Stone Town – a feast for all senses
Some 40 km off the coast of mainland Tanzania in East Africa you’ll find the Zanzibar Archipelago, often referred to as the ‘Spice Islands’ for the cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper produced here. Zanzibar’s historic centre is Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site and popular tourist destination.
Stone Town is located on the western coast of Unguja (the main island) and is also known as Mji Mkongwe, which is Swahili for ‘old town’, as it’s the oldest part of Zanzibar City, the capital of the Zanzibar Archipelago. It is also the former capital of the Zanzibar Sultanate, which refers to the territories over which the Sultan of Zanzibar was the sovereign.
The streets of Stone Town are too narrow for cars to pass through, and while there are many bicycles and motorbikes on the islands, most tourists prefer their own two feet; and there’s no better way to take in the sights and sounds around you.
Stone Town’s architecture dates back to the 19th century and boasts diverse influences from Arabia, Persia, India and Europe. The name ‘Stone Town’ comes from the abundant use of coral stone for building, and the structures themselves are often a site to behold.
Walking through the maze of narrow alleys flanked by stone houses, shops, bazaars and mosques you’ll often see beautifully decorated wooden doors, sometimes with intricate carvings and big brass studs. The carvings are usually Islamic (Zanzibar’s population is predominantly Muslim), but other symbols, such as the Indian lotus flower, also feature. Many buildings also have long stone benches along their outer walls. These are called barazas and are used as an elevated pavement when heavy rains flood the streets.
Wandering the streets of Stone Town, you’ll be greeted on every corner by friendly children playing, or by local women carrying colourful baskets of fruits and vegetables. Despite these welcome interludes it’s easy to feel the deep shades of the old town’s historic past as you pass by former sultans’ palaces, places of worship and battlements.
Stone Town’s colourful history as a flourishing centre of the spice trade is marred by a grim past. In the 19th century Stone Town was the centre of the slave trade. It is said that around 50 000 slaves passed through the Zanzibar slave market every year, and even more died before ever reaching the market. The Cathedral Church of Christ in Stone Town was built over the original slave market to signify a victory over the slave trade, and if you visit it today you can still see the harrowing holding cells underneath. A memorial featuring the statues of five slaves chained together in a pit was built outside the church in memory of the people who died as a result of slavery.
Stone Town is certainly a feast for all senses. Once you’ve soaked up and reflected on the rich history of the area, visiting the town’s well-known markets is a must. The Darajani Road Market boasts everything from seafood, meats, fruits and spices to electronic gadgets, colourful fabrics and clothing. The bazaar, bustling with life, can be somewhat overwhelming with its mix of smells of strong spices and fresh fish, and the noise of traders selling their wares and consumers bartering with them.
If you’re looking to satisfy your sense of taste, the Forodhani Night Food Market at the waterfront will oblige. Chefs dressed in whites and tall hats stand behind endless rows of tables groaning with grilled seafood, fresh pressed juices, fried potatoes, salads, meat skewers, falafels and other culinary delights. You need only follow your nose.
Want to know more about all there is to see on our beautiful continent? Read Explore Africa by Helena Lombard.