STONE TOWN INTRODUCTION
The largest town in the archipelago is the capital, Stone Town, located in the middle of the west coast of Unguja, the main island. The town was named for the coral stone buildings that were built there largely during the 19th century, on the site of a very old fishing village. There are over 16,000 people in the town today, and over 1,700 recorded buildings.
Tall houses line narrow alleyways set in a confusing maze radiating out from the centre towards the sea.The streets are too narrow for cars but not, unfortunately, for bicycles and even motorbikes, so be careful! Life is lived very much as it was in the past and the many mosques’ muezzin calls can be heard echoing above the narrow streets five times daily. The architecture is Arabic, which means the walls are very thick, the houses tall and with square and simple facades. Many of the buildings have a central courtyard going up through all the floors, giving ventilation.
Decoration has been added, usually by Indian craftsmen, in the form of wooden balconies and carved doors and stairways. Some of the doors have brass studs which originate in India, where they were used to protect buildings against elephants. The oldest, simplest and most traditional doors have horizontal lintels, as seen in Oman and Arabia generally; later doors have rounded tops and this style shows Indian design influence – many of the builders and craftsmen used in building Zanzibar were from the sub-continent.
There are varying motifs in the carving: dates, fish, chains, flowers, lotus and many more.
There are 51 mosques, whose muezzin cries vie with each other at prayer time, as well as 6 Hindu Temples and a Catholic as well as an Anglican Cathedral in this multi-ethnic town. There are many burial places around the outskirts, with interesting headstones and graves, and some important graves in the town itself, usually of religious leaders of the past.
On the waterfront, near the Old Dispensary, is an old Fig tree known locally as the Big Tree. It is quite visible from the harbour and is seen in many old photographs. The shaded area underneath it is currently used as a workshop for men building boats. It's a good place to find boat pilots to hire a lift to Prison Island or Bawe Island. Just opposite is a good beachfront restaurant, known as “Mercury’s”.
The second train in East Africa was completed in Zanzibar in 1905 and operated under the name of the Bububu line. It traveled from Bububu village to Stone Town, only 8 km away. It was used mostly for transporting people.
Kiswahili is a language that developed along the East African Coast and incorporates words from all the nations around the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf. It was originally written in Arabic script to spell the words phonetically, until Edward Steere, the Bishop who oversaw the building of the Anglican Cathedral on the site of the old slave market, wrote an English-Swahili dictionary in the Roman alphabet.
THE MAIN BUILDINGS IN STONE TOWN:
Aga Khan Mosque
Anglican Cathedral of Christ
Beit el Ajaib (House of Wonders)
Hamamni Persian Baths
Peace Memorial Museum
St Joseph's Catholic Cathedral
The Old Fort
THE AGA KHAN MOSQUE
Situated in the centre of Stone Town, near the Kiponda area and the Spice Inn is another place of worship that was built for a larger congregation than it now services. Thisis the Aga Khan Mosque. It is a large and beautifully detailed building with an airy courtyard in the front. The façade shows European influence in its gothic windows.
THE ANGLICAN CATHEDRAL CHURCH OF CHRIST
The Anglican Cathedral's altar stands on the location of the whipping post from the island's largest slave market. There is a cross made from the tree beneath which Livingstone's heart was buried, at Chitambo where he died. The Cathedral was built in 1873 by Edward Steere, Third Bishop of Zanzibar, reigned 1874 to 1882. When he died of a heart attack in the building next door, he was buried behind the altar. The Cathedral took exactly 10 years to build and its strange barrel vault roof was Steere’s own peculiar invention and though the population of Zanzibar were convinced that it would never hold, it still stands today.Next to the Cathedral was the Mission House, built in 1873 but demolished later and a hospital was built in its place. This later became a hostel and orphanage and the cellars below can be visited. They may have been slave chambers. Visitors pay a fee to enter the museum and this usually includes a guide for the museum and the Church. The Church has tablets with the history written in English, in the event that a guide is unavailable.
THE BEIT EL AJAIB - THE HOUSE OF WONDERS
Sultan Barghash built the Beit el Ajaib (or "House of Wonders" in Arabic - so called because it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electric lighting and a lift, and because it was very tall and filled with beautiful artefacts).
