Located 35 km (22 miles) from the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean is Zanzibar, boasting white sand beaches lined with palm trees, native forests and an abundance of coral reefs perfect for snorkelling and diving. Today it offers a tropical paradise for holidaymakers, but the low-lying coral island has a chequered history of foreign occupation, intensive commerce and slavery.
The island was first inhabited by the Hadimu and Tumbatu tribes who came here from Africa. In the 10th century, Persian merchants arrived, brought to the island by monsoon winds as they sailed through the Indian Ocean. As they needed the monsoon winds to take them home again, they had to stay on the island for months at a time.
They eventually decided to build permanent settlements in Zanzibar, and it soon became a centre for trade in its own right. This busy hub was influenced by the merchants who passed through, with Arabs, Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British leaving their mark here and blending together to create a unique culture.
Sharzi Persians and Omani Arabs settled on the Island and raised the Sultanate, which is why there is such a strong Arab influence evident today. Stone Town, the centre of the old city, has changed little in the last 200 years with its mosques, busy bazaars and grand Arab houses with their ornament-carved wooden doors studded with brass.
The Indian influence can be found in the coloured glasswork and decorative balconies of many of the buildings, while the British left some staid colonial houses in the weather parts of town.
For centuries, ships carried spices and slaves between Africa and Asia, and until the late 1800s, Stone Town, the hub of Arabian interests in East Africa, was ruled by Omani Sultans. As Dar ed Salaam and Mombasa gained importance, stone Town declined.
By 1964 the last Sultan had been removed and Zanzibar united with mainland Tanganyika to become part of Tanzania. Most of the foreigners left the island, their vacated buildings, confiscated by the government, gradually falling into shabby disrepair. Fortunately, renovating and conserving this quintessentially Swahili heritage.
Today the economy is based on tourism, although fishing is still a major occupation. The island also exports many different types of spices, as well as cocoa and coconuts.
As well as the beaches and beautiful architecture, the island is also home to abundant wildlife, including red colobus and blue monkeys. This can be observed in Jozani Park, a large area of mature native forest which is now protected. There are also many other types of mammals here, including red-billed squirrels and sun squirrels, and over 200 species of birds.
Zanzibar is also a good place to see turtles, including the green turtle and the hawksbill turtle, which can be seen laying their eggs on the beaches near the lighthouse at Ras Ngunwi Wahle watching is also popular here, with humpback whales migrating through the channel in spring and then again in September Long-snouted spinner dolphins and bottlenose dolphins are also favourites in these waters and it is possible to swim with them if you join an organised tour.
You’ll see massive hardwood doors, intricately carved by Indian craftsmen and decorated with Indian-style brass spikes, and beautiful balconies, some original and some added later. Low stone benches in front provide seating for local men, who spend hours there, putting the world to rights. There are so many outstanding buildings to be seen and such a lot of romantic history that you mustn’t be tempted to skip the city in favour of the beach.
When To visit:
September to March
You should know:
Freddie Mercury, the singer with the band Queen, was born in Stone Town.