Besides being a top beach destination, Zanzibar has one of the oldest civilizations in Africa. For its strategic location along the Indian trade route, Zanzibar had for along time been exposed to the outside world and which would lead to colonization by Arabic and European. The rich history is well documented in writings and historical sites spread out in different locations of the archipelago mainly the main Unguja island. In this guide we shall cover some of the historical sites.
Ngome Kongwe/ Old fort
Also known as the arab fort, the old fort is a magnificent and imposing ancient structure that was built by Busaida arab dynasty in 1698- 1701 after gaining control of the archipelago from the Portuguese. The fort served as a watch tower from possible attacks by the Portuguese or Mazrui omani who ruled the Mombasa island. The ground where the fortress was built was initially a church built by the Portuguese in the late 1590s. The ruins of the church are still visible in the fortress backyard. Throughout the years, from its time of construction to the 1964 when the sultanate of Zanzibar was overthrown in a bloody revolution, the Old fort have been in use and remodified into a prison, railway depot and tennis playing centre.
House of wonders
Set abreast the old fort in old town is the iconic towers of slender steel bars and magnificent balconies overlooking the beachfront. The incredibly alluring architecture was built by the omani ruler, Barghash Bin Said, in 1883 and was used as a ceremonial palace. The sultan had the building built with large door such that he would enter on the back of an elephant. It was the first building in East Africa to have a working elevator and were it not for bombardment by the British naval in 1896 the house of wonder would still have most of its initial structure. However, the building still stand reminiscing the Arabic civilization with its basic structure still intact despite many years of crumbling.
Old Anglican church and slave market
The church best represents the history of the abolition movement that was brought to East Africa region by Christian missionaries in the 19th century. Zanzibar was a major slave trade centre with young and energetic Africans captured from the hinterlands of the Eastern Africa region taken to various slave markets in the archipelago. This was occasioned by increased demand for slave workers in the spice farms in the island as well as the fact the archipelago is situated along a major sea route to the Arabic world. The old slave market was the largest slave market in the region. After the sultanate of Zanzibar made an agreement with the abolitionists to stop the inhumane practice in his territories, an Anglican church was elected at the site of the slave market to signify the transition. Having been built in the 19th century the cathedral is an incredible piece of architecture built in the old Saracenic design.
Kizimkazi Dimbani mosque
Kizimkazi Dimbani in the southern tip of Unguja island is the oldest mosque in East Africa having been constructed in 1107 AD. The mosque is still in use and have undergone renovations over the years. However, there are still kufic inscription in the inner wall. Its present architecture is inspired by mihrab design that was popular in the 18th century. Around the mosque there are several 18th century decorated tombs.
Mangapwani slave chambers
Situated to the north western edge of the main island, Unguja, is a small bay with a magnificent natural cave inside a coral reef. The cave has natural running fresh water springs that made it a habitable pen for holding slaves before transporting them to arab owned spice farms in the archipelago or export them to omani. The chambers which were crafted in in 1880s are today properly conserved as a reminder of the heinous atrocities and the longstanding dominance of the Arabs in the island.
Ithnashiri Dispensary/ Old dispensary
The old dispensary is in the stone town and was the first health facility in the island. Built into incredible architecture peppermint- green latticework balconies and sculpted clock tower, the building was initially built as a personal residence of an Arab merchant, Tharia topan, in 1890s. He would latter on in 1899 donate the building to the sultanate of Zanzibar for use as a dispensary. The dispensary would be used for the better part of the 20th century until 1980s when it went into disrepair but was renovated under the Aga Khan charitable trust in 1995. Despite the renovation, the dispensary still has its original old colonial Indian architecture. The dispensary also features Abyssinians steak house that is one of the best restaurants in stone town.
Located in the Juani island near mafia island is what remains of Kua town one of the oldest civilizations in the region. The town was a centre for major trade route in the Indian seas almost 1000 years ago. The town is said to have declined some 850 years ago living behind a treasure of historical sites that are still being excavated and studied by archeologist. Some of the surviving structures include: sultan palace, mosque and some residence houses. There is no hard evidence explaining what led to the sudden decline of such a prosperous settlement. It is, however, still an important study centre and offer one of the best evidences of the earliest interaction between Africans and Persians and Chinese merchants who mostly dealt in cowrie shells. Evidence of Chinese pots and other materials dating close to 1000 years ago are some of the materials that you will find in your tour.
Fukuchani ruins and caves
Fukuchani house was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century when they arrived in the archipelago. The house also referred to as the ‘Portuguese house’ is fortified by contrary rising pillars which held probably thatched roof. The house was built from rubbly limestones and coral rags which is the truest depiction that the building was not built by local communities who preferred mud walled houses
On the western side of the main Island lies the ruins of the impressive palace. The palace was built in 1828 by then sultan Seyyid Said to house his many wives. It is in the palace that the rebellious princess Sayyida Salme, who is the first woman in East Africa to write her autobiography, was born. Though what remains of the palace are largely in ruins the building still maintains its initial taste of Arabic architecture. Today the building features a restaurant and a cultural musical performance.
The palace was built by an Arabic merchant from the Mahurubi tribe. The house was later on sold to Sultan Barghash who renovated it in 1882 and converted it into a palace housing over 100 of his concubines selected from the captured slaves. Historians believe that even though the sultan himself lived in a different palace in the stone town, he would occasionally come to spend night with his wife and concubines. Despites its tragic decline due to fire in 1899, the few remains of the palace retain the taste of its initial old Persian architecture and is one of the best representations of the long standing omani rulership over the East African region.