Zanzibar, Tanzania (Day 2) 2022
We were still in Zanzibar on November 13 after spending the night anchored beyond the ferry port (which is on the left in this picture from the ship).
After tendering in to shore we had a fun day exploring Stone Town with our friends Bill & Robert. Stone Town is the old part of the city of Zanzibar, located on the edge of the Indian Ocean. It started out in the 11th century as a small fishing village called Shangani. The Portuguese took control of the island in the 15th century and built a church in Shangani in the early 16th and later a fort. But early in the 17th century the Portuguese were ousted and the Omani Sultan invited in to protect the island. When the Omani Sultan moved his capital here from Muscat in 1840 the town’s development escalated. In 1861 Zanzibar was separated from Oman as part of a royal succession dispute and in 1890 the British made it a protectorate, a status that lasted until independence was achieved in the revolution of 1964. Later that year Zanzibar and Tanganyika merged to become Tanzania.
After leaving the ship’s tender at the Ferry Port we started walking along the water, where we passed many boats and could see Zaandam anchored off shore in the Indian Ocean.
In the mid 19th century Zanzibar was something of a boomtown as a major hub for trade in spices, ivory and slaves. It was in the 1830’s that the iconic stone buildings began to appear here. They are mostly built with coral stone and limestone, not particularly sturdy building materials, and in recent years a large number of buildings have deteriorated. Substantial conservation efforts have been underway since the 1990’s but some of the most important buildings have partially collapsed or are too dangerous to enter.
The first important building we came to, the Old Dispensary, was renovated in the 1990’s by the Aga Khan trust (his sister was a high school friend of Rick’s sister back in the 1970’s). Its original construction began in 1887 with the intention that it would be a hospital for the poor. But its sponsor died before completion and the new owner decided to use the ground floor as a dispensary and the floors above for apartments. It fell into disuse and decay after the 1964 revolution when its Indian owners, like most Indians here, fled the country. The building’s delightful architecture is a mixture of Indian, Swahili and European influences. Today it sits behind a construction wall so there must be new problems being addressed.
The Sultan’s Palace was built in the late 19th century. It replaced a previous palace on the same spot that was destroyed in 1896 during the Anglo Zanzibar War. After Britain established its protectorate here in 1890 it expected to be able to choose a Sultan who would be compliant with British policies, the most contentious of which was the abolition of slavery, a lucrative business in Zanzibar. When the Sultan died in 1896 and the British designated a new one, another contender claimed the throne and holed up in the palace with a contingent of almost 3,000 loyal troops and a navy consisting of the armed royal yacht. When he rejected a British ultimatum to stand down by 9:00 AM on August 27 five British ships opened fire on the palace. Within 45 minutes the war ended when the Sultan surrendered, the shortest war on record. The new Sultan selected by the British then had the new palace built to replace the one damaged by the warships. After the 1964 socialist revolution it was renamed “People’s Palace” and became a government office.
Today it is a museum. You will notice that its white facade is marred by black streaks and blotches which we assume is mold. This was true of many of the white buildings in Stone Town. Also like many buildings in Stone Town, the palace has some beautiful carved wood doors not unlike the one we saw in Bagamoyo. There are hundreds of these doors here, some rectangular and others with rounded tops. The pointed brass knob decoration is a style imported from India where they were reputedly used to deter war elephants from bashing the gates of fortified buildings. You will see a lot of these in today’s episode and while they share an overall style each one is different.
The Old Customs House on the waterfront is where the new sultan was proclaimed in 1896 after the old palace had been destroyed in the war. Originally built in the 18th century, it has a distinctive enclosed veranda added later and a nice Zanzibari door, which might be the one in the picture below.
The House of Wonders was built in 1883 to serve as a ceremonial palace for official receptions. With a 19th century modern design, its name came from being the first building in Zanzibar wired for electricity and the first building in East Africa with an elevator. Its large main door was said to be designed to enable the Sultan to ride an elephant through it. In 1897 it was renovated to repair some damage during the Anglo Zanzibar War and a clock tower was added to the center of the facade. The British used it for government offices after 1911 and it was converted into a school after the revolution in 1964. After the millennium it became the House Of Wonders Museum.
