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Notes on the Geography of Tanzania: Zanzibar

For evoking the exotic, the name Zanzibar ranks right up there with Samarkand and Timbuktu. Here we look at Stone Town, the famous bit of the island. We ignore most of the Zanzibar municipality, which has an area 17 times bigger than Stone Town and a population to match.

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The island sits 20 miles off the coast of Africa, and its harbor, facing the continent, is a busy one, though mostly with small craft. Here a rope to a mainland ferry periodically rises with the swells and hoists a dozen boys out of the water.

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No dock needed.

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It's not all so primitive. Here's Stone Town's container port, built on land reclaimed since the 1920s, when a port here was first proposed by a British architect. The sleek yacht is a catamaran offering 90-minute trips to Dar es Salaam. The building in the foreground is the late 19th century palace of the Sultan of Zanzibar. We'll come back to it. (For the architect, see H.V. Lanchester, Zanzibar, a Study in Tropical Town Planning, 1923.)

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Freighters like this don't go to Europe or East Asia. Instead, they head to ports specializing in transshipment such as Salala, on the south coast of Arabia. Fittingly, the old elite Zanzibaris came from Oman. Location, location, location.

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Obsolete warehouses, though as the pile of boxes suggests not quite abandoned.

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Speaking of shipping, consider this pile of logs. See the connection?

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How about now? It's a dhow shipyard, and the men use no power tools, no power saws even. Everything's done the old way.

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We're in a tidal creek, which does have the advantage of allowing the finished boats to be floated away.

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The mortised bow-keel joint.

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A drill bit is driven by a string attached to a bow, vigorously drawn back and forth.

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And how are hull planks bent? You can't find a simpler method than this.

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The trading economy of Zanzibar was once heavily dependent on the export of slaves brought over from the mainland and penned here for sale and onward shipment.

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The monument was executed and paid for by Europeans.

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On the site of the slave market, the British erected an Anglican church.

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The church was consecrated in 1903, 30 years after the abolition of slavery on Zanzibar and 13 after the declaration of a British protectorate.

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The entry has a typical Zanzibari door, though nodding to the Gothic. The true Omani door would have a flat lintel.

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The altar.

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A more dramatic end: "Commander the Honourable Richard Orlando Beaconsfield Bridgement, who lost his life when carrying out a seaplane reconnaissance over the Rufiji River, German East Africa on Jan. 9th, 1917. A gallant officer, He knew not fear."

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"...in memory of Livingstone and other explorers, men good and brave, who to advance knowledge, set free the slave, and hasten Christ's Kindom in Africa loved not their lives, even unto death...."

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Another Englishman who fell well short of the biblical allotment.

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Speaking of which, a few blocks from the church there's this tangled field. What is it?

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A bit of it has been cleaned up.

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"Here rests our beloved son, brother, and brother-in-law, Carl Anders, general representative of the firm Oswald-Hamburg and Royal Belgian consul. 1875-1911."

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"In memory of William Sheppard, formerly of His Majesty's Navy, who died at Zanzibar June 18th, 1902, aged 45 years. For two years engineer of Prison Island sanitary station where he was honoured and respected...."

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"William James Robertson, of the Zanzibar Government service and eldest son of the late James Robertson of Mount Temple, Ceylon, who died at Durga(?), 5th March... in his 38th year." Mount Temple was a plantation near Gampola, in the highlands south of Kandy.

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The sign over the door reads Zanzibar Tourist Corporation, but, as the smaller sign on the wall states, the building was once the residence of Dr. Livingstone. None of his furnishings survive, though one room has some display boards with texts about his career. In 1950, in a between-times life, the building housed laboratories for a clove-research organization. Cloves had been introduced to the island in 1828 by the first Arab sultan.

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This building is unlikely to catch your eye, but it is on the waterfront and from 1841 to 1874 was the British consulate, which means that it was visited by Burton and Speke in 1856 and later not only by Stanley but by Livingstone's body in the course of its journey back to England. The building later became the local headquarters of a shipping agent, Smith Mackenzie, and of the Zanzibar State Trading Corporation. The wing in the distance, on the beach, is now a bar.

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You may be able to live without the bar, but the ceiling is nice, along with the cast-iron posts.

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View of the same building from the beach.

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Almost next door, this was the German consulate from 1860 until 1914. Yes, that's a historical plaque on the wall.

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The British eventually moved to posher quarters, hard to photograph because they're now the residence of Zanzibar's president.

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The British more or less ran the place from 1890 until the revolution of 1963. This is their Mahakama Kuu or High Court of Justice, from 1908. The architect was J.H. Sinclair, who went on not only to build more stuff but serve as Resident.

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Here's another of his designs, the Bharmal Building, built to house British government offices but now the municipal council.

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And another, the Post Office, from 1907.

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The boxes are still in use.

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The busiest of Sinclair's works is probably the Seyyidieh Market, from 1904. One side was for meat, the other for fish.

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And like every self-respecting bit of the Empire, Zanzibar had a museum. It, too, was by Sinclair, who supposedly modeled it on the Hagia Sophia.

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It's now abandoned, its contents moved to a newer home, the Beit al-Ajaib.

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Did the British have a sense of humor? This milepost, recycled in the 1920s from an abandoned Persian bath, suggests they did.

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And of course the Europeans made maps. In this case, the author was Oscar Baumann in 1902. His map shows consulates not only for Britain and Germany but also for Austria-Hungary and the United States. It shows a telegraph office, a German Club, a French Hospital, and the Forozani Customs house, near an open space created by a British bombardment in 1896. The term "Forozani Customs" is redundant, since forodha means "Customs" in Swahili.

