Stone Town is the historical heart of Zanzibar. It has been marked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and forms the oldest part of Zanzibar city. Zanzibar has had a wide range of occupants who have shaped the city that we see today. Once a major trade hub for spices (as mentioned in Zanzibar Spice Farm) and slavery, it is no surprise that Stone Town exhibits a blend of Arab, Indian, European and African influences.
Stone Town derives its name from its distinctive coral stone and lime buildings – materials which were readily available on the island. The architecture of the buildings also depict the numerous colonists who came and left the island. Most characteristic are the doors. The Zanzibar, or Arab, doors are identifiable by their rectangular shape. The frames are finely carved with Islamic text and imagery, and are often adorned with brass spikes (for the purpose of warding off elephants). The Indian doors do not have as ornate door frames as the Zanzibar doors, but are characterised by their dome shape and Indian carvings.
The narrow streets of Stone Town are lined with apartments, hotels, small businesses, mosques, shops and bazaars. At every turn, there is a cultural or historical experience to be had – whether it be the local spa with drums of dried spices outside its doors, the Hamamni Persian baths or Freddie Mercury’s home (aka Mercury House).
Promenade and Forodhani Gardens
Heading towards the promenade is a more local vibe. The shores are lined with small boats offering rides and tours of the other nearby islands. The local women can be seen boiling sweet potatoes and cassava which is a traditional cuisine on the island; and youngsters hang out at Forodhani Gardens which is adjacent to the sea and a popular location for the street food night market.
House of Wonders
Overlooking Forodhani Gardens is the House of Wonders (aka Beit-al-Ajaib). The House of Wonders was a ceremonial palace for the Sultan of Zanzibar and earned its name for being the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity. In recent years it has operated as a museum showcasing Zanzibar and Swahili culture and history. Unfortunately, the museum has since been closed and we were unable to enter and experience its wonders first hand.
Adjacent to the House of Wonders and also facing the Forodhani Gardens, is the Old Fort. The Old Fort was built during the Omani rule to protect against attacks from the Portuguese. It later served as a prison and barracks. Nowadays, the Old Fort is a cultural centre and home to local stalls and souvenir shops. Within the Old Fort, you can also find an amphitheatre which is famous for hosting the Zanzibar International Film Festival.
East African Slave Trade Exhibit
Walking deeper into the city, we had to pay our respects at the East African Slave Trade Exhibit. Upon entering, you are faced with the solemn reality of the slave monument – a sculpture of five slave figures chained to one another in a pit. The exhibit was erected in the location of the old slave market and recreates the conditions of the slave chambers in which an unconscionable number of slaves were kept, and died. The exhibit itself provides a history of the numerous conquests of Zanzibar and the slave trade. However, in honour of the abolishment of slavery, an Anglican cathedral, Christ Church, was built on site of the largest slave market in Zanzibar.
Our tour of Stone Town ended at the local market. The market is a great way to see Zanzibar’s fresh produce, which has been proudly cultivated and harvested from its self-sustaining lands and oceans. There are separate sections for meat, seafood and vegetables, and of course other locally produced products such as cosmetics, perfumes and curios.