Monday, June 9, 2008

Zanzibar: Stone Town

Zanzibar, the very name conjures up sights and smells of spices and slavery. Well the spices are still there but thankfully the slavery is long gone.

The airport is lovely, a very small wooden building and the luggage was brought from the plane in wooden carts and put on wooden trestles, Ralph laughed at the luggage "carousel". He got his video camera out and the baggage handler loved it and gave him a beaming smile.

The annals of Zanzibar read like a chapter from The Thousand and One Nights and evoke many exotic images. Otherwise known as the Spice Island, it has lured travellers to its shores, some in search of trade, some in search of plunder, and some like us as tourists.

It was early in the 19th century that the island enjoyed its most recent heyday, following the introduction of the clove tree in 1818. By the middle of the century, Zanzibar had become the world's largest producer of cloves and the largest slaving entrepot in Africa. Nearly 50,000 slaves, drawn from as far away as Lake Tanganyika, passed through its market every year. As a result, Zanzibar became the most important town on the East African coast as virtually all trade passed through it.

We stopped in the middle of Stone Town which if you want to see the real Zanzibar is the place to stay. The hotel, The Serena Inn, was right on the beach but as you walked out of the front entrance of the hotel you were in Stone Town. The hotel is in the perfect position. As you sit in the dining room the beach is 10ft below. As we ate our meal we watched the dhows drifting silently past. The square just in front of the hotel was the site of the original slave market.

Stone Town is Zanzibar's old quarter. It has been called the only functioning historical city in East Africa and is little changed since the 1850's. It is a fascinating place to wander around. We saw lots of crumbled and crumbling buildings. The old Arab Fort which was originally built by the Portuguese in 1700, with its ochre-coloured walls is a primitive structure. It withstood an attack by the mazhrui Arabs from Mombasa in 1754, and was afterwards used as a goal. As late as 1890 criminals sentenced to death were still publicly beheaded by the sword, just outside the walls.

We felt quite safe and unthreatened as we walked around. The guide books say although you may not know where you are, you are never lost in Stone Town, and it's true. It is a marvellous place to see the greated studded carved wooden doors. Custom ordained that the doorway of a house should be built before the house itself. The ritual was given added strength by Koranic scripts and representational carvings which adorn the doorways. The Zanzibar door was traditionally made of teak, and was set in a square frame, covered by delicate and slender carvings. Indian influences during the 19th century modified this prootype, producing doors with arched tops and more elaborate floral designs. Motifs to be seen on the doors include the lotus, the fish, the chain and the frankincense, symbolising reproductive power, fertility, security and wealth.

We went on a tour of the spice farms which is well worth doing. When you leave the coast and drive inland it does get very hot and humid and walking around, being shown how the spices are grown is hot work.

Just outside Stone Town we stopped to see the house where Dr. Livingstone lived. He lived here just before he left, in 1866, on his last journey, setting out from Zanzibar to go up country. He returned to Zanzibar in a coffin.

At the spice farm we were shown cardamon, lemon grass, mint, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, nutmeg, lime and a root of ginger. We tasted quite a few of these spices. We also saw chillies,coffee and tapioca being grown as well. It was very hot, a young lad shinned up a tree and threw down a red fruit with prickles, it was a lychee and tasted great, not really sweet but very refreshing. We had the opportunity to visit other spice farms but we were too hot and drove back to our hotel.

The next morning sitting over breakfast we watched the passing fishermen, some in dug-out canoes poling their way along close inshore. There were also dhows sailing up the coast and a motorised dug-out canoe that looked in danger of sinking.
We took a taxi to the Cathedral Church of Christ. This was built in 1877 on the site which until 1883 was occupied by the infamous slave market. It is difficult now to imagine the scenes that took place here, when 300 slaves or more mght be herded and paraded here each day in the late afternoon. We went down some stairs and saw the two holding chambers where as many as 75 slaves with chains round their neck and linked together were laid side by side until either they died - and a lot did die - or they were taken out to the slave markets. Outside, in the grounds of the Church, there is a group of statues which commemorates the slave trade.

Inside the church the font marks the pit that dead slaves were pushed into. Life as a slave was so cheap, we were told, that a man would shoot at a slave just to check his rifle was working properly. On a pillar beside the chancel is a crucifix, made from the tree under which Livngstone's heart was buried. Also inside the church, the altar was erected on the same spot as the slave whipping post had been. A stained glass window above the altar commemorates the British sailors who died on anti-slaving patrols.

The custom of burying slaves alive in the walls of houses under construction is thought to have been fairly common in old Zanzibar. Skeletons were discovered in the foundations of the old Cable and Wireless building, erected on the site of the original slave market.

We enjoyed our stay in Zanzibar. It is a super place to relax after being on safari. The people are friendly and if we went back we would stay at the same hotel. Everyone we encountered in Zanzibar was warm and friendly with a ready smile.

No comments: