24 June 2009

Stone Town

Even though it's barely more than 20 miles from the coast of mainland Tanzania, since the mid 16th century up until the mid 1960's, Zanzibar was predominantly under the rule of Omani Arabs. Due to the huge influence of the slave, ivory and spice trades the Sultan of Oman even moved his court here in the mid 1800's where it remained until the 1964 revolution. Apparently the last Sultan of Zanzibar, Khalifa bin Barghash, is alive and well having fled to Portsmouth of all places!

Walking around Stone Town, which is the heart of old Zanzibar Town, feels more like being in the Middle East than Africa. Most of the buildings are 2 to 4 story Arabic houses built around the tightly twisting streets, most of which are too narrow for cars.

The buildings of Stone Town are most famous for their elaborately carved wooden front doors. The doors used to be a status symbol, the more fancy the carving the more wealthy the owner.

A lot of the doors also feature rows of large metal spikes which are to keep elephants from damaging them. The spikes must be very effective at scaring the elephants as none ever been seen on Zanzibar.

We've spent most of our time here just wandering around the streets soaking up the atmosphere.

During one of our wanderings we paid a visit to the Palace Museum, which used to be the sultan's former palace.

It's possibly the only palace we've been to that's in a worse state of repair than the average African budget hotel room. In many of the rooms the electricity didn't work making it quite challenging to see. Those that you could see in seemed to be kitted out with really bad 1960's furniture. Lets just say that it could do with a little T.L.C. in order to restore it to its former glory.

Unfortunately a lot of the buildings in Stone Town, i.e. those that aren't owned by banks or luxury hotels, are in a similar state of disrepair. It's a real shame as there are some really interesting old buildings that are just crumbling away.

For once our accommodation is actually really nice. We're staying at a place called St Monica's which is housed in a beautiful old Arabic style building built on the site of an old slave market.

The slave market here was the world's last open slave market and was finally closed in 1873. Some of the old slave holding cells are still accessible in the basement under our hotel.

Zanzibar's other, less notorious, claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Freddie Mercury. No one's really sure where his former house is but we can thoroughly recommend a visit to Mercury's Bar for a nice cooling bottle of Kilimanjaro beer.

Here's a thought that will make any Queen fans instantly feel old. This November it will be 18 years since Freddie died.

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