Mji Mkongwe (in Swahili) or Stone town is the ancient part of Zanzibar City, the capital of the island of Zanzibar, a part of the East African state of Tanzania. Stone Town is an enjoyable place to saunter around aimlessly and experience a living history.
The stone town is built on the western coast of the island. It consists of narrow alleys, houses, shops, bazaars and mosques. To get around the town one has to use bicycles or motorbikes because the inner streets are too narrow for cars to drive into. Stone Town has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The history of the stone town goes back to when Zanzibar was the main trading port of East Africa. The Swahili architecture of the stone town incorporates elements of ancient Persian, Arab, European (Portuguese/British), Indian and African styles. The evidence can be seen in the archaic buildings that make up the stone town.
The two buildings that dominate the seafront of Stone Town are Beit-El-Ajaib or the House of Wonders and the Arab fort.
THE ARAB FORT.
The Arab Fort stands on the site of a former Portuguese Church and residential quarters and was converted to a fort for the town garrison during the 18th Century. The Mazrui Arab dynasty from Mombasa (Kenya) made an unsuccessful attempt to capture the fort in 1754. The skilfully carved Arab door of the main entrance, was in the past in a house belonging to Sultan Seyyid Khaled bin Mohammed
The fort has been restored and now houses the Zanzibar Cultural centre. It is open to visitors and contains shops, a cafe and an ancient Greek-styled amphitheatre. This is where the annual Zanzibar International Film Festival is held every July and attracts film and culture lovers from across the globe.
The Arab Fort hosts the Zanzibar Festivals. Which includes the
i)Zanzibar Festival of the Dhow Countries- This festival involves theatre, traditional and contemporary music, exhibition of paintings, crafts and sculptures. The Festival is held beginning 30 June to 9th July every year.
ii)Zanzibar International Film Festival: – This held together with the festival of the dhow countries.
iii)The Zanzibar Cultural Festival- This takes place for a whole week in July, it brings together musicians from different parts of the world.
The Mambo Club, where music performances and DJ sessions are held, is also housed in the Arab fort.
THE HOUSE OF WONDERS OR BEIT–EL AJAIB.
The House of Wonders was built by Sultan Seyyid Barghash (1870-1888) as a grand palace for ceremonial purposes. It was the first building to have electric lights hence its name. It survived British bombardment in 1896 and both Sultan Seyyid Hamud (1896-1902) and Sultan Seyyid Ali bin Hamud (1902-1911) dwelled in the house of wonders, before it housed Government offices in 1911. It is topped by a large clock tower and surrounded by tiers of pillars and balconies. At the entrance are two fine Portuguese bronze guns made during the sixteenth century captured from the Portuguese by Persians with the help of the British.The House of Wonders has currently been restored and re-opened as a museum. It is believed to be built on dead slaves and black criminals’ bodies.
Below the House of Wonders, by the pier, is the popular Forodhani Gardens, where locals gather in the evening and market stalls sell food and drinks. The dancing and flickering flames of kerosene lamps, tin lamps and charcoal jikos add a lovely atmosphere to the evening market. Evenings in Zanzibar are about communing. You will find people (mostly men) in small groups discussing and children still playing. There is an incredible variety of fresh seafood like squid, crab, tuna and prawn that will be grilled by the vendors as you watch. Meat kebabs, chips and chilli sauce are also available. The sugar cane juice is also a refreshing treat. There is also a small curio and souvenirs market. REMEMBER this is Africa and BARGAIN! BARGAIN! BARGAIN! for anything you buy in the market. Earlier in the day a trip to the local market and buying some of the fabulous selection of fruit available in Zanzibar is recommended.
THE ANGLICAN CATHEDRAL.
The Anglican Church of Christ was built between 1874 and 1882 to commemorate the end of the slave trade. It was constructed on the site of a slave market that was closed down earlier in 1873. The Church is still in use. The external walls are covered by crenulations and recesses ending in tri-foil arches. The clock on the tower was a gift from Sultan Seyyid Barghash. One can also see the stain glass window in the cathedral that depicts Christ as an African and the cross in cathedral commemorating David Livingstone a missionary and explorer. The only remaining evidence of the slave activities are the underground chambers at the St. Monica hostel.