It was built in 1883 as a ceremonial palace, on the site of a former building used by Queen Fatuma of the Al Alawi rulers who preceded the Albusaidis. The door from this former palace is the oldest in Zanzibar and dates from 1694. It is now in the Peace Memorial Museum.
In 1896 the building was slightly damaged during the "Shortest War in History", the British Bombardment of Zanzibar. After the turn of the century the British used the building for their local offices until the revolution of 1964. In 1977 the CCM (Chapa Cha Mapinduzi, Swahili for 'the Party of the Revolution') made the House of Wonders their headquarters. The building has been restored and is now a Museum.
Zanzibar 's 'mall' is across Creek Road near the main market on Darajani Road. Also known as Darajani Bazaar, this shopping strip is a fun walk and a must to avoid the 'in-town' prices across the street. However, the things available in the Darajani bazaar are mostly Chinese and Iranian imports such as sheets, synthetic fabrics, metal pans, plastic shoes, radios and other products of the modern world. For people planning a long stay in Zanzibar, Darajani is a great place to stock up on items like portable mosquito nets, thermoses and flip-flops. It's also a good place to pick up fabric to take to a local tailor to have some clothes made. Keep in mind that the only natural fabrics you will find are cottons in the form of West African prints, locally-worn kangas (printed in India) and imported plain cotton in different colors. Silks can be found in town but it's a time-consuming search. For people looking for kangas, there are usually kanga sellers behind the dala-dalas on the left toward Darajani Road. They don't have stalls; they lay the kangas on plastic sheeting on the ground.
In the evening, many little stalls lit with twinkling oil lights set up business at Forodhani Gardens in front of the Old Fort and sell finger foods such as small kebabs, fried chicken and cassava, octopus and samoosas. It is a pleasant time to stroll there and watch the sunset, sampling the spicy foods.
THE HAMAMNI PERSIAN BATHS
The Hamamni Persian Baths, in the middle of Stone Town, were built in the 1880s by Hadj Gulamhussein. They were commissioned by Sultan Barghash bin Said, son of the first and greatest Sultan Said, and were built for public use. Hamamni translates into "place of the baths" and is now the name of the neighborhood in which they lie. (The tubs are still there, but the water is gone). They were for public use and a fee was charged. They have been beautifully restored and are well worth a visit. There's a nominal fee for entering and it's payable in US or local currency.
The front rooms were used for changing, barbering, paying dues and socializing. The long hall leads to the warm room that was heated by underground hot-water aqueducts. Remaining rooms include hot baths, cold baths, toilets and private shaving areas. The original building was larger and featured an arcade and restaurant but that part has since been turned into private residences. Although they were public, the baths were frequented by the wealthy classes only; the poorer classes could not afford such a luxury.
The entrance fee to the Hamamni Baths was about ten cents and was therefore only for the upper classes. Although the baths were open to both men and women, they had separate hours of admittance, open to women in the mornings and men in the afternoons. It was (and still is) customary for married Muslim men and women to rid themselves of all body hair, so shaving vestibules were provided within the bathhouse .
THE HIGH COURT
Zanzibar 's High Court of Justice building is a combination of Arabic design and Portuguese influence and was designed by J. H .Sinclair, an architect and former British resident. It is on Kaunda Road near Victoria Gardens and the President's House.
THE ITHNASHIRI DISPENSARY
The most important buildings are to be found on the west side of the town, facing the clove harbour. In the port is the old clove distillery and just along the road from this is the recently restored Old Dispensary, also known as the Aga Khan Cultural Centre. The first stone of the Old Dispensary was laid in 1887 and the building was finished in 1894. It was built by a wealthy Ismaili Indian merchant, Tharia Topan, one of Zanzibar's richest men, as a charitable hospital for the poor and in order to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. It is probably the most decorative of the old buildings, having ornate carved balconies, stucco work and stained glass windows.
It is worth a visit for the small museum on the upper level that describes and depicts the restoration process. Old photos of the waterfront are also on display and there are some shops on the ground floor.
This was once the site of a slave market. The square was presumably named during the time of the slave trade and it must have been a source of considerable noise as its name suggests: 'kilele' is the Swahili word for noise. Around the square are many important buildings: the old American Consulate, the Extelcoms building (now the Zanzibar Serena Inn) and the Mambo Msiige building - the second British Consulate, now a Ministry building.
