Zanzibar, which has lured traders, adventurers, and explorers to its shores for centuries is now attracting tourists in search of new horizons.
By Rhona Wells
The Assyrians, Sumerians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Indians, Chinese, Persians, Portuguese, Omani Arabs, Dutch and English have all been here at one time or another. The earliest visitors to Zanzibar were Arab traders who are said to have arrived in the 8th century.
For centuries the Arabs sailed with the Monsoon winds from Oman to trade in ivory, slaves and spices. The two main islands, Unguja (normally known as Zanzibar Island) and Pemba, provided an ideal base for the Omanis, being relatively small, and therefore fairly easy to defend. From here it was possible for them to control 1,000 miles of the mainland coast from present day Mozambique to Somalia. In 1832, Sultan Seyyid Said, of the Omani Busaid Dynasty and an ancestor of Oman’s current ruler Sultan Qaboos, moved his sultanate from Muscat to Zanzibar where he and his descendants ruled for more than130 years.
The Shirazi Persians who came from the Middle East to settle on the East African coast arrived in AD 975. Widespread intermarriage between Shirazis and Africans gave rise to a coastal community with distinctive and stunningly attractive features, and a language derived in part from Arabic, which became known as Swahili. The name Swahili comes from the Arab word sawahil, meaning ‘coast’. The Zanzibar descendants of this group were not greatly involved in the lucrative slave, spice and ivory trades. Instead, they immersed themselves mainly in agriculture and fishing.
Indian traders arrived in connection with the spice and ivory trade, and quickly settled as shopkeepers, traders, skilled artisans, and professionals.
The British eventually became involved in missionary and trading activities in East Africa, and attempting to suppress the regional slave trade, centred at the time in Zanzibar.
Cloves were introduced in 1818, and flourished in the tropical climate and fertile soil of the western areas of both Zanzibar and Pemba. By the middle of the 19th century, the Zanzibar archipelago was the world’s largest producer of cloves, and the largest slave trading centre on the East African coast. Slaves were used for the cultivation and harvesting of cloves, and the Sultan by his death in 1856, had 45 plantations.
Over time, several other spices such as cinnamon, cumin, ginger, pepper and cardamom were introduced.
Their rich fragrance became synonymous with Zanzibar, which became known as the ‘Spice Islands’. Slaves, spices and ivory provided the basis of considerable prosperity, and Zanzibar became the most important entrepôt in the Western Indian Ocean. It was the undisputed hub of all East African coastal centres and almost all trade passed through it. By the 1920’s, Zanzibar had been established as a British protectorate for some time – the cities bustled with economic activity, and the bazaars were lined with craftsmen who produced carved doors, brass-studded chests, gold and silver jewellery, pottery and embroidery.
Zanzibar was the starting point for several of the great European adventurers who tried to map the African interior. Most followed the long-established caravan routes before reaching territory unknown even to the traders. In 1844, John Krapf, a German missionary arrived in Zanzibar and was later joined by John Rebbman who became the first European to see Mount Kilimanjaro. Burton and Speke set off from Britain in 1857 to solve the ‘mystery’ of the source of the Nile making Zanzibar their base. Other explorers followed – Dr David Livingstone was provided with a house in 1866 from where he planned and kitted out his final expedition. Stanley also lived there in 1871 before setting out on one of history’s famous searches, culminating in the legendary phrase “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”
The great Doctor died two years later, and his body was carried back to Zanzibar, before sailing on to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey. Livingstone’s House in Zanzibar is a well-known present-day feature and his medicine chest and correspondence can be seen in the National Museum.
Stone Town – A World Heritage site
It may not have a particularly romantic name, but Stone Town is the old city and cultural heart of Zanzibar, little changed in the last 200 years.
It is a place of winding alleys, bustling bazaars, mosques and grand Arab houses, whose original owners vied with each other over the extravagance of their dwellings.
This one-upmanship is particularly reflected in the brass-studded, carved, wooden doors of which more than 500 different examples of this superb handiwork remain. Stone Town was recently declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Most of the houses that can be seen today were built in the 19th century when Zanzibar was one of the most important trading centres in the Indian Ocean region. The coraline rock of the area was good building material, but it is also easily eroded. This is evident by the large number of houses that are now in a bad state of repair. However, several buildings have been renovated and the Stone Town Conservation Authority established to co-ordinate the restoration of the town to its original magnificence. Nearly all of Stone Town’s major hotels are housed in these renovated buildings.
Star attractions- unspoilt beaches
Zanzibar’s more than 25 fantastic beaches provide a paradise, interspersed with picturesque fishing villages, where the people live a simple way of life, unchanged over generations.
At the northern tip of the island is Nungwi, approached by a road lined by banana palms, mangroves and coconut trees. This is the dhow building capital of the island. Fantastic beaches and nearby coral reefs are ideal for diving and snorkelling.
The local villagers have built a turtle sanctuary where injured turtles and other marine animals that proliferate in the warm, crystal clear waters surrounding the archipelago are nursed back to health before being released back into the Indian Ocean.
The coral reef structures that surround Unguja and Pemba ensure marine life is abundant. Good visibility (20 – 60 metres) and a year-round average water temperature of 27°c make it ideal for diving.
On the west coast of Zanzibar, Mangapwani beach is worth a visit, and to the east are the beaches of Matemwe, Pwani Mchangani, Kiwengwa, Uroa, Bwejuu and Jambiani, all with stretches of beautiful and uncrowded sands.
Zanzibar also boasts several small offshore islands which are ideal for a day-trip. Prison (or Changu) island is the most popular with tourists. Originally, it was used by Arabs to detain recalcitrant slaves, and then a jail was built by the British, but never actually used.
The Jozani Natural Forest Reserve, located in the central east region of the island is home to the rare Red Colobus Monkey, endemic in Zanzibar.
Other species include Syke’s monkeys, small buck and bushpigs. The elusive Zanzibar leopard (last officially sited several years ago) is said to feed here at night.
From unique wildlife, fragrant spices and local heritage to stunning beaches and luxury accommodation, there are all too few places left to rival the delights of Zanzibar.