Zanzibar, Tapestry of Cultures (2014)

Zanzibar, Tapestry of Cultures (2014)

Zanzibar sounds more exotic than it actually is, especially for those of us hailing from the Indian subcontinent with its rich tapestry of cultures and ethnicity.  This island off the coast of east Africa has been a melting pot of many cultures for centuries – Persian, Portuguese, Omani, British, German, African and Indian. Naturally, it has ingested and integrated the essence of each and yet has managed to distil an identity uniquely its own, yet familiar.  Today, Zanzibar is a vital link in the cultural continuum of the Indian Ocean littoral.

Babel of Tongues

As we tumble out of a tightly-packed MV Kilimanjaro sailing from Dar es Salaam and head towards the immigration and customs area, there is all-round chaos. Zanzibar, although now an autonomous province of Tanzania, zealously guards its right to border control.  Your passport is scrutinized but not stamped, your luggage is screened before you are allowed in, all amidst much shoving and pushing;  a babel of tongues assail your ears while your eyes feast on the varied costumes and complexion of the residents. There are turbaned men in white tunics.  Stylish women sport indigo-hued bandanas and colourful jalabyas.  But there are also denims, short skirts and patent leather boots alongside African men in fez. You realise Zanzibaris defy slotting.

I head to Stone Town, the heart of Zanzibar and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Stone Town is a maze of alleys winding through white-washed colonial grandeur. Despite the patina and the visible decay, Stone Town architecture is reminiscent of a once-prosperous, if unsavoury past.  After all, Zanzibar was the centre of East Africa’s flourishing slave trade and even today, it is remembered for this, more than anything else.

Shady Past

The slave market where the hapless victims used to be kept is now a museum, a grisly reminder of the depths plumbed by mankind.  There is hardly anyone visiting this site today.  As I enter the premises, I have to duck since the roof is very low. How agonising it must have been for the slaves who would have spent days if not months, in a crouched position in this dank cell.  There is an iron ring fixed to the platform, still intact, to which the slaves used to be chained.

There is a drain like canal running through the length of the cell which must have served as a common public toilet for those incarcerated here.  Above the cell was the open market place where the slaves used to be auctioned, chained to a pole. Outside, a recently constructed monument featuring slave trade is a constant reminder of the murky past.


Zanzibar, a tiny island 20 kilometers off Africa’s coast has, throughout its history, assumed a role out of all proportion to its small size of 2650 square kilometers.  Of the many outsiders who influenced Zanzibari culture, the Persians were perhaps the earliest. They came as traders, mostly from Shiraz.  Much of the architecture bears the distinct imprint of Persia. Islam came to Zanzibar in the 11th century. The Portuguese colonised almost the entire eastern shoreline of Africa right upto Mozambique in the 16th century. Zanzibar provided a convenient springboard for trade with the Middle East, India and beyond and soon the Portuguese were firmly entrenched on the island trading in slaves. The Portuguese also established an Augustinian monastery to preach gospel to the ‘heathens’. Portuguese suzerainty extended over the entire coastal belt from Mombasa to Mozambique.

But soon the Arabs from Oman and Yemen descended on this coast. Sensing its vantage location and profitable prospects, the Arabs kept up a relentless thrust and soon evicted the Portuguese forcing them to retreat to Mozambique in the south where they ruled until a few decades ago.  Thus, from the 17th century onwards, Zanzibar, inhabited by native Swahili-speaking peoples came under increasing Arab influence. As slave trade declined, ivory trade picked up.  Zanzibar which must have been overrun by wild elephants once upon a time has none today.

Zanzibar became so valuable to the Omani Sultanate that the Sultan decided to relocate his capital from the Arab peninsula to the African island.  Said ibn Sultan moved to Zanzibar in 1837 and began building a series of palaces and gardens.  He introduced sugar, cloves and indigo to the local economy which began to flourish under his rule.  After his death in 1856, his two sons quarrelled over this wealthy property which was eventually wrested by one of them called Majid. But lacking the vision and charisma of his father, Majid’s rule was ineffectual.  Zanzibar became a fertile hunting ground for the British who, by now, had begun to make forays into the African continent and were entrenched in the trail from the coast to Lake Tanganyika.  The one salutary outcome of British encroachment into Zanzibar’s Arab sultanate was a treaty to end slave trade, The Treaty of Barghash.

Livingstone, I presume

David Livingstone, an evangelist and explorer who led several expeditions in Africa and was a fierce opponent of slave, also visited Zanzibar from where he began his Nile expedition.  The Germans too coveted this tropical island. In 1886, Otto von Bismarck flexed his muscles, lining up his gunboats on the shores of Stone Town and forcing the British to share control of the island with the Germans.  A few years later, Zanzibar became a British Protectorate and remained in British control until 1963.   In 1964, a communist revolution ended both British rule and the Sultan’s sway over the land. Arabs and Indians were persecuted until they fled to more hospitable lands.  Abeid Amane Karume, the newly-chosen President signed a treaty with neighbouring Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania under the Presidency of Julius Nyrere, but still retaining considerable autonomy for Zanzibar within this arrangement.

Stone Town takes its name from the coral stone buildings constructed in the 19th century. Sepia tinted patina lends elegance and is appealing to the eye, but the locals complain that these crumbling edifices make for poor living conditions.

