. Look closely at the edges of this intricately carved door, notice the chain links? That meant the owner of the house was a slave trader.
Tipu Tip was one of the (if not THE) richest such slave trader, although as you can read from this sign and observe from the covered edges of his door, his history has been cleaned a bit.
In 1842, the British decided to end the slave trade and applied pressure on the Sultan to do this. While the trade towards the East was diminished, the British found it almost impossible to stop the slave trade to the Americas as France, Spain and the United States continued to engage in it. In 1873, the British threatened the Sultan of Zanzibar with a blockade if he didn’t stop the trade in slaves to these nations finally forcing the slave market in Zanzibar to close down for good. The Cathedral was built on the very site of the former Slave Market with the altar incorporating the base of the whipping post.
Zanzibar became a British protectorate in 1890 and remained so until 1963. In 1964, Zanzibar and Tanganyika came together to form the United Republic of Tanzania.
Stone Town is rich in history and flavor. Unfortunately, they don’t have the means to invest in preserving it and most buildings seem to be crumbling. Houses in Stone Town were traditionally built from coral and this material does not weather well.
That white building in the background is “The Palace of Wonders” called thus because it was the first building in Stone Town to have electricity. It is the largest building here and one of their most important historical sites. It was built in 1883 by Sultan Barghash bin Said as a ceremonial palace and it is said that he kept wild animals chained in the front yard.
Sadly, while one can roam the front “yard”, the museum is permanently closed as Zanzibar simply doesn’t have the resources for the upkeep.
Even with the decay, Stone Town is a wondrous place full of twists and turns to lose oneself in.
It is very safe as far as crime goes, Muslim nations usually are. Traffic is a whole other story. Most of the streets in Stone Town are too narrow for cars and one must walk everywhere which is actually a delight. The locals though employ motorcycles to get around and you can imagine the fright one gets when turning around a corner puts you in the direct path of one of those speeding locals.
Freddie Mercury, lead singer for Queen, is the most famous son of Stone Town and our guide took us to see the school he attended
as well as the house he allegedly lived in. His fans might be disappointed as there really isn’t much to it but hey, taking a picture of his door is free.
On the day we were here, a street food fair was taking place on the square across from the Palace of Wonders. Families were out in droves and people were enjoying the pleasant weather.
Food smelled delicious and even though there was a cholera outbreak, we decided to risk it telling ourselves that no germ could survive frying.
The food was indeed delicious and no, we did not get sick. We only wish we had had more time to enjoy lovely Stone Town at leisure.