From the moment one steps onto the Island of Zanzibar, and in particular the hub of Stone Town, there is an immediate sense of a wealth of history and culture.
Zanzibar is situated in the Indian Ocean, approximately 37km off the coast of mainland Tanzania. One of the islands prime industries is the export of spices, but for me, it is the extensive past - and the signs thereof – that are most intoxicating.
Short of writing a trilogy of novels about the history of Zanzibar I’ve attempted a very simplistic summery.
The Island was originally used as a base for Persian and Arab traders on their voyages between Africa, the Middle East and India. In the late 1400’s the Portuguese sailed in and demanded tribute of Zanzibar in return for peace. It remained a possession of Portugal for two centuries before falling under the control of the Sultanate of Oman. The Sultans developed an economy of trade, which mainly included spices, ivory and infamously the slave trade. In 1890 Zanzibar became a protectorate of Britain but remained under the sovereignty of the Sultan. In late 1963 the British ended the protectorate and provided for self-government in Zanzibar as an independent country within the Commonwealth. Zanzibar became a constitutional monarchy under the Sultan. Only one month later, during the Zanzibar Revolution, Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah was deposed and the People’s Republic replaced the Sultanate. The republic merged with mainland Tanganyika and soon thereafter this United Republic was renamed as the United Republic of Tanzania, within which Zanzibar remains a semi-autonomous region to this day.
The streets and back alleys of Stone Town are as complex and intertwined as the history of the Island itself. Any visitor to this labyrinth is bound to get lost but once one has accepted this, Stone Town comes alive. Beautifully hand crafted doors, back alleys, coral stone buildings with limestone walls – often covered in graffiti and posters – tell both the stories of centuries past as well as that of the present day. One is never sure what may lie round the next corner – a Mosque, a Museum or a market. The Old Dhow Harbour, Forts, Persian Baths or the House of Wonders, they are all there.
Travelling north of Stone Town the bustle subsides. Dotted along the west coast of the island are the ruins of numerous old Sultan Palaces in and amongst the spice plantations and fishing villages while the north and eastern parts of the island, with their expansive white beaches and turquoise waters, have become the playgrounds for many travellers.
Infused by African, Arab, European and Indian influences, Zanzibar is an island of contrast bursting with culture and history. A truly tantalizing treat for the senses.