Zanzibar’s capital and largest town is Stone Town, located in the middle of the west coast of Unguja. The town was named for the coral stone buildings that were build there largely during the 19th century.
Modern-day Stone Town is home to 1,700 buildings and over 16,000 people.
Stone Town is known for its narrow alleyways, large carved doors and covered balconies. The doors, large wooden carved affairs with or without brass studs, are a part of the Swahili culture that were influenced by Arab and especially Indian motifs. The large brass studs became decoration after first having served as spike covers; the spikes having been protection from elephant raids during wars in India. Doors with rounded tops, or lintels, reflect Indian influence while doors with flat lintels demonstrate a version popular with Omanis in Zanzibar. Many doors have Koranic inscriptions and some of the older doors found in town are much less ornate than the later ones. Different carvings to look for are chains around the edge meant to bring security, Lotus and rosettes in the center meant to represent prosperity, and fish at the bottom representing fertility.
Stone Town is home to 51 Mosques, 6 Hindu Temples and 2 Christian Churches.
On the waterfront, near the Old Dispensary, is an old tree known locally as the Big Tree. Some locals believe that Sultan Khalifa planted it in 1911 but others believe it was planted in 1944 as a bicentennial of Al Busaid. The Big Tree is quite visible from the harbor and is seen in many old photographs. The shaded area underneath it is currently used as a workshop for men building boats. It’s a good place to find boat pilots to hire for a lift to Prison Island or Bawe Island.
Zanzibar as a cultural collage: The following things were introduced to Zanzibar by foreign lands; Rice from Malaysia, Cloves from Indonesia, Bullfighting from Portugal, Islam from Arabia, Cassava and Cashews from Brazil, Tomatoes and Corn from the Americas, Turmeric from India, and some types of Bananas and Coconuts possibly from Pacific islands or Southeast Asia.
The large, loud black birds seen in and around Zanzibar are Indian Crows. They were imported by Sir Gerald Portal who was hoping that the birds would help the sanitation effort by eating ‘waste’.
Only 226 or about 13 per cent of Stone Town’s buildings are considered to be in good condition – the remaining structures are either deteriorating or in ruins.
1998 marked the year of Zanzibar’s first traffic light.
The second train in East Africa was completed in Zanzibar in 1905 and operated under the name of the Bububu line. It traveled from Bububu village to Stone Town, only 8 km away. It was used mostly for transporting people.
Henna Painting was originally done in order to cool ones hands and feet. Traditionally, Swahilis perform henna painting for brides and married women only. Various styles of henna painting are available in Zanzibar whose origins range from Sudan, India and Arabia.
Swahili had been written only in Arabic script, using Arabic letters to spell Swahili words phonetically, until the arrival of the first English-Swahili dictionary that spelled Swahili words in the Roman alphabet. Bishop Edward Steere – the same man who oversaw the building of the Anglican Cathedral over the site of the old slave market, wrote the dictionary.