The House of Wonders (Beit el Aijaib), built by Barghash bin Said, the second Arabic ruler of Zanzibar was christened so because it was the first building in all of Zanzibar to have electricity as well as an elevator.  Exquisite pieces of furniture, trellised windows and carved doors and many other objets dárt make this a delightful visit.  Spread out in front of the palace is the Forodhani gardens which come alive on weekend nights. I am reminded of a similar but larger square in Marrakech, the Jema el Fnaa with its sizzling kebab sellers and mouthwatering street food.  The place has a festive air with locals as well as visitors thronging to sample the unique cuisine of this island.

The Palace Museum, another elegant waterfront structure is suitably grand and houses some of the last Sultan’s possessions. Also on display are possessions of Princess Sayyida Salme who created quite a sensation when she eloped with a German businessman Wilhelm Ruete.

Rich pickings

Stone Town’s fort was built by the Omani Arabs after the expulsion of the Portuguese from the island.  Used as a garrison and a prison in the 19th century, the became the terminal of the Zanzibar Railways (also known as the Bububu Railway)  in the 1920s, although I see no sign of any railway on the island. In fact, Zanzibar is a quintessential seafaring island and the beaches as well as the waters are peppered with naval craft of all hues and sizes.  You get glimpses of the shimmering blue ocean every now and then, as you turn a corner or come down one of the snaking narrow lanes where time seems to stand still. There are western tourists galore, in straw hats pedalling away on cycles while others surf, snorkel or scuba dive in the clear blue coral waters. The locals linger on the streets, playing Bao games, (similar to Pallanguzhi in Tamil Nadu)  chess or poker.  The merchandise is profuse, varied and colourful. The masks on sale are as intimidating as they are interesting. The lanterns are from another era. Indigo-dyed scarves and colourful patchwork bags are waiting to prise open your wallet.

As I saunter through the streets if Stone Town, I am struck by the variety of exquisitely carved wooden doors gracing every household and shop front. I am also intrigued by the resemblance to Indian designs on these doors.  Some inquiry reveals that there are some descendants of Indian origin living in Zanzibar although almost all of them have intermarried with other cultures and are virtually indistinguishable now. Most were traders who came from the seafaring town of Mandvi in Gujarat and they brought the Kutch woodcarving tradition to this island.  I follow the lanes and end up in an Arya Samaj Temple built by a few Gujarati trading families who migrated to this island recently.

Of doors and knobs

There are also quintessential Arabic doors, often arched at the top and embellished with Koranic engravings.  It is noteworthy that these ornamental doors guard humble dwellings and trading establishments as much as they adorn palaces and mahals.  In fact, in times past, an intricately carved door even acted as a calling card for businessmen who vied with each other to patronise this craft.

Stone Town has many fancy hotels located in converted mansions offering a level of luxury disproportionate to the economy of this small island. Many of them seem to be run by outsiders and patronised by affluent tourists.  On the menu are fusion dishes to please all palates.  There is a distinctly touristy flavour to Stone Town with many westerners opting for this destination to savour some exotic oriental culture as well as take advantage of the excellent scuba diving facilities available here.

Spice Island

But if you want to sample authentic local flavours, head to the Darijani market redolent of spices.  The profusion is unbelievable. Zanzibar being  a tropical island is often referred to as ‘Spice Islands’.   Carts piled high with cloves, cinnamon, aniseed and nutmeg assail your noses long before you enter the market.   Dates are also grown in the island and there are mounds of them everywhere. The Arab connection brings other dry fruits and electronic goods. Lush tropical fruits and vegetables are heaped high even as the fish market is the locus of frenetic activity. In an adjoining lane, I enter a shop to pick up cotton fabric with typical African prints and am told all of it comes from Mumbai.

Tortoise Island

After a couple of days in Stone Town, I hire a boat and head to Prison Island (also called Changuu) , home to Aldabra giant tortoises.  There is a lovely and quaint thatch and bamboo bridge leading to the shore. At low tide, the shore is strewn with starfish, sea urchins and other creatures. In the interior, there are dozens of tortoises ambling slowly. These animals, I learn, were brought from Seychelles by the British Governor and are bred in breeding stations.  A gaol originally constructed to incarcerate criminals and convicts was, however, never used for the purpose. Instead, Changuu served as a quarantine point for immigrants from the mainland who might be carrying the dreaded yellow fever vector so notorious in Tanganyika.

The Old Dispensary which used to be a hospital now hosts periodic sale of local crafts and is distinctly Indian in architecture.  I decide to explore its history.  It was commissioned in 1887 by an Ismaili Indian from Gujarat, Tharia Topan to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.  But since he died before its completion, its ownership passed into the hands of another Indian, Haji Nasser Nurmohammed.  Mohammed completed the edifice.  The ground floor served as a dispensary while the top floors were designed as apartments where Indian families lived. However, in 1964, during the Zanzibari Revolution,  the Indians fled to neighbouring countries as well as to the UK and the USA and the property fell into disuse.  It has since been restored by the Aga Khan Trust which maintains the building now.

(Published in Frontline dated July 24, 2015)



3 thoughts on “Zanzibar, Tapestry of Cultures (2014)”

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