One of Stone Town's oldest mosques, the Malindi Mosque was built by the Sunni sect in a typically simple style. This mosque is unusual because its minaret is conical, one of only three in East Africa. Another unusual trait is that the minaret sits on a square platform instead of starting from the ground as most minarets do. To see the minaret you'll need to stand on a baraza (stone or cement benches on the outside of Swahili style buildings) of a neighboring building that is down an alley and across the road from the mosque itself. You may need a guide to find the best view of the minaret and the door. Across from the mosque entrance is an old mausoleum, one of the few left in Stone Town.
In the centre of Creek Road are the Fruit, Fish and Meat Markets, also worth a visit. You can see the amazing variety of exotic fruits and vegetables available in the islands. The market buildings were erected during the British Protectorate, in the early part of this century.
THE PALACE MUSEUM
This lies on the harbour road, looking out to sea. It is the most recent of the Sultans’ Palaces, occupied by the last members of the Al Busid dynasty until they fled Zanzibar in 1964. This Palace was partly built on the site of the Beit el Sahel, which was erected by the first Sultan, Seyyid Said around 1832 but destroyed in the British Bombardment of 1896. The Palace Museum is very interesting, having many artefacts, papers and pictures pertaining to the Sultans. The Palace also has other rooms on display showing a mix of various types of furniture acquired by the sultans over the years. The rooms are in various states of disrepair but provide a good idea about the quality of life for the sultan's family toward the end of their reign. There is a room devoted to Princess Salme, a daughter of Seyyid Said who eloped with a German merchant in 1866. It contains family photographs and excerpts from her book entitled, "Memoirs of an Arabian Princess," as well as a sample of her typical wardrobe.
Salme's book is an account of her life in the royal court of Zanzibar in the 1800's. It is considered to be a very important work because it is the only one of its kind. Women in the royal court of Oman and Zanzibar were not taught to read or write (outside of basic Koran lessons) and therefore there are no written legacies that describe what life was like for them, except for Salme's. The book is available at some shops in town and it is highly recommended reading for those visiting Zanzibar.
THE PEACE MEMORIAL MUSEUM & THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
These are at the western end of Creek Road near the intersection of Kuanda Road and designed by the same architect who designed the High Court, J. H. Sinclair, the National Museum is home to many of Zanzibar's memorabilia including, most notably, Livingstone's medical chest from the Zambezi expeditions. Also on display are a rickshaw, some Chinese porcelain and the ancient drums and horns of the Alawi kings of Zanzibar, who preceded the Sultans as well as a piece of Zanzibar's (and East Africa's first) railroad, and an old, palm oil-powered bicycle lamp. For history buffs it's a great place to read up on Zanzibar's history as it relates to everything from slavery, the royal families, coins, stamps, local crafts, trade and the many and varied colonial years.
Next door is the Natural History Museum, which has some giant tortoises and some preserved Dodo bones, and a rather dusty herbarium.
The Shakti Temple had a sizable congregation before the revolution, but after a large number of Hindus departed from Zanzibar in 1964 and this temple is now rarely full. It is almost always open and welcomes visitors, and will provide a tour but it is almost impossible to find without a guide. Its chimes and bells, rung every day around sunrise and just before sunset, can be heard from the rooftop restaurant of Emerson's & Green, just across the street.
ST JOSEPH'S CATHOLIC CATHEDRAL
Built between 1893 and 1897 by French missionaries in Romanesque style, St. Joseph's Cathedral was designed by the same architect who designed the cathedral at Marseilles in France. Its spires can be seen from any elevated point in town and it serves as a handy landmark for those in search of the Chit Chat restaurant although the spires are hard to see from the narrow streets of Stone Town.
The French Hospital is the building just behind it.
THE OLD FORT
The Old Fort was built around 1700 by Seyyid Said’s grandfather on the site of a Portuguese church from 1600. It was used by the Arabs to repel the Portuguese and their allies the Mazruis, who occupied Mombasa. In the 19th Century the fort was used as a prison and a place of execution. In the beginning of this century it became a depot for the Bububu Railway Line. The old fort is now a cultural centre where there are classes in drumming, henna painting, Zanzibar cooking and there are drama and music performances in the open air theatre. There are many shops and a restaurant inside and at night there are often Taarab, Ngoma (local styles of music and dance) or movie nights.