Freddy Mercury’s House on Kenyatta Road.
In case you didn’t know, Zanzibar is famous as the birth place of Freddie Mercury, who used to be the lead singer of the band QUEEN.
Built around 1860, north of the town, this was a base for many European missionaries and explorers as they attempted journeys into the mainland Tanzania then known as Tanganyika. David Livingstone, missionary and famous explorer, stayed here in 1866 for a few weeks until his final expedition. This house was given to David Livingstone by Sultan Seyyid Said. At some point in its history, the building was used as a rest house for invalids and for religious meetings, by the Ithnaasheri Khoja Community. In 1947 the government purchased it. It presently homes the Zanzibar Tourist Corporation.
The Old Dispensary.
This grand four-storey building found near the sea front on Mizingani Road It was built originally as a private home for a well-known Ismaili Indian merchant, Tharia Topan, in the 1890s. Topan was one of the wealthiest individuals in Zanzibar at the time and a customs advisor to the Sultans. In 1899 he is said to have given up the house to be used as a dispensary, also funding the medication and other services. It fell into disrepair during the 1970s and 1980s, but was renovated with funding from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in 1996 and opened as the Stone Town Cultural Centre.
Palace Museum ( Beit el-Sahal)
This was a palace, which was the residence of the Sultan until 1964 when when Sultan Jamshid was overthrown. It is currently a museum showing the era of the rule of Sultans in Zanzibar. It was first occupied by Sultan Khalifa in 1911 when ascended to the throne. The palace also accommodated the Royal family and the Sultan’s harem. After the 1964 Revolution, it was used by the Zanzibar Government for Cabinet meetings and for gatherings of the Revolutionary Council
The National Museum (Beit el Amani or House of Peace)
It showcases sections of archaeology, early trade and ships, slavery, palaces, mosques, sultans, explorers, clove oil production, traditional crafts and household items.
Hahamni Persian Baths
These were the first public baths in Zanzibar. They were built by Sultan Barghash in the late 1890’s. They are no longer in use but are open for public viewing at a small entry cost. The building was constructed using coral rag with lime stucco rendering. The external appearance is plain with only a decorative dentil frieze on the upper part, surrounded by a crenulated parapet.
Mosque’s are scattered all around the town. They are all impressive and with a rich history. The oldest is the Msikiti wa Balnara (Balnara/Malindi Mosque) built in 1831 by Mohammed Abdul Qadir el Mansabi, whose remains are buried infront of the Mihrab. Entry into the mosques is made only if visitors are appropriately dressed. Unlike other mosques, it has a minaret decorated with a double chevron pattern. The Aga Khan mosque is a two storied building with magnificent designs on the outer walls.
There are some good bars around the Zanzibar town. Africa house is a particularly good one with a great view. Located on the 1st floor it is a great place for a sun downer. However if you want a proper view of the sun setting a sunset dhow cruise will be in order. The sunset tour starts an hour before sunset. The guests are picked from their hotels and transported to the drop off point at the sea front, where they board the dhow. The seasoned crew on board take the dhow about a kilometre away from the shore by means of an engine, once out in the sea the engine is shut off and the sail is put up. When the sail is in favour of the wind, the dhow glides through the water and the guests can sit back and relax. The wonder of the fiery golden sun setting beyond the horizon can then be enjoyed over a glass of wine.
The ancient art form of Zanzibar hand-carved doors and chests reflected in the brass-studded, carved, wooden doors dot the town and similar hand made artefacts can be purchased. One can also do Spice tours, go dolphin watching, or scuba diving from the stone town.
The hotel accommodation available at the stone town includes Serena Hotel, Tembo House Hotel, Emerson & Green hotel, Dhow Palace and the Beyt al Chai, an exclusive boutique hotel.