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Surely, you say, there was an indigenous culture alongside the European one? Fair enough. Here's the Sultan's Palace, now the People's Palace and a museum. It was built after the previous palace, the Beit el-Sahil, was destroyed by 500 British shells fired on August 27th, 1896, as part of a campaign to persuade the sultan that he really shouldn't object to Britain's takeover.

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The door is Omani, with plain panels and carved but rectangular lintel.

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The inner courtyard, on the other hand, is clearly a European import and a testament to concrete.

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And the furnishings? Probably from India but along European lines.

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On the occasion of the signing of a commercial treaty with Austria-Hungary in 1887, the sultan was given this portrait of Elizabeth, the empress of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Unfortunately for the perpetuation of the myth of European invincibility, she was assassinated in 1898.

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The most authentic touch may be the graveyards surrounding the palace.

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Next door, the sultan in 1883 built a ceremonial palace, used after the bombardment in 1896 as residential quarters. After 1913 the building housed government offices and as late as 1951 housed the government secretariat. It serves today as a museum. See those little plates at the base of the gate pillars?

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They're for the ironwork of the gate.

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Here's the same building from a distance. It's the Beit al-Ajaib, or House of Wonders. It survived the bombardment of 1896 and was then kitted out with the clocktower. The columns are cast iron, as one might expect from the architect, who was a Scots marine engineer.

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The interior courtyard has a dhow on display, along with a grand staircase and, next to it, a defunct elevator, the first and until very recently the only one in the city.

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The view upward. The skylight is a later addition, added sometime before 1950.

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The balconies are extraordinarily deep, allowing plenty of shade and room for furniture.

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One of the formerly residential rooms fronting the sea.

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The marine view takes in a garden created in 1935 in honor of King George V. It's popularly called the Forodhani Park, from the former Customs building that adjoins it. Until the bombardment of 1896, the site was part of the sultan's palace.

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The view inland from the Beit al-Ajaib is interesting on two counts. First because it shows the Catholic church and the minaret of the Bagh Muharmi mosque, one of an incredible 50 mosques in Stone Town. Second because it shows the Europeanization of the city's construction methods. How so? A panoramic photograph from 1875 by John Kirk shows the buildings all with flat roofs, an Omani import poorly suited to a wet climate. A comparable photograph from the 1920s, on the other hand, shows the roofs as they appear here, with peaked roofs to shed water. (For Kirk's photographs, see Zanzibar: a Plan for the Historic Stone Town, by Francesco Siravo, 1996. For the 1920s, see Lanchester, mentioned above.)

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Here's the interior of the Catholic church.

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Still farther along the waterfront from the two palaces we've just seen, this is the city's most exuberant building. Conceived as a hospital by an Ismaili businessman on the occasion of Victoria's 1887 Jubilee, it became instead the Ismaili Khoja Dispensary, with upstairs apartments. Badly deteriorated, the building was leased in 1990 to Aga Khan Cultural Services, which restored the building and now occupies part of the premises; the rest is rented by several other businesses.

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What did Tharia Topan, the donor, have in mind with such display? He was described in his own lifetime as "one of the wealthiest men in East Africa." (Steve Battle in The History and Conservation of Zanzibar, edited by Abdul Sheriff, 1995). But what point was he making, other than to demonstrate his loyalty to the Crown and his own wealth? Was it a statement about the status of Ismaili Muslims in a Sunni-majority town? Topan went to India to secure an architect, Hasham Virjee Patel, and Patel brought in workers as well as materials from India. Topan died before the building was finished.

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The interior is a courtyard with bridges like this one. The original interior had a sky-blue lime wash.

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Detail of the capitals.

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A much simpler donation. This fountain, now derelict on Malawi Road, was built by a much more numerous sect, the Ithna'shari Shia, in memory of Husain.

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The manhole cover is a reminder of the existence of the Stone Town Conservation and Development Authority, created in 1985. A half-dozen years later, in 1992, the first International Conference on the History and Culture of Zanzibar was held. World Heritage status arrived in 2000.

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One consequence was more tourists, mostly European.

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Some were charmed by the intricate street network.

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Some by the town's ethnic diversity.

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Certainly by its flamboyant architecture, in this case on Kenyatta Road, a main cross street.

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The Aga Khan organization reports that Stone Town has 1,713 buildings, of which 1435 are residential or mixed commercial/residential. The idea is to preserve as many of them as possible and then to spare them incongruous modifications.

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Renovation works continue.

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Before and after.

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Some of the improvements are no improvement at all.

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Another tourist boost: a film festival in the town's fort.

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Tourists need hotels, too.

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More hotels.

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And still more, this one in the house of Cowasjee Dinshaw, a Parsee from Surat. Dinshaw (1827-1900) was based in Aden but had offices in Mombasa and Zanzibar. For a time, this building also served as the American consulate; Gandhi is said to have stayed here in 1930.

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The hotel has expanded with the new wing shown here and the obligatory pool.

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Tradition hasn't been entirely washed away by the tourist tide. Here, a fine Omani door with residents tired of cameras.

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Any touches of the modern? Yes, indeed.

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And here, too, in this case just outside Stone Town and in an area where mud houses in the past gave Stone Town its name. It's a long way from 1883, when a Scots evangelist named Henry Drummond came by and later wrote (in Tropical Africa, p. 9): "Oriental in its appearance, Mohammedan in its religion, Arabian in its morals, this cesspool of wickedness is a fit capital for the Dark Continent."

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