Stone Town also known as Mji Mkongwe (Swahili for “old town”) is the old part of Zanzibar City, the main city of Zanzibar,
The Stone Town of Zanzibar is a fine example of the Swahili coastal trading towns of East Africa. It retains its urban fabric and townscape virtually intact and contains many fine buildings that reflect its particular culture, which has brought together and homogenized disparate elements of the cultures of Africa, the Arab region, India, and Europe over more than a millennium.
After independence, unfortunately, several high-rise apartment buildings were built in Stone Town, whereby the former charm of the city has suffered somewhat. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of the old town is not lost, especially in the western part of Stone Town. There you can still stroll through the narrow streets, where the Swahili houses are close together, decorated with beautifully carved wooden doors and wooden balconies.
The Waterfront Palaces and Museums:
The House of Wonders
The tallest building in Stone Town, the House of Wonders, or Beit al-Ajaib, dates from 1833. Built by Sultan Barghash, whose architectural spending spree marked the final years of the Sultans’ independence, this palace lived up to its name. It was the tallest building in East Africa when it was built, the first to have electric light and the first to have running water. It also boasted the first electric lift (no longer functioning).
Though not the most attractive building in the capital this extensive museum (arguable the best in East Africa) is a sight to behold. Tiers of balconies on cast iron pillars rise around a roofed atrium. The palace was one of the few to survive the British bombardment of 1869 unscathed (even the palaces chandeliers remain in tact). However, the lighthouse and Swahili clock (be warned that to get the correct time on must add or subtract six hours) were rebuilt after the onslaught.
Exhibits are centred around Zanzibar’s history and East-African life. There are displays dedicated to Swahili medicine, food and drink, music and traditional healing, as well as historical pieces such as Dr Livingstone’s medical chest, 16th century Portuguese bronze canons and a 1950’s Ford Zephyr (a written off car once driven by President Karume).
The Old Dispensary
This delicate four storey building, just opposite the ferry terminals, is known as one of East-Africa’s most charming landmarks. Although faded, its colonial glamour is difficult to deny. Founded by Sir Tharia Topan, a businessman whose wealth was in a large part linked to the slave trade, and who also founded Zanzibar’s first non-denominational school, the dispensary was completed in 1894 (three years after it’s founder’s death).
After the 1964 Revolution, like so many buildings on the island, the hospital was abandoned and feel into a state of disrepair. In 1990 it was taken under the wing of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and has been painstakingly restored. An exhibit on the second floor recounts the process. However, the building is still not really being put to any great use. Visitors are welcome to look around 0900-1700 on weekdays, free of charge and the first and second floors boast some nice sea views.
The Old Customs House
Just past The Big Tree—an impressive Indian Banyan that stands on the intersection between Jamatini and Mizingani Roads and under which one can enquire about boat trips to the Islands off Stone Town—is The Old Customs House.
From the outside the building is somewhat overbearing. Its green wrought iron balconies and pillars and thick walls can seem daunting. But inside the building retains a remarkable lightness. The Dhow Counties Music Academy is housed on the top floor and welcomes visitors. You can buy CDs and even enquire about courses.
The Palace Museum
This museum is open daily 0900-1800, or 0800-2 30pm during Ramadan (TSh 3000 or USD 3). This large whitewashes building was the official residence of the last of the sultans, Jamshid bin Abdullah. It houses some of the few possessions that he and his family left behind in the wake of the 1964 revolution. However most of the most precious items were either taken by the sultan or removed to other palaces and state building in Stone Town by the revolutionaries that occupied the building during its post-revolution days as The People’s Palace.
The building houses numerous displays dedicated to the lives of the sultans and various state ceremonies. Furniture is the main attraction. Colonial and traditional ebony pieces with extensive histories occupy most floors. The pieces are interesting and well labelled, but the museums guides will offer more exciting insights into the exhibits for a tip, and sometimes even give visitors access to the normally restricted graveyard, home to the final remains of some of Zanzibar’s most infamous sultans.
The Old Fort
This castle or coral stone with its round towers and sturdy defences is a surprisingly good spot to relax and escape the noise and chaos of the town. It is open daily 0900-2200, and is free (though any evening performances are ticketed).
The fort dates back to the end of the seventeenth century and the expulsion of the Portuguese by the Omani Arabs. The fort swallowed up some of the original Portuguese buildings including a chapel dating from c.1612 and a merchant’s house. It was predominantly used as a prison by the Omanis, with public executions frequently held outside the East Wall. It saw very little military action.
During the twentieth century the fort was put to various uses; as a market, a customs house and a depot for the newly built railway in the 1920s and throughout the 1930’s and 40’s and even as the Zanzibar Ladies Tennis Club for a period after 1949. After the 1964 Revolution the fort, like so many other historic buildings in the city, fell into disrepair, but in 1994 was reclaimed and restored. It is now home to craft shops, an open-air amphitheatre, a tourist information desk, tour company and restaurant. There are occasionally concerts in the amphitheatre which are advertised on posters outside the fort, and visitors can enquire about sound and light show that is sometimes held in the southern part of the fort.
These shady public gardens—currently being restored—are a good place to relax though they do attract the papasi (street peddlers). There are some interesting stalls in the gardens during the day and soon there will be a children’s playground made of reclaimed tyres. However, the market’s main lure is its evening food market.
With a huge choice of traditional dishes for exceptionally good value prices the Market has a wonderful atmosphere and a menu that outdoes most of the city’s best restaurants. Always be wary of seafood out of season as it can be less fresh than it should be, but on the whole the quality on offer at the market is surprising. Also, agree on a price before ordering as the ‘feeding men’ have a nasty habit of charging a ‘special-price’ to tourists. Having said which, USD 5 should leave you feeling more than fully fed.