Michael Stothard wanders the cobbled streets of Zanzibar’s Stone Town
SLAVERY and sultans shadow the East African islands of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania, north of Dar es Salaam. Slavery is the key historical issue, but with domes and minarets piercing the skyline, it is the stone legacy of the sultans that entices visitors. Stone Town, the old part of Zanzibar City, on the western coast of the main island, is the place to discover it all.
Merchant ships from Persia, Arabia and India have traded with Zanzibar for 2000 years, leaving a potent blend of Eastern and African culture. The islands were long owned by the sultans of Oman, who took over from the Portuguese in 1698. By 1840, Zanzibar was so important for Omani trade with East Africa that its capital, Stone Town, became the sultans’ headquarters.
Like many places in Africa, Zanzibar has reinvented itself as a tourist destination. Since 1964, when the last sultan was overthrown, Zanzibar has been a separate state within mainland Tanzania. It is made up of two large islands: Unguja (Zanzibar Island) and Pemba, plus several islets. Its capital and only large settlement is Zanzibar City, which embraces New City and Stone Town. I spend time in the pungent, narrow streets of Stone Town, the economic and cultural hub of old Zanzibar and now a World Heritage site.
Outside Stone Town are clove and coconut plantations, long, perfect beaches and coral reefs, rare, long-tailed red colobus monkeys and, on the small island of Nungwi, giant sea turtles, all in a humid tropical climate. But in Stone Town I walk beside carved Arab doorways and slave cells, feel the cobbled streets beneath my feet, look up at cool verandas and experience the potent sense of 2000 years of connections between Africa and the East.
Best monument to the slave trade: After the abolition of the Zanzibar trade in 1873, the Anglicans built a cathedral on Stone Town’s Creek Road, where the old slave market used to be. The place where the altar now stands was once the whipping post where slaves were tested for toughness: if they wept, their price went down. The marble around the altar is blood red. Beneath the market are their cramped cells.
Best door: The ornate, studded doors of Stone Town have a clear Persian influence but a distinct style. The maze of alleyways is dotted with these immense, elaborately carved doors. It was a custom in Zanzibar for a builder first to order his doorframe and then build the house around it. In 1857, adventurer Richard Burton commented: ‘‘ The higher the tenement, the bigger the gateway, the heavier the padlock and the huger the iron studs that nail the door of heavy timber, the greater the owner’s dignity.’’ The most interesting door, behind the House of Peace Memorial Museum, dates back more than 300 years, which makes it reputedly the oldest in Zanzibar.
Best social quirk: Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim because of the influence of the Omani sultans. The women are supposed to cover themselves modestly but the gaiety of Zanzibaris is evident in the fun the women have with their cotton wraps, worn over their heads and as skirts. The girls wear a brightly patterned scarf, called a kanga. A Zanzibari girl might wear a kanga with a message on it directed at someone in her social group; one I spot says, ‘‘ Don’t compete with me, you can never beat me.’’ Another girl, realising the message is directed at her, might go home and change into a kanga that says, ‘‘ A confident person requires no reason to practise envy.’’
Best-named attraction: Built in 1883, the House of Wonders was originally a royal palace. There is a 3.3m door gilded with texts from the Koran, and 12 other magnificently carved doors, reminders of the vast and showy wealth of the sultans. In one room I see traditional, ornate ebony furniture and, on the other side, European couches in flowery, 1960s kitsch, the influence of the other wives, perhaps.
The climax of Sultan Barghash’s flamboyant building spree, it has tiers of balconies, a clock tower, and a grand position on the waterfront behind the Forodhani Gardens between the Palace Museum and the Omani Fort. It houses the dreary-sounding but quirky Zanzibar National Museum of History and Culture.
Best resort: The white sand, azure sea and small pine forest on Mnemba Island, just off the northeast coast of Zanzibar, lead me to suspect Ursula Andress will pop out of the ocean at any minute. The entire island is a resort, and with only 10 evenly spaced villas, it feels as if I own a secret paradise. Apart from the waiter who brings me a drink to accompany the breathtaking sunset, the only disturbance is from the little Suni antelopes that occasionally scamper around my villa. www.mnemba.com.
Best guided tour: If you have ever wondered how nutmeg, ginger, tamarind, guava, carambola, menthol or cloves are grown, a spice tour is for you; such guided tours provide local knowledge you might otherwise miss. Highlights are the lipstick tree, with pods that produce a vibrant red dye, and soapberry trees, with berries that lather like soap when you rub them. Tours from 9am to 2pm include a lunch featuring spices encountered on the tour. Eco & Culture Tours, with an office on Hurumzi Street, offers a genuine medicine man as a guide. More: www.ecoculture-zanzibar.org.
