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Tanzania: Stone Town

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Stone Town > Tanzania > Africa

[Visited: August 1994, April 2019]

While I am traveling the boat from Dar-es-Salaam to Zanzibar, I try to remember my first visit, searching my memory for images and impressions, but only find rusty recollections of a bumpy ride and a spice tour on the island. This time, I will concentrate on Stone Town, the old part of Zanzibar City, the capital of the island. After going through immigration upon arrival, I walk to the old dispensary, opposite the port. It is a light-green painted building in a unique style, with coloured glass making it even more attractive from the inside. After getting a room in a traditional house with heavily decorated wooden doors (the most beautiful hotel room door I ever had!), I start exploring the town. To my relief, I find that although there are signs of increased tourism, much of the old town is still as it has been for centuries. People sitting down and chatting on the barazas (stone bench), cleaning the street, waiting for customers at their shop, walking to one of the many mosques for afternoon prayers. There are no cars as most alleys are simply too narrow for them, and most people walk, bike, or take a scooter. I am always greeted with a big smile, especially after my Salaam Aleykums.

Picture of Stone Town (Tanzania): Tower of the Old Fort of Stone Town

The name Stone Town refers to the coral used for construction: you see coral stones in buildings where the plaster is peeling. The process of decay is sad, but at the same time, part of the attraction of Stone Town. People have lived here for centuries, still continue to do so, and their houses all have a character of their own. What makes them more attractive are balustrades and the finely carved wooden doors. These last come in several types: mainly from Omani and Indian origin. Sone have Arabic writings, verses of the Quran, while others have flowery decorations. Some are square, or rectangular, while others have curves on the top. Every alley has its own surprises, and I find great pleasure just following my instinct, turning right or left where I feel like. People offer help, ask me where I am headed, and ask me if I am lost, and look puzzled when I tell them that I am heading nowhere in particular, just walking through this unique town with its rich history of traders, of visitors from Africa, the Middle East (mostly Oman), India, China, and Europe.

Picture of Stone Town (Tanzania): Looking up a house in Stone Town with two windows with shutters

When I hit the road on the west side of Stone Town, I walk north, and follow the road until I reach the Old Fort, passing by one of the houses claiming to be the birthplace of Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of rockband Queen. After the release of the popular movie Bohemian Rhapsody, surely the amount of visitors looking for his roots here must have multiplied, and people are trying to cash in on it. The Old Fort has sturdy walls and round towers, with a big open space inside where I find stalls selling souvenirs. Next door, I find the House of Wonders, the largest and tallest building of Stone Town and built in the 19th century for the Sultan of Zanzibar. Taking its name because it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity, it survived several wars, houses a museum, but unfortunately is under extensive repair and closed for visitors. Next door, I find the Palace Museum, in the former Royal Palace, and continue walking the west coast until I reach the Big Tree at the north end of the promenade to watch sunset. After a comfortable night in my traditional hotel, I am out early to explore more. I find that the barazas, or stone benches, are perfect to walk on with heavy rain: a severe downpour turns the alleys into fast-streaming rivers. I pay a visit to the Palace Museum, which gives a great insight into royal life on the Zanzibar of the 19th and 20th century, with a special section dedicated to princess Sayyida Salme (later Emily Ruete) who caused an uproar on the island when she fled to Europe to live with her German husband. From the museum, I walk to port again, say goodbye to the alleys of Stone Town, determined to come back for a longer visit that will include more of this irresistible and historic island. I make sure to be on deck to see the waterfront of Stone Town with its proud buildings before Zanzibar disappears behind us.

Picture of Stone Town (Tanzania): View of the Sultan Palace, currently an interesting museum
Picture of Stone Town (Tanzania): Alley of Stone Town with muslim boy
Picture of Stone Town (Tanzania): One of the many decorated carved wooden doors of Stone Town
Picture of Stone Town (Tanzania): Bicycle and devotee at the Friday Mosque of Stone Town
Picture of Stone Town (Tanzania): Balconies can be seen everywhere in Stone Town
Picture of Stone Town (Tanzania): Alley in Stone Town with cyclist, pedestrians, and shops
Picture of Stone Town (Tanzania): Old Mosque in Stone Town, built by Indian immigrants
Picture of Stone Town (Tanzania): The door of the House of Wonders seen in close-up
Picture of Stone Town (Tanzania): Side view of the House of Wonders with its characteristic clocktower
Picture of Stone Town (Tanzania): Wooden door with elaborate carvings in Stone Town
Picture of Stone Town (Tanzania): The old Ismaili caravanserai in the Malindi quarter of Stone Town
Picture of Stone Town (Tanzania): The walls of the Old Fort of Stone Town seen from below
Picture of Stone Town (Tanzania): View from the eye-catching balcony of the old dispensary, near the port

Around the World in 80 Clicks

Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Stone Town (). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Stone Town.
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