Zanzibar: Ancient ways

ZANZIBAR is one of those names – such as Casablanca or Marrakesh – that conjures up a romantic image of adventure and travel. We’ve all heard of it, though most of us might be hard-put to find it on a map.

The Spice Island, to give it one of its titles, is actually two small islands, Unguja and Pemba, just off the eastern coast of Africa. Politically a part of Tanzania, it has been linked through trade and history, by dhow and trade winds, to India and the Gulf States.

Its Indian, Arab and African ancestry is clear in its architecture and its people. Islam is the religion of 95 per cent of the people and the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer is one of the most evocative sounds of the islands.

Most tourists make it no further than Unguja island, which everyone calls Zanzibar, where a strip of modern hotels cling to the picture postcard sands of the eastern coast. The interior is a green paradise of jungle, mangrove swamps and spice plantations growing nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, ginger and lemon grass.

Stone Town, the tiny capital of crumbling mansions and cool, narrow streets, offers several luxurious hotels. It is a place to wander round and get lost, to stumble on tiny shops and bargain for spices, cloth or carved souvenirs.

Its ancient centre is a maze of ancient alleyways, full of delivery men pushing massive loads and women in purdah alongside those in more modern dress (and tourists showing shocking disregard for local customs by wearing bikini tops and shorts).

Around the old town sprawls the ugly Eastern European style concrete blocks that are a legacy of Tanzania’s policy of ‘African Socialism’.

An unexpected sight is the countless number of scooters clogging the streets, either Piaggio Vespas or an Indian copy, serving as transport for individuals, families or unfeasibly large quantities of freight.
The Old Dispensary has been refurbished by the Aga Khan to provide a striking centrepiece to the old waterfront that has witnessed the misery of the African slave trade to Arabia and the expeditions of Livingstone, Burton and Stanley.

It also saw the shortest war in history, when a British gunboat shelled the Sultan’s palace. Now known as the House Of Wonders (prosaically because it was the first in Zanzibar to have electric lighting), it still holds the sultan’s collection of ancient cars.

Next door is another palace that is now a museum housing furniture and other mementos from the Sultan’s rule. You can trace the corridors and verandahs that enabled the women of the house to pass unseen from one dwelling to another.

A room in the museum is devoted to Princess Salme, the daughter of the Seyyid Said, the 19th-century ruler of Oman and Zanzibar. She fell in love with a German merchant across the roof tops, and later eloped with him. She died in 1924 in Germany at the age of 80 and a bag of Zanzibar sand was buried with her. On her gravestone was inscribed: ‘Faithful in his innermost heart is he, who loves his homeland like you.’ The Princess Salme Institute (www.princessalmeinstitute.com) exists to preserve her memory.

A museum to a slightly more famous Zanzibari, Queen’s Freddie Mercury, is still planned. For many visitors, the glorious white Indian Ocean sand of Zanzibar remains its chief attraction, while divers claim its pristine coral reefs are the best in the world. The offshore resort of Chumbe Island Coral Park was voted Environmental Resort Of The Year 2000. That the richest man in the world, Bill Gates, holidays at Mnemba Island Resort is all you need to know about the attractions of this paradise of islands.

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