Ibn Battuta did not visit Zanzibar, and although one sees written from time to time that he did, he himself does not mention it and Ibn B would not have forgotten Zanzibar, the evocative-sounding Spice Islands. I went to discover its Arab and Muslim roots.
Plaque of Arabic calligraphy seen outside a Stonetown townhouse.
Arabs began trading with East Africa south of Somalia around 700AD – and like the Phoenicians millennia before them, they established a series of city states - often islands - the length of the coast from Mogadishu to Mozambique. Arabs were settled in Zanzibar by 1100. The next century saw Persians from Shiraz arrive and this intermingling of Persian and Arab with the Bantu-speaking natives produced the culture known as Swahili, a derivative of Arabic meaning ‘people of the coast’.
Islam spread first to North Africa in the mid 7th century by conquest, but East Africa was Islamized from the 8th century mainly through the influence of Muslim Arab traders who, relying on seasonal monsoon winds to traverse the Indian Ocean, were often marooned in ports for months. They intermarried, many having one family in their city of origin and another in East Africa. But while Islam was concentrated in the cities, the people who farmed the land across the continent continued with animism until eventually, as with Christianity in Africa, Islam became grafted on to animism in a hybrid Africanized Islam which to some extent continues to this day, even in those towns which had direct Arab influence. The spread of Islam was undoubtedly helped by the fact that people who converted could not be sold as slaves.
Coral atolls off the coast of Tanzania
Zanzibar became rich as one of the principal Indian Ocean trading ports. From Africa, gold, ivory and tortoise shells were sent east while from India and Arabia came aloes, pottery, china, textiles, dates and salted fish. In the 9th century, slaves were sent from the African interior to Iraq to desalinate the marshlands for cultivation, but the slave trade in the East did not take on the same dimensions as in West Africa until the late 18th century when French demand for labor for their plantations in Mauritius and Reunion as well as Omani demand for their date plantations and for pearl divers took on a more sinister aspect. Furthermore the social effects of slavery in the East was never as brutal as it was in the United States, Brazil and the Caribbean. Perhaps the single biggest difference was that the offspring of female slaves, who were sold or sent as domestics or concubines, and their masters had the same rights and position as the ‘legitimate’ children of a wife, and on the death of the master, the slave was automatically freed. At the same time, the intermingling of the Arab, Indian, Persian and African gene pool meant that although racism existed, at no time was it institutionalized as it was in the West and people of darker skin were not ostracized from society as they were in the Americas.
Traditional architecture on Kenyatta Road, Stonetown
The dhows which plied this trade to and fro across the Indian Ocean, rarely went directly from one place to another but loaded up at various ports buying and selling as they went. Colonialism, steamships, aircraft, changing economies and oil, changed everything and while dhows can still be seen in most small ports along the shores of the Indian Ocean, the once fabled routes from Zanzibar to Mogadishu, Mombasa to Bombay and Lamu to Sur have long gone. In 1872 a hurricane struck Zanzibar destroying the clove trees which along with coconuts had once formed an important part of the island’s economy.
By the end of the 16th century Zanzibar was ruled by a local dynasty under Portuguese control, by the late 17th century Oman had taken control of Zanzibar and by 1740 Oman had defeated the Portuguese in East Africa, with the exception of Mozambique. Under the Busaidi ruler Sayyid Sa'id or Said the Great, who ruled from 1805-1856, Oman established hegemony along much of the Swahili coast. In 1840, Sayyid Said established his capital in Zanzibar, moving it from Muscat in Oman. Indians involved in the spice and ivory trade arrived and over time became the Sultanate's moneymen, storeowners and craftsmen. By the end of the 19th century the British (and Germans) were interested in expanding their empire into East Africa, and in 1890 with the Busaidi clan involved in internal power struggles, Zanzibar was declared a British Protectorate under the nominal leadership of the Busaidi Sultanate. This situation continued until December 1963 when Zanzibar was given Constitutional Independence, but a month later a revolution under a Ugandan living on Pemba Island, called John Okello, broke out which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Arab and Indian citizens - many fled. In April 1964, Zanzibar linked with Tanganyika to form Tanzania under President Julius Nyerere in an agreement which gave the island the right to elect its own president, prime minister and cabinet, a situation which still stands today. The Sultanate was abolished and the last Sultan left to take up residency in England.
Typical Omani-style architecure in Stonetown. Old Muscat has similar harbor-front housing.
The heart of Zanzibar is Stonetown a clutter of narrow streets and balconied houses so-named because the houses were built of coral rag and lime, a common construction material in the port cities of the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. Zanzibar properly refers to the whole island and archipelago, Unguja is the name of the town generally called Zanzibar, while Stonetown is both the historic and modern-day Zanzibar. Most of the interesting architecture is relatively recent dating only to the 19th century, the city being known for its carved doors with carved lintels often featuring a plaque written in Arabic denoting the family name of the owner.
Typical Zanzibar door - the square shape denotes purely Arab influence
The people of Zanzibar still comprise elements of its cosmopolitan past; in addition to the Shafi Muslims originally from Dhofar province in Oman and Hadhramut in Yemen who are identifiable by their small white embroidered skullcaps called kofia, there are Ibadis from Oman, Ismailis from India, and Rastafarians with their trademark dreadlocks and large knitted caps. A Hindu temple is testament to the formerly large Hindi community and the Catholic church of St. Joseph which is still in use, highlights the tolerant aspect of the island's different religions. While Ismaili women wear a special garment composed of a long skirt, small cape-like top and veil, most local women wear traditional brightly-colored khangas with married women wearing the all-enveloping black buibui, over it. Most do not cover their faces but a fashion has taken hold of late for some women to wear a black sequinned burqa leaving only the eyes exposed. The island is 97% Muslim and despite the exhortations of guidebooks to respect the modest dress code, it is a curious thing that as unthinking male tourists wear tank tops and girls wear skimpy tops and shorts, local women are covering up even more than before.
The Old Dispensary, Stonetown