No description of Stone Town could be complete without a mention of the famous Zanzibar doors. These massive teak or mahogany structures grace the front of almost every building of note, and their style has been copied all over the world. The original Zanzibar doors owe their distinctive brass studs to India – the studs originated as a defence against war elephants, used to batter down fortified doors in the tribal wars of Punjabi history. Needless to say, this distinctive feature of Stone Town’s doors has always been purely decorative.
Also now obsolete is the smaller opening set inside many of the more massive of Zanzibar’s doors – this allowed visitors to come through only one at a time, stooping as they did so, and prevented the larger doors being forced open by a sudden attack by a hidden enemy.
To the casual glance one old Zanzibar door may look very much the same as another. Look a little closer, however, and each door is subtly different. The craftsmen who carved both the doors themselves and the stone reliefs above them tailored each door to the social position, religious practices and occupation of its future owner. Thus a merchant who’d made his fortune from a fleet of fishing boats would reside behind a door whose carved patterns flowed sinuously up and down like the waves on the beach, or perhaps overlapped like the scales on a great marlin or swordfish.
Due to the Islamic ban on depicting living things, most door patterns were abstract, their designs only suggesting the natural objects that inspired them. The outermost strip of the doorframe is always carved with a chain or rope in order to enslave any evil spirits attempting to force their way into the residence. The Arab inscriptions carved in the stone frieze above the lintel are usually verses from the Koran or the names of the house owner who commissioned the door.
If the doors take your fancy as you stroll around Stone Town, avoid the temptation to buy one of the brass studs or a piece of wooden carving on sale in the curio shops as a souvenir. Too many of Zanzibar’s precious antique doors have already left the island, ripped out of their true context and taken away to decorate foreign houses. Reproduction doors, studs and pieces of carving are easily found, and keep up the tradition of Zanzibar’s skilled door carvers without desecrating their original handiwork.
Another notable feature of Stone Town’s houses are their balconies. Intricately carved from rosewood or teak, these are an import from India and owe much to the havelis of Gujerat, homeland of many of Zanzibar’s wealthy Indian merchants. The bigger the balcony, the greater the status of the owner. Like the covered bridges built by the Swahilis, these enclosed balconies allowed the ladies of the house to take the air while still being shielded from prying eyes in the street below. Today you’re more likely to see a string of washing on a balcony than an exotic beauty, but keep looking up as you stroll around the streets – far above ground, neighbours lean on their balconies or out of their windows to exchange gossip across the narrow streets that separate them.
The finest balconies in Stone Town are those running around the so-called Old Dispensary (now renamed the Zanzibar Cultural Centre). The magnificently frilled façade of this fine old building was commissioned by a wealthy Indian named Tharia Thopan, who made his millions in the nineteenth century as a businessman and advisor to Sultan Barghash. The building was not his private residence, but a hospital he founded in his charitable later years. His own house was the imposing building now occupied by the Emerson & Green hotel.