Best drink: Taken in the shade while escaping the tropical midday sun, dawa is mostly vodka and ice but tastes of lime and honey. Dawa means medicine or magic potion in Swahili, for reasons which can rapidly become clear. The top floor of ETC Plaza, at the corner of appropriately named Suicide Alley and Shangani Street, is a good place to try dawa and the bar comes with ocean views; like Zanzibar, this drink is never bland.
Best hangover cure: Everywhere I go, people stand barefoot beside the orange dirt roads, selling sugarcane. I use a knife to slice the raw cane and lick the inside. Taken with a glass of water, it refreshes for the rest of the day. I also recommend corn sold on the streets: it tastes dry and like toffee.
Best mode of transport: A dalla-dalla, or a Zanzibari bus, is a beaten-up Toyota pickup truck with a wooden roof and wroughtiron sides; these should carry 20 passengers but often 40 pile in, the extras hanging precariously off the sides. A dalla is five Tanzanian shillings, which is what the journey originally cost. They are still very cheap, about 300 shillings (26c) a mile. The No. 2 dalla-dalla travels 20km north of Zanzibar town to the Mangapwani slave cave where, after the trade was abolished, slaves who were about to be sold were kept hidden in hollowed-out coral cellars.
Best street food: East Africa’s best street market is held every night by the waterfront at Forodhani Gardens in Stone Town. In the twilight, grilled fish and meat on skewers and octopus look and smell enticing. The crowds can be a little pushy, but it is a great place to wander even if you don’t buy. I have already eaten, but it is still hard to resist the food, fresh and sizzling in the dark.
Best shopping: Fine Zanzibari wooden chests are not quite as good as a door but are still hammered and studded, and have secret compartments. Some of the finest examples are in the Abeid Curio Shop opposite the cathedral. But how to get one back home? Spears and knives pose a similar problem. For those with less ambitious tastes, watercolours of the Stone Town doors are intense and enchanting. I buy one for about $15 in an art studio in the Omani Fort. The abstract carvings of the Makonde tribe are also eerie and powerful, with columns of interwoven human figures.
Bustling Mchangani Street in Stone Town consists of stalls crammed with kangas of every colour and grade of magnificence. Cathedral Street has some of the opulent furniture hastily left by rich Arabs after the 1964 revolution. I also visit Zanzibar Curio Shop in Changa Bazaar for a taste of pre-1964 wealth. And I return to the night market in the Forodhani Gardens for cheap Masai jewellery and carvings.
Best story: Princess Salme, daughter of the sultan of Oman, was born here in 1844 and shocked her family by converting to Christianity after falling pregnant and eloping with a young German merchant. When she died in 1924 she still had the dress she eloped in and a bag of sand from a Zanzibar beach. Her book Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar (by Emily Ruete, born Sayyida Salme) makes good pre-visit reading.
Best sundowners: Africa House Hotel on the coast in Stone Town was the English club from 1888 onwards and still has a colonial expat feel to it. It is a perfect place to end a walk around Stone Town: you can watch the sun sink into the Indian Ocean, with a dawa in hand.
Best end to the evening: Tower Top Restaurant at Emerson & Green Hotel, 236 Hurumzi St, Stone Town, a five-minute walk from Africa House, is world class. Atop a hotel, in a tower straight out of Arabian Nights , the restaurant seats about 20, most lounging on Arabian-style cushions and eating off low tables. The fixed-price menu includes dishes such as battered pepper shark and curried fishcakes with chutney and yoghurt. Enjoying a five-course meal, I look over Stone Town with all its faiths and facets, at an Anglican church, a minaret and a Muslim temple. There is a warm breeze from the Indian Ocean. Children scramble to collect kangas put out to dry on hot tin roofs. A violinist in a white robe plays eerily beautiful music, as if trying to raise a magic carpet, while his robe moves in the breeze. www.emerson-green.com.
Best last word: Locals greet tourists with jambo and enthusiastic tourists say jambo back, thinking they are saying hello in Swahili. But locals instead say mambo vipi, Swahili slang for ‘‘ stay cool’’. Use it to say hello and goodbye and impress the locals.
Trading post: One of Stone Town’s spiked doors, top left; cycling through town, above left; dhows at anchor, main picture