The building is now closed and will hopefully be repaired and restored. Large sections of the veranda collapsed in 2012 and part of the roof in 2015. Then much of the front facade,including the clock tower, collapsed in 2020. As you can see in the pictures, it is now behind a corrugated construction wall and a huge canvas is draped over the right half of the building that now lacks a roof and most of its facade. A sad sight indeed.
The Old Fort was built by the Omanis at the end of the 17th century when they ousted the Portuguese and took control of Zanzibar. It was made of stone and meant largely to protect the city from another European invasion. It was built on the spot where the Portuguese had built the first church on the island and is now the oldest building in the city. It was used as a prison in the 19th century and a railroad depot in the early 20th. In 1994 an amphitheater was built inside and today it is a cultural center and home to the Zanzibar International Film Festival. One of the towers at the fort’s corners is a display space for local arts and crafts and it gives a fine view of the whole courtyard (Rick and Robert climbed up to see it). One side of the wall in the courtyard is lined with vendors’ stands selling clothing and souvenirs.
Raise your hand if you recognize the name of Zanzibar native Farrokh Bulsara. He was born here in 1946 and grew up to be the world famous singer Freddie Mercury of the band Queen. Maybe you knew that but we didn’t before we began planning this trip. We visited the Freddie Mercury museum in Stone Town. It is small and filled mostly with photos and explanatory signs with few artifacts other than some costumes and a piano he played here as a boy. The museum opened in 2019.
After this we had an interesting time walking around Stone Town’s spider web of narrow streets, most too narrow for cars but not for motorcycles. We passed many distinctive Zanzibari doors. We have read that in 1990 there were some 400 of them here but now its down to about 250 because of deterioration and selling of doors to wealthy foreigners. The stone benches you can see lining the building walls in some of these streets are called Barazas. They have a long history here, serving as places to sit down and socialize and as elevated walkways when streets are flooded during the rainy season. Many of the streets themselves are paved with stone tiles. You may also notice the maze of electrical and (we presume) telephone wires hanging above the streets, which is a little scary.
During this walk we passed the “Shangan Post Office,” built in 1906. You will recall that Shangani was the name of the original fishing village here and this neighborhood is where it was located. We also passed the impressive and well maintained Sunni Madressa School, painted bright green and white, which was built in 1998 according to the sign over the door.
Christ Church, the Anglican cathedral in Zanzibar, was opened on Christmas day in 1879 and consecrated as a cathedral in 1903. The biggest slave market in Zanzibar operated on these grounds and the church was built here to celebrate the end of slavery, with the altar located where the whipping post had been. Inside there is a cross made from the wood of the tree in modern Zambia where David Livingstone’s heart was buried (at his direction) before his body was carried to Zanzibar for shipment to England. We were told that the marble pillars inside were installed upside down, but when the architect saw them he decided they should be left as is.
In the church yard is a haunting sculpture group titled “Memory For The Slaves,” made in Bagamoyo and installed here in 1998. There were bright flowers nearby and several carved doors in the side of the church.
Under the church is the old slave quarters from when this was a slave market, which we had visited yesterday with Aziza. It is very dark and cramped but some 75 slaves were kept here at a time. Chains with manacles are still attached to some of the benches. This is a very sobering place to visit.
After all this we decided we were hungry so we set out for a late lunch. Bill had read about a couple of restaurants he wanted to try but they were closed. So we walked for a while before coming to a nice beach front restaurant called “6 degrees South,” which is Zanzibar’s location relative to the equator. On the way we passed some more interesting buildings, a market area and, yes, more Zanzibari doors.
The restaurant had very good food, good local beer and a nice view of the ocean. Since it was past the normal lunch hour we had the place almost to ourselves.
We took the ship’s shuttle bus back to the ferry dock. The stop was next to a nice hotel where we waited about 15 minutes for it. Some kids were playing soccer outside. The ferry terminal was very crowded, apparently because a ferry had just arrived and offloaded a lot of passengers. We made our way through to the dock & tendered back to the ship. We sailed away about 5:30 as the sun was going down and later there was a very nice sunset to finish our enriching stay in Zanzibar.