Vasco da Gama visited Zanzibar, or Unguja as it was known in 1499. This was at the end of his epic journey that linked Europe and Asia, connecting the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans.
His voyage of discovery gave the Portuguese access to the Indian Spice routes and led to the age of globalisation by the European powers.
Spices became an important industry in Zanzibar, so much so that they are sometimes referred to as the Spice Islands.
The Portuguese took control of Zanzibar from the Arabs in 1504, making it part of the Portuguese Empire.
If remained under their control for nearly two centuries.
In 1698, Zanzibar became part of Oman, under control of the Sultan. In 1840 Said bin Sultan, the Sultan of Oman moved his capital from Muscat, in Oman, to Stone Town, in Zanzibar City.
Britain took formal control through the 1890 Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty. In 1896 there was an slight altercation, known as the Anglo-Zanzibar War. After which Britain put Hamoud bin Mohammed into power.
This was known as shortest war in history, lasting only 45 minutes.
In 1897 Hamoud bin Mohammed yielded to British pressure and brought an end to Zanzibar’s involvement in the slave trade.
And to add to the magic of Zanzibar, there was even a British administrator, named Harry Potter who was in control from 1954 to 1959.
Zanzibar became an independent nation in December 1963 but it didn’t last long.
A revolution took place in January, 1964 and in April it signed an agreement of confederation with mainland Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania.
Zanzibar is officially part of Tanzania but it is very different.
We stayed at Hotel Al-Minar, in the heart of Stone Town and only a few minutes walk from most attractions.
It’s was a quaint Arab styled building with carved timber beams and heavy wooden furniture and doors.
The staff were fantastic and even tracked down a lost sock, that vanished from our laundry.
Having spent the last few weeks in the Kenyan and Tanzanian bush, it was great to be beside the seaside again.
There are a number of rooftop bars, along the waterfront, that take advantage of the views and the balmy evening air – we took advantage of them.
We were in Zanzibar for some R&R but with so much history to explore, we doubted that would be the case.
After all Stone Town in Zanzibar City was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, so there is plenty to see.
Stone Town is the largest, living, Swahili stone town in the world. There are over 1000 coral ‘stone’ buildings with architectural significance.
The features that make this city unique are written on a sign at the door of the House of Wonders Museum.
“It is the confluence between Africa and the Indian Ocean.
From a fishing village at Shangani, it developed as a cosmopolitan society with a unique architectural synthesis.
This was based on Swahili building technology, the elegant simplicity of Arab tradition and ‘saracenic’ features imposed by the British.”
Coral stone isn’t as robust as granite, marble or even concrete and the city had a distinct feeling of being in decay.
Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim with over 50 mosques on the island.
Each morning we were woken to the sound of the Imam calling the faithful to prayer.
A majority of the women wear modest clothing and there are even some full burkas.
The big difference is that the clothes are much more colourful, compared to Arab countries, especially the headscarves.
The first morning was spent on some housekeeping. Firstly we extended our stay by another night, then it was off to find an ATM and after that, down to the ferry office to buy tickets to Dar es Salaam.
I was well overdue for a haircut, so that was another challenge we had to face.
I eventually did find a barber and paid more for a cut in Stone Town than in Barcelona.
They saw me coming.
In Zanzibar there are more taxis than passengers and more guides than tourists.
It’s the low season but at every turn you are expected to part with your money. It can be a bracelet, a selection of spices, a taxi or a full day guided tour.
There are even people hanging around cafes, restaurants and the ferry terminal. They are waiting to guide you, those last metres, to where you were heading anyway.
Of course they are expecting a tip from you or a commission from the business, of both.
After our chores were done we headed off to do some exploring.
The Old Dispensary, was formerly the Jubilee Hospital, built by a wealthy Ismali Indian, in 1887, to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. It is currently the Stone Town Cultural Centre.
It’s a testament to Zanzibar’s diverse history.
The wooden carved balconies and stained glass are of Indian influence. While the walls were made from Zanzibar coral rag and covered in European neo-classical ornaments.
We visited a private museum that was dedicated to Emily Ruete (1844-1924). Born Sayyida Salme, Princess of Zanzibar, she was the youngest of 36 children, born to Sayyid Said bin Sultan Al-Busaid, Sultan of Zanzibar and Oman. Emily is the author of ‘Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar’ This is an autobiography describing her love for a German merchant, Rudolph Heinrich Ruete, and her subsequent elopement to Europe. She then converted to Christianity and married him.
The Anglican Christ Church Cathedral is built on the site of the old slave market. The only remains of the market are the holding cells beneath one of the church buildings.
There is a well designed display giving a full history of Zanzibar’s involvement in the slave trade.
Many slaves that were freed were put into Christian missions. They were educated and indoctrinated into Christianity. This caused problems, once they left the mission, as they could not assimilate into a mainly Muslim society.
Zanzibar was one of the largest slave ports in the indian Ocean slave trade. It was dominated by Arab traders and originated before the creation of Islam.
