In Zanzibar tradition, the door to a house was representative of its owner’s ‘public face’ and as such was of great cultural significance. So much so that when starting to build a new house it was common to practise raising the door first, before starting on the walls. To neighbours and passers-by, the size and weight of the door tell of the householder’s wealth and prosperity. The quality of workmanship and precision of execution shows his education and his appreciation of science and the arts. The motifs and representations in the carving tell of his respect for tradition, his emotions, motivations, fears and ambitions. The door was the badge of rank and a matter of great honour amongst merchant society.
As British explorer Richard Burton wrote in 1872: “the higher the tenement, the bigger the gateway, the heavier the padlock and the huger the iron studs which nail the door of heavy timber, the greater the owner’s dignity”
Ornamental doors of this type can be found all along the East Coast, wherever the Arab and Indian merchants had their influence. Early Portuguese travellers tell of their existence as far back as 1500, although the tradition would have already been long established by then.
Door styles in Zanzibar can be traced to two sources: Persian and Omani style doors are the more ornamental, with intricate and ornately carved frames, often with an Arabic arch or semicircular panel above. The arch usually contains a rectangular frieze with a date, the name of the householder and inscriptions from the Koran. Both door leaves are studded with brass, with more ornate examples having pointed brass bosses.
Indian style doors, which are often found on the front of shops in the bazaars, are plainer. Door openings are rectangular, without an arch and the carving is simpler and more deliberate, similar to those found in Western India. Wooden bosses sometimes protrude from the upper corners of the frame and door leaves may contain smaller inset doors. Brass studs, where present, are simpler and less pronounced than with the Persian style.
Doors of both styles usually have a great chained hasp fitted to one leaf, with a corresponding staple on the other, upon which to mount a padlock.
Doors are carved from hardwoods, either from local sources such as jackfruit or breadfruit trees, or sesame and teak imported from the mainland of India. Woods are selected to be hard-wearing and resistant to termites and mould, in order to provide suitable longevity. Many of the doors are said to be well over 150 years old.
By tradition, the brass protrusions that are often set into the doors are so placed to prevent elephants from breaking them down. Since it is not thought that there have ever been elephants on Zanzibar, the retention of these studs has obviously always been symbolic of the defence of the house, rather than for any practical purpose.
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The carving is rich in a symbolism that has its roots in the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and India.
Most doors have a chain carved around their periphery. This represents the defence and protection of the household from intrusion, bad luck or calamity.
The lotus flower is also common and may represent fertility, according to the Egyptian tradition, or peace and tranquillity as used in India. Examples of fish and fish-scale carvings could also represent fertility or perhaps be a call for the Syrian goddess Atargatis to provide protection with The frankincense and date tree patterns herald good health and times of plenty. Many of the doors have a fish or tree symbol at the base of their jambs. Over time these designs seem to have evolved from one to the other, with some examples appearing to be a hybrid of the two. Other more unique representations such as lions, peacocks, cloves or spices may reflect the taste or profession of their original owners or may simply have been favoured by local craftsmen.
Left and right-hand doors are known as ‘mlango dume’ and ‘mlango jika’ , meaning ‘man’s door’ and ‘woman’s door’, reflecting the Kiswahili tradition of allocating male and female attributes to right and left-hand sides.
Like the rest of Stone Town, many of the doors have fallen into decay in recent years. Whilst they remain unappreciated and undervalued, their status may temporarily be elevated to that of an undiscovered treasure, but their long term survival cannot be assured. In recent years many doors have been renovated in situ and a concerted effort has been made to prevent their removal for sale overseas.