The Zanzibar Archipelago comprises of two major islands, Zanzibar and Pemba, along with a few smaller islets. The “Zanzibar” that is commonly referred to by visitors is the bigger of the two islands. It is also known as the ‘Spice Island,’ and is famous for its white beaches, narrow alleyways and brass studded, finely decorated Zanzibar doors. In the year 2000, UNESCO claimed Zanzibar’s Stone Town a World Heritage Site.
There are various interpretations as to the meaning of “Zanzibar” and some say that it is derived from Persian, whereas others say from the Arabic word zinj “meaning black” and barr meaning “coast”, which loosely translates into the “Coast of the Blacks” referring to the first inhabitants of the island. Others prefer to translate it as a phrase – “Fair is the coast” (Zayn Za’l Barr). Swahili is the most widely spoken language of eastern Africa and commonly spoken on the isles, although many understand and speak English. The word Swahili itself is derived from Arabic Sawahili which is plural for Sahil meaning “[Language] of the Coast”. It is a language that fuses African Bantu with largely Arabic words and has further borrowed words from many other languages like Portuguese, German, English and Persian.
There are a lot of Islamic touches to Zanzibar and today, 90% of the population is Muslim. In the late 1600’s the Omani Arabs defeated the Portuguese and the Omani Sultan, Seyyid Said, established Zanzibar as the capital of Oman.
As a child I visited Zanzibar numerous times, staying with my uncle and aunt in Stone Town. Over the years, I have my favourite hangout places that I recommend to friends. I’ve had the honour of being ‘guide’ to many of my friends. So here is my list of top 10 must-sees for when visiting my beloved Zanzibar:
Mosques can be found at nearly every corner of Stone Town and countless more outside. The following three however, I feel should not be missed.
1. Historical masajid:
a. The Blue Mosque
An architectural feat, built on the water in Zanzibar, the Blue Mosque is referred to as “Miskiti mabluu” in Swahili.
b. Kizimkazi Mosque
Kizimkazi mosque still stands today as the oldest and most ornamental building at the very south of the archipelago. It has a dated inscription recording its construction in AH500/1107AD. The inscription commemorates the building of the mosque by Sheikh Abu Mussa Al-Hassan Bin Muhhamad. It reads, “Ordered El Sheikh, el Seyyid Abi Amram, Mfaume Al Hassan bin Mohammed, May God grant him long life and destroy his enemy. The building of this mosque, on the day of Sunday in the month of Dhu’l Qada in the year 500H.”
Controlled excavation suggests that the mosque was rebuilt during the 18th century using the foundation of the original mosque and the North wall that was still standing.
Kizimakzai mosque has a beautiful floriated Kufic script, the finest on the eastern coast of Africa, going all round the mihrab that was inspired by a calligraphy school in the Persian Gulf. Outside the mosque, a well provides water to the worshippers for ablution and the nearby village as drinking water. There are also a number of graves around the mosque.
c. Malindi Mosque
One of Stone Town’s oldest mosques, the Malindi Mosque, is unusual because of its conical minaret, making it one of a few in East Africa. The others being in Pemba, Lamu and Mombasa. It dates back to the 17th century and is also referred to as the The Mnara mosque.
2. Darajani Bazaar
One of Zanzibar’s main and bustling bazaars is in Stone Town, known as “Darajani.” Located along Darajani road, shopping here happens along a fun-walk on a very narrow and crowded street. You can get anything here, from local products to Chinese artifacts, from soft cotton Indian bed sheets and Indonesian flory dresses to Taiwanese radios and Kenyan plastic shoes. Don’t be shy to bargain and be careful of pickpockets in this very crowded alleyway.
3. Jozani Forest
Jozani forest is the only remaining natural forest on the island. It is the home of the rare red Colobus Monkey (Piliocolobus kirkii), who is only found in this forest. The forest also accommodates a large mangrove swamp and a tract of natural forest that is inhabited by a few unique species of trees, butterflies and birds.
4. Kizimbani: The spice tour
Here you can see how the spices of Zanzibar are grown. The plantation produces cloves, ginger, black pepper, turmeric, vanilla, lemon grass, cinnamon and nutmeg amongst many others. You can also get a chance to taste the exotic Zanzibari fruits like shokishoki, jackfruit, doriani, mango, starfruit, avocado and many others.
5. House of Wonders
The House of Wonders was built between 1870 and 1888 as a ceremonial palace for Sultan Barghash. It is also known as the National Museum or Beit el-Ajaib. The locals were amazed at its structure and alleged that it was the tallest building in East Africa at the time. It was also supposedly the first building which had tap water, electricity and an elevator.
6. The Old Fort
The Omani’s built the fort between 1698 and 1701 to defend themselves from the Portuguese and other Arab dynasties. It is presumed to be the oldest building in Stone Town.
7. Forodhani Gardens
Not a garden as one may imagine with lots of pretty flowers, Forodhani Gardens faces the Indian ocean and has the Old Fort as well as the House of Wonders in its background. It is a place of meeting and relaxation for the locals. Magnificent sunsets can be admired while drinking sugarcane juice. Young boys dive into the water from the edge of the Gardens. In the evening there is an assortment of local food delights on offer.
8. Dolphin or whale watching
There are a few places to view dolphins and spot whales in Zanzibar. The most famous is in the Kizimkazi area where the oldest mosque is located. The Indo-pacific humpback and bottlenose dolphins are common species found in the Zanzibar waters. You can jump into the water for an experience of a lifetime – just watch out for the sharks!
9. Prison Island
Now known as Changuu Island, it is home to giant land tortoises that were imported from the Seychelles in the late 19th century as a gift from the government of the Seychelles.
10. Mangapwani Caves
Located about 20 kilometers North of Zanzibar town, these caves have been suggested by historians as having been used to hide slaves after the legal trade had been abolished in 1873.
Other things to do in Zanzibar:
• Scuba diving
• Strolling through the alleyways to admire the Zanzibar doors
• Visiting the fish market in Stone Town
• Henna Painting
Nahida Esmail resides in DaresSalam, Tanzania. She is a published writer for children’s and young adults books. Her latest book, “The Detectives of Shangani: Mystery of the Lost Rubies” has won second prize for the Burt Award. She is a regular contributor for the Moms and Tots section for Al-Ummah, a South African community newspaper.