The air here is thick. It pushes against the breath like a wall. Everything is heavy: arms, legs, the bag. The Muezzin’s call to prayer fills the background while the loud laughter of playing children comes from a different corner. A little further down the road an orange merchant crosses his usual terrain. Stone Town, the oldest quarter of Zanzibar City, is a clutter. It is a mix of Muslim and Christian; of tourists and locals; of stagnant air and fresh sea breeze.
Stone Town is the commercial centre of the Tanzanian paradise island Zanzibar. It is a maze of narrow alleys that offer some protection against the heat and in which the odour of cinnamon and cloves fills the air. Here the palace of the sultan lines up right next to various museums, where you are grateful for a little breeze from the sea and where it is fun to get lost.
From the 17th to the 19th century, Zanzibar was Africa’s slave island. Today, it is the holiday highlight of the year for many tourists. As day turns to night daily life is exchanged for the turquoise sea. Evenings are filled with ice-cold Tusker beers, best enjoyed on one of the many rooftop terraces or directly on the beach dipping toes into the sand. For many visitors, this is when the adventure on the African continent begins.However, not much is “typically African” in Zanzibar and especially in Stone Town – except for the geographical location. Zanzibar is a melting pot of cultures and Stone Town its open-air museum.
Stone Town: A trip around the world in a short walk
It’s been thousands of years since the first Arabs set foot on Zanzibar. Shortly after, the Portuguese arrived, followed by the Persians and finally the Indians. No wonder then that even a small yet strong coffee in the street and a short break feels like a round-the-globe trip taken within seconds. A stroll through Stone Town is like walking through a maze. The alleys are filled with Indian businessmen and Arab clerics, who, with their long flowing robes seem to hover above the floor.
In between, diligent merchants from the African mainland bustle about, trying to sell their art and carvings. The latter can hardly be missed: almost every single door in Stone Town is a piece of art in itself. Carved by devoted craftsmen, the wooden doors have been shaped in a way that one expects an entire palace hidden behind it.Life in Zanzibar seems to be simple and manageable for the locals living on the island. Yet the bustle of various salesmen in the streets shows that survival of the fittest is a given here too. Tours through museums, city walks or cruises with old dhows – fishing boats with huge sails that bob on the shallow sea – the people in Zanzibar know, how to win tourists over for themselves.
However, this is not necessary. The charm of the old city is sufficient enough for visitors to fall in love with the area. Day in, day out, it invites tourists to go for walks, to stroll from alley to alley, to get lost between cultures. One moment you are passing Arabic carpets that neatly hang on clamps, moving elegantly in the chilly breeze from the sea. Another moment you’re passing restaurants and their curry smell so strong that it almost causes nausea. Although, that might just be the heat.
Jaw’s corner: The heart of Stone Town
Whispering erupts through the alley. “Djambo!” a nice man shouts out in Swahili and grins broadly. It is 2 p.m., the noon heat has passed and Stone Town meets up at the central market square, Jaw’s Corner. The spot is not necessarily a square, but rather a small café that developed itself to the town’s major meeting point. Here, a crowd made up of mostly men meet to chat, to debate, to argue and to play. And, of course, to drink coffee, which is so strong, a spoon could stand vertical in the mug without moving. Coffee is passed from person to person and drunk from the same communal cup.
Fast news, old-school style: On a billboard
Once in a while the laughter and chatting is interrupted. That’s when the old billboard is filled with news, carefully written down with chalk – like they used to do years and years ago. Whether it’s the announcement of a wedding, of a birthday or of a funeral – Stone Town news can best be found here. The colourful Indian garlands, hanging above Jaw’s corner, move to the beat of the men’s chatting. Right under them, everyone is united: Indians, Arabs, Persians and tourists. There are no differences at Jaw’s corner. Because this spot is more than a corner. It is a place where Stone Town is portrayed like it really is: colourful and of symbolic importance, just like the Indian garlands enthroned above the square.From Jaw’s Corner, St. Joseph cathedral can easily be reached. So can the sea, where all the sights are neatly lined up next to each other: The Arab Fort (Old Fort), the House of Wonders, and the sultan’s palace Beit-el-Sahel– all of them are remnants from a time when Zanzibar wasn’t just an island of slavery, but an important terminal for tradesmen from around the world.
About old masonries and pageantry from back in the day
The buildings seem historic from the outside, just like architectural highlights that are present in all great locations. From the inside, however, their age can be easily felt. The plaster on the walls is crumbling, the floor is uneven and all the glamour is long gone. Only the view from the colonial-era balconies over the glittering sea indicates the pomp that was once transmitted here. Pomp, however, is nothing that Stone Town cares about anymore.
At the other side of the city a completely different piece of history can be found: the former slave market. Visitors come here before they munch samosas and naan bread in restaurant next door. Today the previous slave market is filled with a garden that has been designed in a detailed and beautiful manner. In the middle of it, full-size-statues of slaves can be found, rooted deeply in the ground. They are as deeply rooted as this part of history is still anchored in Zanzibar. A time, that can be neither denied nor forgotten. It belongs to Zanzibar, just like the Darajani market at the end of the street. But this is a whole different story.Already, from far away, a strong smell rises to the nose. This time it is not the sweet mix of cinnamon and cloves, but a mixture of fish, onions and meat, that has been steamed under the striking sun. The shouts from the barkers can be heard from the far distance. Entering the market is like entering whole new world. The paradise island from outside vanishes. Now, it’s the smell, the sound and the quick “sorry” of a tourist, who has, yet again, taken a photo of one of the vendors. Something that nobody likes here.
A huge part of what is sold here, will eventually end up at the night-market at Forodhani Gardens. This hustle and bustle is located right near the riverside of Stone Town. Each evening, various vendors meet here to attract the tourists with their local food, whether it’s Zanzibar pizza, meat skewers or sugarcane juice. The market is set up as a square, two gangways in the middle connect both sides with each other. However, there is no point in walking around, as the offer is alike.
The full plates can best be enjoyed near the water. At the very spot, where locals enjoy the last bits of sunshine and kids jump into the cold sea, while tourists cruise on old dhows – up and town the coast of the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar. Once the sun sets, the day in lively Stone Town is over, the air suddenly becomes lighter than before and the muezzin sends his acoustic prayer call over the city.