Stone Town - The Heart of Zanzibar City
Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the old centre of Zanzibar City. With its collection of meandering streets, looking just like something out of an Arabian Nights book, Stone Town is a place not to be missed in Zanzibar. At first the feeling is kind of spooky. People seem to disappear into thin air as they turn around the next corner, whilst vendors lounging on stone benches invite you to have a look at wood carvings and colourful paintings inside the small, poorly lit shops. But you soon get accustomed to the buildings made out of coral and mud, groups of men gathering in small open spaces playing and watching TV, the beautifully adorned doors, the Imam reciting prayers from nearby mosques, and the authentic colonial buildings.
An interesting tradition is that of women wearing a kanga, which is a piece of cloth worn commonly by Zanzibari women. Printed on them are messages that portray the person’s mood, what they are feeling and what messages they wish to convey to others.
Definitely, one of the main highlights of Stone Town are the intricately decorated doors, which were used to display the number of families living in the house, and the type of trade which was practiced. These types of doors also indicate the cultural connection. Salima showed us the difference between Indian doors, Arabic doors, Swahili doors and Hybrid doors. There are also Women doors, which are narrow enough for women to look from behind them, so that they do not have to show themselves without their going-out attire.
Although probably a ‘tip trap’, a sweet stop was at a local school, just round the corner from the Slave Market. We were invited in by the school headmaster and were ushered into a classroom full of children, who sang a song for us.
The last stop was at the birth house of Freddie Mercury, in a street that is totally atypical from the winding streets in Stone Town.
Moving from one part of the market to another, the smell of spices gives way to a fishy smell in the fish market, then the adjacent meat market, and eventually the colourful vegetable market. As we moved outside the sweet smell of dates mingles with exhaust and drainage, and the products on sale changed to used clothes and shoes.
We got our fair immersion into Stone Town’s history during a walking tour, where our guide, Salima, shared the stories of the pride and joy of Zanzibar. The history of an island which was once part of the Oman Kingdom, enriched with stories of spices and slaves.
Slave trade was practiced in Zanzibar till 1909, and slaves used to be brought from East Africa. They would have walked thousands of miles before reaching Zanzibar and were sold in the Stone Town slave market. Since slaves were treated as a commodity, slave owners made sure that the few who survived the grueling journey, would at least look good and healthy when they were on sale! Some slaves were lucky enough to be given a piece of land by their owner after a number of years of service. Surprisingly enough, the first thing that freed slaves used to buy, was slaves of their own!
Spices were and still are a major produce of Zanzibar, as we experienced first-hand during our spice farm tour. Salima explained, that today ‘only’ 10% of the world's cloves come from Zanzibar, due to competition from other countries. There was a time when cloves were worth more than their weight in gold, so one can only imagine the wealth that overflowed the island. No visit to Stone Town is complete without a visit to the spice market which is a spice lover paradise. Stalls after stalls of all the spices one can imagine, spice vendors with their toothless smile inviting us to buy just another packet of spice, with the smell of vanilla, cinnamon and cloves filling the air.
Stone Town is definitely a feast on the senses, as sights, smells and sounds fill the air with a mystical feel. Derelict buildings standing just next door to luxurious colonial well-kept edifices, wooden balconies, colonial four poster beds, oriental furniture, Indian shop owners, Mosques mingled with a Catholic church, make Stone Town an eclectic mix of modern and old. A melting pot of cultures and people, that may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but just like the beaches of Zanzibar, Stone Town is definitely worth a once in a lifetime visit.