Exploring Stone Town, Zanzibar’s historical gem

Exploring Stone Town, Zanzibar’s historical gem
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Exploring Stone Town unearths the history and contradictions of this fascinating destination. (Photo courtesy: Park Hyatt Zanzibar)
Exploring Stone Town, Zanzibar’s historical gem
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(Photo courtesy: Hind Shoufani)
Exploring Stone Town, Zanzibar’s historical gem
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Exploring Stone Town, Zanzibar’s historical gem
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Exploring Stone Town, Zanzibar’s historical gem
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A monument in honor of the slaves who were traded on the island.
Updated 31 May 2017

Exploring Stone Town, Zanzibar’s historical gem

Exploring Stone Town, Zanzibar’s historical gem

STONE TOWN: Just off the coast of Tanzania, the island of Zanzibar is gaining popularity but is still considered a gem off the beaten track.
Exploring Stone Town unearths the history and contradictions of this fascinating destination.
Just off New Mkunazini street, past the ever-popular Lukmaan restaurant and along a short uneven road, lies St. Monica’s Lodge. It’s a large but unassuming building, constructed in the late 19th century and suffering from the early ravages of time.
There’s nothing much of note to see above ground, just rudimentary accommodation in the heart of Stone Town. It’s what lies beneath that matters: two cells and a glimpse into Zanzibar’s dark past.
The two underground slave chambers, barely high enough to stand in, are distressing reminders of mankind’s inhumanity.
“The slaves were kept in here for two or three days without food or water,” says our guide. “Fifty men in this room. Seventy-five women and children in the other. They used this as a toilet,” he says, pointing to the low gutter in which we stand. “They would die in here. They had no air and no light. They suffocated because the slavers wanted to know who was the strongest. Who would survive for three days.”
After just two or three minutes, the atmosphere becomes unbearably oppressive. It is dark and humid and claustrophobic. Tiny slit-like windows cast weak shafts of light into both rooms and, although not original, a set of chains lie bolted to the concrete.
Outside, the recently-renovated Christ Church Cathedral stands on the site of the former slave market which was run by Arab traders, in the middle of which once stood a jojoba tree used as a whipping post. The exact placing of the tree is marked by an altar and a white marble circle, the blood of the slaves symbolized by a further outer ring of red.
Zanzibar is one of those rare places defined as much by its name as by its history. It may be a tropical paradise, but it was as a center for both the slave and spice trades that it flourished under Omani rule. It is that legacy of trade — and the ebb and flow of Arab, Indian and European influence — that is evident in Stone Town’s architecture.
Described by UNESCO as an “outstanding example of a Swahili trading town,” Stone Town’s urban landscape remains virtually intact, even if it is more than a little rough around the edges. Its buildings are cracked and peeling and its narrow, meandering streets easy to get lost in, although it is wonderful to wander aimlessly and without direction. You’ll get lost, but Zanzibaris will help you, although for a small fee or “donation.”
Part Orientalist fantasy, part tropical delight, history is everywhere in this town perched on the western coast of Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibar Archipelago. It is in the large and elaborate wooden doors that used to denote social position and wealth; in the 17th century fort that dominates the area opposite the Forodhani Gardens; in the House of Wonders, built by Sultan Barghash bin Said in 1883; and in the former residence of slave trader Tippu Tip.

The latter was known to David Livingstone, the British explorer, anti-slavery campaigner and missionary who lived in Zanzibar sporadically during the 19th century prior to his death in Zambia in 1873. His name pops up everywhere in Stone Town, as does that of singer Freddie Mercury, who was born here in 1946.

There’s a restaurant on the beach called Livingstone, just along from the Park Hyatt Zanzibar and situated in the old British Consulate building. It has direct access to the sea and a bar that looks like it has been lifted wholesale from the late 1800s. It’s virtually empty when we visit, the showers of early May having kept tourists at bay, leaving us with a beach view almost of our own.

You can learn a lot from this collection of islands. They are overwhelmingly laid-back, even if most visitors, seduced by the islands’ beaches, don’t give Stone Town more than a day, if that. Plastic bags are banned and even water bottles at the Park Hyatt, nestled perfectly on a curvature of the town’s coastline, are glass, not plastic.

Even the hotel has history. Partly housed in the 19th century seafront mansion known as Mambo Msiige, it sits on the most westerly point of Shangani beach. It is from the hotel’s terrace overlooking the beach that you can watch Stone Town at work and at play. Dhows and fishing boats cross the sea without end, men play football, friends swim, and the occasional runner darts along the edge of the shore-line. Even in late spring, it is beautiful.