Dr. David Livingstone (1813-1873) was a missionary, explorer and an important activist in pushing for Britain to ban the East African Arab-Swahili slave trade.
“Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”
Was the famous greeting by Henry Morton Stanley when he located David Livingstone in Africa on November 10, 1871.
One of Livingstone’s life goals was to find the source of the river Nile.
After his death Livingstone became a national hero in Britain. His exploits were a catalyst for the British and European’s rush to occupy Africa.
“It is not worth the while to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.”
There is some conjecture as to whether this quote, from Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden, is literal or metaphorical.
I do however believe there is a lot of truth in the passage.
Zanzibar is a city of cats, they are everywhere.
The House of Wonders is one of six palaces built by Barghhash bin Said, the second Sultan of Zanzibar. At present it houses the Museum of History and Culture of Zanzibar. It was built in 1883 and at the time a pinnacle of modernity, having electricity and even an elevator. It again used traditional coral rag but this was combined with concrete slabs and cast-iron columns, allowing for exceptionally high ceilings.
The Museum was as dusty and in need of upkeep as most of Stone Town’s historic buildings.
The Old Fort or Arab Fort was built around 1700 and is the oldest building in Zanzibar. It was constructed with materials obtained from a Portuguese chapel and ironically was designed to defend the island from the Portuguese.
There’s not much to see inside as it’s totally occupied with souvenir stalls.
However in one part an amphitheater has been built, this is home to the annual Zanzibar Film Festival.
Considering the heritage of Zanzibar it seemed only reasonable that we embark on a spice tour.
We engaged a driver through the hotel and travelled north, on Malawi Road, out of Stone Town, we then turned east towards Kizimbani.
The Ziti Spice Farm was a slick operation.
Our tour was three hours door to door but we did see and learn a lot. It was a show farm, just for the tourists and the only things they sell are to the visitors.
Apart from spices, Ziti sells soap and a perfume they call Chanel No. O. This is because it contains zero chemicals.
The main spice grown and exported from Zanzibar are cloves. These were introduced by the Omanis as a way of creating wealth. There is very little in the way of indigenous fruits or spices in Zanzibar. Everything comes from somewhere else.
The Omanis were also involved in the export of ivory, which was tied to the slave trade.
All the important exports in Zanzibar are controlled by the Tanzanian government. This seemed to be a pattern in eastern and southern Africa.
We finished our tour with a fruit feast. The fruit was excellent as it has been in all of our African travels so far.
In fact all the food in Stone Town was excellent. We had modern cuisine, local Zanzibar fare, Indian and on our last night we even had Ethiopian at Abyssinian Maritim. This had been recommended to us by the manager at our hotel.
We ordered lamb and beef, as well as an avocado salad.
When the meat dishes arrived they were ceremoniously poured onto a large woven basket. This was covered at the bottom with a very light pancake. We were also given a roll of the pancake to help us soak up the gravy.
The meats were infused with all sorts of spices.
It was interesting to taste the spices in our evening meal, that we had seen growing in the morning.
This was all washed down with a very pleasant Cabernet Sauvignon from South Africa.
I am sure that this wouldn’t feature with normal Ethiopian fair.
We checked out late from the hotel on our final morning as we were booked on the 12:30 ferry to Dar es Salaam.
This was a two hour journey by high speed catamaran.
Dar es Salaam.
On our first morning in Dar es Salaam we were again woken early, this time by Gospel music, not prayers. They were coming from the Azania Front Lutheran Church, which was right next door to our hotel.
Dar es Salaam is the largest city in Tanzania and the largest in eastern Africa. There is a decidedly German influence in the city, which is probably due to the establishment of the German East Africa Company in 1887.
Even though it’s not the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam has the bulk of its people, wealth, industry and commerce.
The Chinese influence on present day Tanzania goes back to 1965.
The first President of the United Republic of Tanzania, Mwalimu J. K. Nyerere (1922-1999) had a strong bond with China and its system of socialism. He is still controversially regarded as the Father of the Nation, yet he left it one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in Africa.
Like the late Fidel Castro, Nyerere created a brand of socialism that was more a dictatorship than a benevolent state.
By eliminating any opposition, from political rivals or unions, he managed to control power for twenty years.
We only had one full day in Dar es Salaam before we flew to Namibia so we decided to visit the National Museum of Tanzania.
We needed to put a cultural and historic perspective on all that we had seen and the museum was within walking distance from our hotel.
When the Portuguese visited Kilwa, an island of the southern coast of Tanzania, they were impressed by the wealth of the indigenous upper class. They wore silk and cotton with jewellery of gold and silver.
They subsequently returned to conquer the people and reap the rewards.
When the first Europeans visited Australia, the indigenous people would have appeared very poor.
There was no gold, silver or fine clothes, which is probably why they turned around and went somewhere else.
The museum exhibition included African rock art, European settlement, contemporary Tanzanian politics and human evolution.
The exhibition of human development was my favourite as it provided us with the other bookend to our trip to Ngorongoro Crater. There were some excellent illustrations depicting the path of evolution.
This was one of the best TSh13,000 (Aus $8) we have ever spent.