ZANZIBAR: THE SPICE ISLAND
Zanzibar and the other string of coastal towns forming the water channel of the Silk Route along the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, developed as low-lying clusters of Arab, African and European influences. The Zanzibar Archipelago has long been known to travellers as an island paradise in the Indian Ocean, with the mysticism and charm of the East, but none of its complexities. Zanzibar is less than 1,500 miles across the waters from the southern Arabian coast. Thus, it lies closer to the Gulf of Aden than to the most northern tip of the Tanzanian mainland. From the elegant colonnaded terraces of plantation mansions, with large wooden balconies, stained glass windows and neo-classical stucco adornments, the scene has been set to draw attention to the uniqueness and vibrancy of the island of Zanzibar. It is a colourful fusion of cultures. A cosmopolitan history that created a style of architecture and a unique tapestry of people not found in many places around the world. The island is an oasis of calm with a vast stretch of white powdered beaches, like a sailboat calmly adrift along the shores of the Indian Ocean. During summer, the island's rustling coconut palms amid a fragrance of exotic fruits and flowers, have captivated the imagination of the merchants who arrived there in search of prosperity. Zanzibar is a well-preserved example of a Swahili trading town on the coast of East Africa, which was once thrust into the east-west spice trade. For centuries, it was a semi-autonomous Arab town composed of the Zanzibar Archipelago, with a collection of small islands producing cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper. The Stone Town offered a protected and defensible harbour and was an ideal location for simultaneous voyages between Asia and Africa. The name ‘Stone Town’ is acquired from the ubiquitous use of coral stone as the main construction material. It gives the town a characteristic reddish warm colour.
The splendid urban fabric of the old townscape is unaltered, and still holds many fine historical buildings that showcases the distinction of heritage, with a blend of rich styles. The most prominent feature of a Zanzibari house is the intricately decorated wooden door. The bas-reliefs, sometimes with big brass studs reflecting Indian motifs such as the lotus flower, are mainly used as an emblem of prosperity. Also, the island’s floating bungalows show characteristics of colonial European houses, with ancient Indian influences. The word bungalow originates from the Indian term bangla, which denotes cottages with thatched roofs and low ceilings surrounded by wide porches. This style was translated into classical Indian architecture when the British used it to design their vacation summer homes. Hence, the homes of the wealthy Europeans were built as a one-storey horizontal sprawl, with a large spacious porch, overhanging eaves and fireplaces fitted with elegant chimneys. If the porch did not wrap around the entire house, it is supplemented by a veranda, which plays the vital role of ventilating the dwelling.
Rough wind blowing inland from the Arabian coast, encouraged trade and the exchange of culture between Europeans, Arabs, Asians and Africans. Arab explorers and merchants managed to cross the rough waters of the Indian Ocean, fighting the unpredictability of the monsoon weather, because of their large sailing ships known as the dhow. The ingenious Arab sailing boat is designed to sustain the heavy loads of trade, while combating the natural elements encountered during the tough journey. Built without plans nor power tools, the wooden hull of the boat is fastened together using the stiff roots of the mangrove trees without any nails. However, the true worth of the dhow lay in the flexibility of its sails. Unlike traditional European ships with sails depending on having the wind behind them, the sail of the dhow is designed to swiftly manoeuvre and catch the wind from any direction. For Arab sailors, the invention of the dhow marked the beginning of an age-old maritime tradition, one that took them from the most southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf of Aden, up the Red Sea and to the Mediterranean. Along the way, many seaside trade towns like Mombasa, Mogadishu, Djibouti, Massawa, Suakin and Alexandria grew to become influential capitals of commerce along the Red Sea gateway.