Friday, August 10, 2012

Set In Stone

Executive summary by darmansjah

One of the oldest cities in East Africa, the one time slave port of Stone Town beguiles with its exotic blend of cultures and historical landmarks, by Lee Yu Kit

 the house of wonders

It is easier to let yourself get lost in the labyrinthine streets of Stone Town than it is to resist their allure. On my first  visit to this World Heritage Site on Unguja, the main island of Zanzibar, the dismaying similarity of every street fed my apprehensions about exploring the urban maze. Alley ways radiated in every direction, and buildings pushed in on all sides like canyon walls, obscuring all points of bearing except for the narrow slits of piercing blue sky above. Yet every blind turn and corner held some new intrigue that drew me deeper: a woman peddling an exotic assortment of spices; a quiet lane lined with ornately carved wooden doors; a smart café plying aromatic teas and coffees.

 Outside Stone Town’s old Arab Fort complex

I paused to ask a resident how he was this morning: “habariyaasubhuhi? “Dzury! He replied in Swahili-‘Good!’-adding in flawless English. “Where are you from?”

At first it was a surprise to hear English, but then, this historic town has long been about the intermingling of peoples and cultures. Ever since its humble beginning as a cluster of fishing huts, the Zanzibar capital has seen a constant wash of influences carried by the easterly Indian Ocean winds. Portuguese settlers, Arab and Indian traders, Persian merchants, German Colonist, British empire builders, even Indonesians from far across the seas – they all came to this cluster of islands off the Tanzanian coast, and they all left their mark. And the cross-pollination continues today. On my visit, I encountered sari-clad Indians, longtime European residents, Muslim women in black burkas, Africans with florid, flowing robes, and plenty of camera-toting tourists from all corners of the world.

 A Swahili woman framed by one of stone town’s intricately carved doorways.

Exoticism aside, Stone Town’s origins are somewhat mundane. It earned its name because the Portuguese seafarers who landed here at the end of the 15th century built their homes from the island’s coralline rock. They started off in what was the fishing village of Shangani, and ever the countries the town sprawled into its current chaos as new corners continued to built, without plans or regulations. Streets became claustrophobically narrow as there was no motorized traffic, and few provisions were made for open spaces as most houses had courtyard. Arabs and Indians introduced the carved wooden doorways with ornate lintels and doorpost that are so common throughout town. The brass spikes that adorn these doors are holdovers of an Indian tradition in which such spikes were used to ward off elephant attacks – never mind that no pachyderm could possibly fit down these narrow streets.

 A young member of the town’s majority Muslim community

Stone Town occupies a triangular peninsula on Unguja’s west coast, some three square kilometer in all, bounded on two sides by the sea, and on the third by Creek Road, its sandy shores are now almost over run by development – for a beach holiday, you’d best look elsewhere along the coast. . but there is plenty enough to explore amid the town’s warren of alleyways: two churches, at least two Hindu temples, and between 40 and 50 mosques, depending on who’s counting. Some 20,000 residents inhabit the area, and it’s been home to several notables over the years, including Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone. Freddy Mercury, the late front man of the British rock group Queen, was born here, as well, and though I’d hoped for some sort of monument or tribute to him, I found none.

 amid the maze-like network of stone town's back street

I did, however, find the home of Tippu Tip, the infamous slave trader. Zanzibar, East Africa’s main slave port, was the last place on the planet where humans were traded openly, with some 15,000 slaves sold monthly at the height of the trade. It wasn’t until 1873 that the Sultan of Zanzibar signed a royal decree abolishing the practice, though that didn’t stop traders such as Tip from carrying on illegally for years to follow. Tip’s house, a sprawling, dilapidated building in dire need of repair, is now owned by the government and occupied by local families. A man sitting outside the notorious residence told me that he lived there, and invited me inside. I politely ceclined.

I had no such qualms at Christ Church Cathedral, built in 1873 on the site of the slave market. The spiritual hub of Zanzibar’s Anglican community, it’s a grim and stolid affair, yet nevertheless an uplifting landmark as the official symbol of the end of the slave trade. Inside, the church is all stained glass windows and wooden pews, with the altar sitting resolutely over the spot where the old whipping post used to be. Also of passing interest is  the Livingstone Cross, a crucifix made from wood taken from a branch of the tree under which the explorer died, in present-day Zambia.

The church has a soaring steeple, yet this is not the tallest structure in Stone Town. That honor goes to the Beit el-Ajaib, or ‘House of Wonders,’ a four-story palace on the water front that the sultan decreed no building could exceed in height. When it was constructed in 1883, the House of Wonders was indeed wondrous: it had electricity, running water, and an elevator-though that didn’t prevent it from being damaged in 1896 in what is remembered as the world’s shortest war, when a British naval bombardment ended a nascent insurrection by a rebellious young sultan in under 45 minutes. The building now houses a decidedly less wondrous museum, where I found large, musty rooms full of artifacts and long gloomy corridors, though the commanding view of the seafront from the top floor is still quiet impressive.

I could see down to the old Arab Fort, which now hosts a film festival every July, and out over grassy Forodhani Park, where children tumbled and dove into the shallows from a walled embankment, and grown-ups lounged like lizards under shade trees. The ulu lating call to evening prayer echoed across the rooftops, and vendors were setting up seafood stalls on trestle tables and unloading huge crab claws and muscular slabs of fish  to grill up for passerby. At the park’s periphery, old cannons still pointed seaward, and the ocean beyond bobbed and glinted with yachts, pleasure craft, ferries, and dive boats. In the gathering dusk, life in stone town ambled along as it always has-people pushed carts full of their wares, walked children home from school, bartered over goods and services. Leaving my perch, I descended into the throng, just one more visitors to these shores.

Stone Town – Getting there From Asia, the most direct route to Zanzibar is via Doha on Qatar Airways, which operates a double daily service to Dar Es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital. From there, it’s a 20-minte flight to Zanzibar with national carrier Precision Air.

When To Go Zanzibar’s best weather occurs during its long dry season, from June to October.

Where to Stay – For a full immersion into the Stone town milleu, book a room at the Emerson Spice (tharia St; 255-24/223-2776;; doubles from US$175), a newly restored heritage building dating back to 1836. For something closer to the beach and outside town, consider The Residence Zanzibar (Mchamgamle; 255-24/555-500, the; villas from US$875).

No comments:

Post a Comment