Often described as a warren of alleyways and crumbling buildings, Stone Town is an intriguing mix of architectures and styles. Arab, Indian, European and African styles fuse together in the seemingly dilapidated buildings but it is in this mix that the vibe of Stone Town is defined.
Stone Town is the largest of the prehistoric towns on the East Coast of Africa. It is located in Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibar archipelago.
If you look hard enough, you’ll even be able to glance further back in history and find some remnants of the heyday of the Swahili civilization, which ruled supreme in this part of Africa. Some of Stone Town’s most commonplace architectural features have fascinating stories to tell.
The earliest inhabitants-built mud and palm leaf thatch huts and are believed to have settled at Shangani Point– the tip of the peninsula which occupies the Western tip of the Stone town. The town of Zanzibar grew and developed from this point projecting into the Zanzibar Channel, about halfway down the island’s western coastline.
The choice of this particular site and its subsequent growth into one of the most important urban settlements was determined mostly by its natural harbor, which offered incoming vessels protection during both monsoon seasons, encouraging trade.
Today, the architecture of stone town in Zanzibar is a product of three centuries of continuous development. It reflects the ways in which settlements in the region evolved with different groups of immigrants from around the Indian Ocean bringing with them their particular cultural and building conventions that were adopted to the available materials and superimposed upon an urban context that was still undefined and rapidly changing.
Barazas, or benches, have been a focal point of community life in Zanzibar for centuries. Benches run around verandahs outside traditional Swahili homes, or flank the heavy doors in more distinctively Arab-style townhouses. Baraza evolved as a way for Islamic men to receive visitors in their homes without compromising the privacy of their womenfolk.
Coffee and sweetmeats would be served on the baraza to anyone who arrived, with only the closest friends or family members being invited into the innermost recesses of the house. The famous Zanzibar doors are made of massive teak or mahogany structures which grace the front of almost every building of note, and their style has been copied all over the world.
Another notable feature of Stone Town’s houses are their balconies. The bigger the balcony, the greater the status of the owner. The finest balconies in Stone Town are those running around the so-called Old Dispensary (now renamed the Zanzibar Cultural Centre).
Stone Town has an incredible wealth of experiences to offer. You could simply take a walk in its winding alleyways and enjoy the mélange of cultures. The smell of spices is intense. On your tour, you can admire the beautiful stone buildings and see their beautiful wooden doors, carved with all kinds of detailed patterns. There is more than enough to experience in a walk through this unique district.
If you wish for a more concrete experience, you could also try some exciting sightseeing spots, including:
- Visit Beit al-Ajaib, the Island’s National Museum. Originally, the building was the palace of a sultan, but today it houses historical articles.
- East-Africa’s first Anglican church was completed here in 1880. The church was erected to signify the end of the slave trade, and it stands on the ground where the slave trade once took place. Visit Christ Church Cathedral and the monument next to it.
- The oldest building in Stone Town is Ngome Kongwe. Ngome Kongwe is an old fortress built by the Arabic population in 1700. The fortress, which was built for battle, was never the centre of a war. Today you can see plays at the fortress, as an amphitheatre has been built at the location.
- When you visit Stone Town, a visit to Darajani, the largest market on the island, is a must. The market thrums with energy and barter, and you can buy anything you could possibly want. Fruit, selfie sticks and live chickens are all among the many goods at the market.
- You can also visit the Hamamni Persian Baths, which were built in the late 1800s. Unfortunately, the baths are no longer in service, but they were some of the first public baths in Stone Town, giving some cultural insight into the city.