Stone Town and the Weight of History

  • Outside Stone Town’s old Arab Fort complex.

    Outside Stone Town’s old Arab Fort complex.

  • Amid the maze-like network of Stone Town’s back streets.

    Amid the maze-like network of Stone Town’s back streets.

  • The House of wonders.

    The House of wonders.

  • A swahili woman framed by one of stone town’s intricately carved doorways.

    A swahili woman framed by one of stone town’s intricately carved doorways.

  • A young member of the town’s majority muslim community.

    A young member of the town’s majority muslim community.

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Exoticism aside, Stone Town’s origins are somewhat mundane. It earned its name because the Portuguese seafarers who landed here at the end of the 15th century built their homes from the island’s coralline rock. They started off in what was the fishing village of Shangani, and over the centuries the town sprawled into its current chaos as newcomers continued to build, without plans or regulations. Streets became claustrophobically narrow as there was no motorized traffic, and few provisions were made for open spaces as most houses had courtyards. Arabs and Indians introduced the carved wooden doorways with ornate lintels and doorposts that are so common throughout town. The brass spikes that adorn these doors are holdovers of an Indian tradition in which such spikes were used to ward off elephant attacks—never mind that no pachyderm could possibly fit down these narrow streets.

Stone Town occupies a triangular peninsula on Unguja’s west coast, some three square kilometerd in all, bounded on two sides by the sea, and on the third by Creek Road. Its sandy shores are now almost overrun by development—for a beach holiday, you’d best look elsewhere along the coast. But there is plenty enough to explore amid the town’s warren of alleyways: two churches, at least two Hindu temples, and between 40 and 50 mosques, depending on who’s counting. Some 20,000 residents inhabit the area, and it’s been home to several notables over the years, including Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone. Freddy Mercury, the late front man of the British rock group Queen, was born here, as well, and though I’d hoped for some sort of monument or tribute to him, I found none.

I did, however, find the home of Tippu Tip, the infamous slave trader. Zanzibar, East Africa’s main slave port, was the last place on the planet where humans were traded openly, with some 15,000 slaves sold monthly at the height of the trade. It wasn’t until 1873 that the Sultan of Zanzibar signed a royal decree abolishing the practice, though that didn’t stop traders such as Tip from carrying on illegally for years to follow. Tip’s house, a sprawling, dilapidated building in dire need of repair, is now owned by the government and occupied by local families. A man sitting outside the notorious residence told me that he lived there, and invited me inside. I politely declined.

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