Stone Town, Zanzibar, is without a doubt one of the richest locations in Tanzania in terms of both history and culture. Located just off the Eastern coast of Tanzania on the island of Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibar Archipelago, Stone Town has made a name for itself as a living portrait of the past. Named after the predominant use of coral stone as the primary construction material, Stone Town has a unique look that hardly differs throughout its entirety. With the tides of change including Arab, Indian, European, and African influences, Stone Town remains a true melting pot of tradition with a modern impact from its primarily Muslim population, offering an experience that combines both old and new. One reason many people choose to visit Stone Town is its unique and jam-packed history, which offers much in the way of sightseeing and tours. For National Travel and Tourism Week, we will highlight some of the historical artifacts that make Stone Town a living history lesson, with many of its attractions listed by the World Heritage Convention as sites of importance. When in Tanzania, the short boat ride to Stone Town will be well worth your time.
Photo Credit: Victor Ochieng
One of the most prominent attractions in Stone Town happens to be one of the forts guarding it, at least metaphorically. The Old Fort of Zanzibar, once a legitimate fort that provided protection for the city’s slave and spice trades, now stands unguarded and decommissioned, a relic of past times. Built in the late 17th century by Omanis as a means of defense from the Portuguese, the fort faced little action in its time, although reports say it did successfully stop an invasion at least once. However, its lack of action lead to a remarkably strong structure; so strong, in fact, that the local government briefly used it as a prison. It’s time as a prison was short lived, and eventually the fort was used both as a barracks and as a storage facility. Today, you won’t be readily reminded of the forts previous history, as much of it has been converted to attract tourists to the island. The fort’s main courtyard serves as a cultural center, with a variety of shops selling merchandise geared towards tourists. Part of the fort now also serves as an open-air amphitheatre, providing lively entertainment that starkly contrasts to its notable history. Although much of the fort is now used for much more cheerful reasons, its structural integrity still lends itself to the tours reminding us of its varied past. With many of the locations accessible with guides, it's not hard to imagine what it must have been like defending a city nearly identical today as it was hundreds of years ago.
Photo Credit: Flikr user Irene2005
Another glimpse into the past comes from the Hamamni Persian Baths. Constructed by Sultan Said Barghash between 1870 and 1888, the baths remained for public use until 1920, when the water was shut off. Built with Persian influences, the architecture may remind some of the times of Ancient Greece. Although no longer functioning, the baths remain in near pristine condition, giving your imagination an easy time when recalling the days when the baths were filled to the brim with citizens.
Finally, the Old Dispensary, locally known as Ithnasheri Dispensary, is a mix of Indian, African, and European architecture, for it passed through the hands of many owners before its eventual finish in the early 1900’s. During this time, it was owned by an Indian merchant, Haji Nasser Nurmohamed, who turned the building into a functioning dispensary, providing charitable help to those in need. Following the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964, the building fell into disuse, although more recently restoration projects have brought it back to its former glory.
Throughout Stone Town’s history, the influences of numerable cultures have left their mark, each leaving behind a little piece of their own. Today, Stone Town remains one of Tanzania's most historically rich spots, with World Heritage Site’s around nearly every corner. Although much of what it offers is for those interested in history, the busy atmosphere, lively neighborhoods and close proximity to the mainland all make for great reasons to visit Stone Town.