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Stone Town: A World Hertitage Site
The historically, culturally and architecturally important capital town of Zanzibar Island is a World Heritage Site. In Stone Town, one can spend many idle hours wandering through the narrow labyrinthine streets and alleyways where mosses and lichens cling to damp crumbling coral-rag walls and pools of sunlight wash the small squares and street- front cafes in a warm glow.
The chants of the Quran may draw you toward a cool and ancient Madrasa tucked away in a sleep corner, or you may glance up at the girlish laughter tinkling down from a latticed balcony high above, where dark eyes flash within the velvet shadows.One’s of the first view of Zanzibar is usually that of the port and sea front seen from the ferry as it slows down to negotiate the moored craft in the harbour. Along this variegated skyline are paraded some of the most impressive building to be found on the islands, all overlocked by the Lock Tower atop the House of Wonders.
After clearing immigration, one wanders out of the Port Authority and turns right c,nto Mizingani Road. The first of the wonderful buildings one passes is the grand, four-storey Old Dispensary with its particularly decorative balconies. Located opposite the new port buildings, the dispensary was built in the 1890s with money provided by a prominent Indian merchant and banker, Tharia Topan. Numbered amongst his clients was the notorious slave-trader, Tippu Tip.
A little further along the Mizingani Road, the Palace Museum (Beit-alSahel) was originally built and served as the official residence of the Sultan of Zanzibar until January 12th 1964, when the dynasty was overthrown in the people’s Zanzibar Revolution. It serves as a museum devoted to the era of the Zanzibar sultanate. The ground floor displays details of the formative period of the sultanate from 1828 to 1870 during which commercial treaties were signed between Zanzibar, United States of America, Britain and France. Inside the museum is the memorabilia of Princess Salme, one of the few famous women in the history of Zanzibar.
The exhibits on the 2nd floor focus on the period of affluence from 1870 to 1896 during which modern amenities such as piped water and electricity were introduced to Zanzibar under Sultan Barghash. The third floor consists of the modest living quarters of Sultan Khalifa bin Haroub (1911 to 1960) and his two wives, both of whom clearly had different tastes in furniture.
Outside the museum is the Makusurani graveyard where some of the Sultans were buried. Lying just south of the Palace Museum, The House of Wonders (Beit-al-Ajaib) was formerly the palace of Sultan Barghash. It gets its name from the fact it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity, and the hundreds of light bulbs glowing at night must have made it truly a wondrous house.
This four-storey building, surrounded by wide and spacious verandas and topped by a highly visible clock tower, was built in 1883 and is one of the largest structures in Zanzibar. The clock tower also houses the port’s shipping controller. One can walk around the outside gardens and look at the huge carved doors and the two old bronze cannons that bear Portuguese inscriptions.
In 1896, the palace was the target of British bombardments intended to force the Sultan Khalid bin Barghash, who had tried to seize the throne after the death Sultan Hamad, to abdicate in favour of a British nominee. After its rebuild, Sultan Hamoud, who ruled Zanzibar from 1902 to 1911, used its upper floor as a residential palace until his death.
Next to Beit-al-Ajaib and occupying the site of an old Portuguese Chapel, is The Old Fort. The Abusaidi family of Omani Arabs, who had gained control of Zanzibar in 1698, following two centuries of Portuguese occupation, built this massive structure in the 1700s. The Arabs used the fort to defend themselves against the Portuguese and against a rival Omani group.
In recent years it has been partially renovated to house the Zanzibar Cultural Centre. In an inner courtyard lies a stone-built amphitheatre that hosts performances of local music and dance, such as Taarab, Zanzibar’s most popular form of music. There is a small tourist information office, a gift shop and art gallery and the very pleasant Neem Tree Café. Continuing one’s journey of discovery into the hinterland of Stone Town, one comes across various other buildings, such as the Anglican Cathedral.
The oldest Christian Church of its kind in East Africa, the Cathedral stands on the site of the public slave market, on the eastern side of Stone Town. It was constructed by the Universities Mission in Central Africa (UMCA) in 1877 when the slave trade was abolished. The altar is built, somewhat incongruously, directly over the site of the Slave Whipping Post, which was, in reality, a tree.
Outside there is a sombre monument to the memory of the countless number of slaves who passed through the islands’ markets. The life-like stone statues of male and female slaves, attached with iron shackles and chains, stand in a pit symbolising not only their inhumane incarceration but also depth of their despair.
The church was the first Anglican Cathedral to be built in East Africa and is still in use today. Nothing remains of the Slave Market except, beneath the nearby St. Monica’s Hostel, there are some underground chambers or holding cells; a small but terrible reminder of the dark side of humanity. Just outside Stone Town, to the northeast along Malawi Road, stands Livingstone House. Sultan Said Majid, who ruled Zanzibar and Tanzania’s coast from 1856 to 1870, built it around 1860.
This building is named for the well-known and respected missionary-cum-explorer, Dr. David Livingstone, who used it as a base for his wanderings. During the second half of the 19th century, several other European missionaries and explorers, such as Burton and Speke, used it as the starting point for their expeditions to the interior of Africa. Most of houses were built during the 19th century, when Zanzibar became the trading centre of East Africa.
The majority of the old buildings in the Stone Town are used as residential flats on the upper floors and business premises on the ground floors. Some of these buildings have been converted or utilised as modern tourist hotels and restaurants. The narrow streets orovide.
The fruit and food market, built in 1904, is about halfway along Creek Road (now renamed Benjamin Mkapa Road) and is a good place for shopping and sightseeing. It is an attractive place full of fresh farm produce, but the most evocative products are the scented spices and seafood.
People from various parts of Zanzibar bring their produce here, while petty traders have outside stalls surrounding the big market hall, where they sell industrial products ranging from sewing machines to second hand clothes and motor vehicle spare parts. Early in the morning, the air is awash with the smells of freshly baked bread on one side, with that of fresh fish on the other.
Built by sultan Said Barghash in the late 19th century, the Hamamni Persian Baths were the first public baths in Zanzibar. Although they are no longer functioning, they are maintained in near-perfect condition. To go inside the baths, one must ask the caretaker, living opposite, to unlock the gate; there is a nominal entrance fee, which goes towards the upkeep of the building. Explanatory plaques are situated at salient points around the baths and chambers.
The old Peace Memorial Museum (Beit el Amani) contains exhibits and records which make up the rich history of Zanzibar, from the early days of the Omani Sultans and the British colonial period right up until independence. This magnificent structure houses old and new history books, a selection of archaeological findings, plus records of early trade, slavery, palaces, mosques, sultans, explorers and missionaries, in addition to exhibits of traditional crafts, stamps and coins.
The museum also contains Dr. David Livingstones’ memorabilia, as well as the drums used by the Sultans and a priceless collection of the lithographs, maps and photographs dating from the 19th and early 20 centuries.
Source: Zanzibar Commission for Tourism