Zanzibar is still the best-kept secret in the Indian Ocean, with fascinating history and magnificent beaches. An archipelago made up of Unguja and Pemba Islands and several islets, Zanzibar is located some 40 kilometers from the Tanzanian coast. The archipelago is characterized by beautiful, sandy beaches with fringing coral reefs, and the magical Stone Town – said to be the only functioning ancient town in East Africa.
On our first trip to Stone Town, we wandered the narrow streets of the old town and lost all sense of where we were. We meticulously picked out landmarks to return to, only to find that appearances shifted in the changing light that filtered through the warren of houses, compounds and alleyways, and the distinctive features of landmarks became blurred.
Certainly the best way to explore Stone Town is to walk, and preferably, to get lost. While the city may not have a particularly romantic name, Stone Town is the old cultural heart of Zanzibar, little changed in the last 200 years. Built when Zanzibar was one of the most important trading centres in the Indian Ocean, it is a place of bustling bazaars, mosques and grand Arab houses whose original owners vied with each other over the extravagance of their dwellings.
It’s narrow, twisting streets and criss-crossed by serpentine alleyways that unexpectedly open out onto semi-ruined squares alive with food vendors, hawkers and, at night, crowds of people enjoying coffee on the stone barazas.
These thick benches of solid stone are built into the walls around courtyards or flank the heavy doors of the townhouses. Zanzibari people loll about on the warm, smooth cement benches, gossiping, playing games of bao or cards, or simply idling away a long afternoon with a nap. In the rainy season, when torrents of water, sometimes laced with rubbish, male walking down the streets of Stone Town uncomfortable and even hazardous, the barazas outside the house provide a useful elevated pavement, and pedestrians jump from one to the next in an attempt to keep their feet dry.
The town features once-grand palaces and public buildings dating back to the sultanate period of the early 19th Century, now – sadly-rather run-down and ill-repaired. However, several buildings have been renovated and the Stone Town Conservation Authority has been established to coordinate the restoration of the town to its original magnificence. The former Nasur NurMohammed Dispensary and The House of Wonders are superb examples of how imposing this type of architecture can look after a little tender loving care.
The infrastructure for visitors to Stone Town has improved considerably in recent years. There’s now a wide range of accommodation, from basic backpackers to luxurious hotels in restored atmospheric mansions, decorated with exquisite Zanzibar antiques.
There’s also a good selection of restaurants serving the best of Swahili food, some local and international bars, and even the odd Internet café. Fortunately, none of these changes have intruded on the atmosphere of Stone Town, and a lot of thought has been put into how to modernize the town without is showing.
Today, Stone Town remains a wonderfully authentic crumbling ruin of a place with a sweaty, broody atmosphere. Visitors expecting some sort of historic theme park will be disappointed thought, as Stone Town remains somewhere to explore rather than tour.
Five fast facts about Stone Town
The Town has 50 mosques and four Hindu temples.
The House of Wonders is one of the first buildings in East Africa to have electricity and is Stone Town’s oldest existing building.
Musician Freddie Mercury was born there Farrokh Bulsara on 5th September 1946.
The Town is the starting point for a Spice Tour to the surrounding countryside – an opportunity to see a side of Zanzibar other than old houses and beaches.
For many years the Town was a major centre for the slave trade. Slaves were obtained from mainland Africa and traded with the Middle East. The Anglican Cathedral is built on the site of a former slave market. Some of the holding cells still exist.
Source: ‘The Art of Ink’ magazine, Volume 6 2009