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is an archipelago made up of Zanzibar and Pemba Islands, and several
islets. It is located in the Indian Ocean, about 25 miles from the
Tanzanian coast, and 6° south of the equator.
Zanzibar Island (known locally as Unguja, but as Zanzibar internationally)
is 60 miles long and 20 miles wide, occupying a total area of approximately
650 square miles.
It is characterised by beautiful sandy beaches with
fringing coral reefs, and the magic of historic Stone
Town - said to be the only functioning ancient town in East Africa.
Zanzibar has lured traders, adventurers, plunderers
and explorers to its shores for centuries...The Assyrians, Sumerians,
Egyptians, Phoenicians, Indians, Chinese, Persians, Portuguese,
Omani Arabs, Dutch and English have all been here at one time or
another. Some, particularly the Shirazi Persians and Omani Arabs,
stayed to settle and rule.
With this influence,
Zanzibar has become predominantly
Islamic (97%) - the remaining 3% is made up of Christians, Hindus
and Sikhs. The earliest visitors to Zanzibar were Arab traders who
are said to have arrived in the 8th century. The earliest building
that remains on Zanzibar is the mosque at Kizimkazi which dates
from 1107, and is a present-day tourist attraction.
For centuries the Arabs sailed with the Monsoon
winds from Oman to trade primarily in ivory, slaves and spices.
The two main islands, Unguja (normally known as Zanzibar Island)
and Pemba, provided an ideal base for the Omani Arabs, being relatively
small, and therefore fairly easy to defend. From here it was possible
for them to control 1,000 miles of the mainland coast from present
day Mozambique to Somalia.
Indeed, in 1832, Sultan Seyyid Said, of the Busaid
Dynasty that had emerged in Oman, moved his Sultanate from Muscat,
which was perhaps more difficult to protect, to Zanzibar where he
and his descendants ruled for over 130 years. Most of the wealth
lay in the hands of the Arab community, who were the main landowners,
kept themselves to themselves, and generally did not intermarry
with the Africans.
This was not true of the Shirazi Persians who came
from the Middle East to settle on the East African coast. The story
goes that in AD 975, Abi Ben Sultan Hasan of Shiraz in Persia (now
Iran) had a terrible nightmare in which a rat devoured the foundations
of his house. He took this as an omen that his community was to
be devastated. Others in the Shiraz Court ridiculed the notion,
but Sultan Hasan, his family and some followers obviously took it
very seriously because they decided to migrate. They set out in
seven dhows into the Indian Ocean but were caught in a huge storm
and separated. Thus, landfalls were made at seven different places
along the East African coast, one of which was Zanzibar, and settlements
Widespread intermarriage between Shirazis and Africans
gave rise to a coastal community with distinctive features, and
a language derived in part from Arabic, which became known as Swahili.
The name Swahili comes from the Arab word sawahil which means 'coast'.
The Zanzibar descendants of this group were not greatly involved
in the lucrative slave, spice and ivory trades. Instead, they immersed
themselves mainly in agriculture and fishing. Those Shirazis that
did not intermarry retained their identity as a separate group.
Two smaller communities were also established. Indian
traders arrived in connection with the spice and ivory trade, and
quickly settled as shopkeepers, traders, skilled artisans, and professionals.
The British became involved in missionary and trading activities
in East Africa, and attempting to suppress the slave trade centred
There are no large wild animals in Zanzibar, and forest areas such
as Jozani are inhabited by monkeys, bush-pigs and small antelopes.
Civets - and rumour has it, the elusive Zanzibar leopard! Various
species of mongoose can also be found on the island. There is a
wide variety of birdlife, and a large number of butterflies in rural
areas. The coral reefs that surround the East Coast are rich in
marine diversity, and make Zanzibar an ideal location for snorkelling
and scuba diving.
People, Religion and Language
Zanzibar's local people are an incredible mixture of ethnic backgrounds,
indicative of her colourful history. Islam is the dominant religion,
and practiced by most Zanzibaris, although there are also followers
of Christianity and Hinduism. Population is estimated at 800,000,
with the largest concentration being Zanzibar City which has approximately
100,000 inhabitants. Zanzibaris speak Swahili (known locally as
Kiswahili), a language which is spoken extensively in East Africa.
Many believe that the purest form is spoken in Zanzibar as it is
the birth place of the language.
Culture and Festivals
Zanzibar's most famous event is the Zanzibar Int. Film Festival,
also known as the Festival of the Dhow Countries. Every July, this
event showcases the best of the Swahili Coast arts scene, including
Zanzibar's favourite music, Taarab.
Zanzibar is an island state within the United Republic of Tanzania,
and has its own semi-autonomous government made up of a Revolutionary
Council and House of Representatives. The present government is
led by the island's President, Amani Karume. The government body
responsible for tourism promotion is the Zanzibar Commission of
Fishing and agriculture are the main economic activities of the
local people. Zanzibar was once the world's largest producer of
cloves, and her economy was based on large incomes thus derived.
Although cloves are still a major export along with coconut products
and spices, tourism has been ear-marked as the primary foreign exchange
earner, with more visitors coming to Zanzibar each year. At this
stage, the numbers are still low (less than 100,000 annually) and
the potential for tourism is relatively untapped. Zanzibar's tourism
private sector is represented by the Zanzibar Association of Tourism
It may not have a particularly romantic name, but Stone Town is
the old city and cultural heart of Zanzibar, little changed in the
last 200 years. It is a place of winding alleys, bustling bazaars,
mosques and grand Arab houses whose original owners vied with each
other over the extravagance of their dwellings. This one-upmanship
is particularly reflected in the brass-studded, carved, wooden doors
- there are more than 500 different examples of this handiwork.
You can spend many idle hours and days just wandering through the
fascinating labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways.
of the houses that can be seen today were built in the 19th century
when Zanzibar was one of the most important trading centres in the
Indian Ocean region. The coraline rock of Zanzibar was a good building
material, but it is also easily eroded.
This is evident by the large number of houses that
are in a bad state of repair.Several buildings
have already been renovated and the Stone Town Conservation Authority
has been established to co-ordinate the restoration of the town
to its original magnificence. Pictured opposite is a 'before and
after' look at the restoration work done on the Old Dispensary.
As a result of sensible policy, nearly all of the major hotels built
in Stone Town are housed in renovated buildings
As you walk through the town, please remember that
Stone Town is very much a real community, where real people live
and work. It is not a museum piece or theme park created for tourists,
and sensitivity should be shown to the local people. If you want
to learn more about Stone Town, there are various ways to do it.
You can either wander through the narrow streets by yourself armed
with a map, or you can embark on a tour with one of the local tour
operators. But first, take a look at our list of places to visit
in Stone Town.