After the Perfume River in Hoi An and the souks of Marrakech, Zanzibar rounds out the trio of ‘most-exotic’ places on the globe that I’ve long wanted to spend not days, but weeks. While these are very real places – crowded, often hot, occasionally dirty – they have each set themselves up in my mind, mostly through books, as mysterious, romantic. Now I’ve officially spent time in each.
Walking the tight streets of Stone Town, the centuries-old market on Unguja, the main island of Zanzibar, the place lives up to the reputation built in my mind. The earliest visitors here were Arab traders who are said to have arrived in the 8th century; pirates swarmed its coastline beginning five to six hundred years ago. I walk into its earliest building, the mosque at Kizimkazi, which dates back to 1107. Hints of its human influences – Assyrians, Sumerians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Indians, Chinese, Persians, Portuguese, Omani Arabs, Dutch and English – are visible everywhere. 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.
For centuries the Arabs sailed with the Monsoon winds from Oman to trade primarily in ivory, slaves and spices. The two main islands, Unguja 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. 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 began.
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.
This day we get lost in the narrow market streets, modern-day stores selling much of the same factory-made “antiques” to a booming tourist crowd, and emerge in the real Zanzibar, a sprawling open-air market. Even in the late afternoon as the sun begins to disappear on a hot, hot day it is packed with people weighing fruits and vegetables, eyeing shell fish and giant jack’s, for the home table.
It’s a beautiful end to a first day on the so-called spice island; from here, its north, into the heart of what is increasingly becoming “the pirate’s sea.” So … stay tuned!
Read more from Jon at Bowermaster’s Adventures.