A tour of the Eastern perimeter of Stone Town, taking in Darajani Market, the Slave Market, Anglican Cathedral, National Museum and a number of Colonial buildings.
Estimated time : 3 to 5 hours Best start time: 8.00 or 15.00 hours Start point: At the entrance to the Port (by the anchor roundabout)
Following Malawi Road straight out of the port, the first building on the left is one of the oldest buildings in town and used to be the headquarters of the Clove Growers Association. Fifty yards further on is the impressive art nouveau Cine Afrique. Here, Malawi Road is traversed by Malindi Road from the right and Funguni Road from the left. This used to be the main route to the Northern part of town, the Malindi Quarter. In colonial times a light railway came up Malindi Road, turning into Malawi Road at this point and out towards Bububu and the North.
Hidden inside the buildings on the corner of Malindi and Malawi roads, with its entrance to the Southside, is Malindi Mosque. Of the many mosques in the town, only four have minarets. This is the oldest, having been built in 1831 by Mohammad Abdul Qadir Masab. The minaret, which closely resembles that of the Friday Mosque of Shela in Lamu, Kenya, is thought to be considerably older and is evidence of the close relations along the East African coast in early centuries.
Photography is not permitted in the mosque.
Continuing along Malawi Road, past the Police Station on the right-hand side, we arrive at a junction. This is the best place from which to envisage how the town must have been before the reclamation of Darajani Creek. The road that runs across is Creek Road and stands on the line of the old creek, which separated the town from the land all the way down to the Mnasi Mmoja Park at the Southern end. At this location, the creek was around 200 metres wide, with all the land is now seen in the quadrant to the left being open water and mudflats. A long spit of land was built out from the mainland opposite to carry the railway out of town over the English Bridge. Turning right and heading South along Creek Road, we would have been walking along the Town bank of the creek. To the right are a number of unusual 1950’s buildings, including a petrol station, which must have been quite avant-garde in their time.
A hundred metres further on is the Bharmal Building, previously the office of the British Provincial Commissioner and the first of several buildings by the British colonial architect J.H.Sinclair. This is the earliest of Sinclair’s buildings and it is interesting to see the development of his architecture over the first twenty years of the 20th century, for not only did he demonstrate a respect for the vernacular but ultimately he became completely converted to the indigenous style. By the end of his ‘tour of duty’ Sinclair’s architecture could almost be said to have ‘gone native’.
The Bharmal Building, has a confused facade, illustrating Sinclair’s early attempts to break from his roots and build in the Saracenic style. The result is a perplexing hybrid of a European country house and an Arab palace.
A further four hundred metres along Creek Road is the junction with Mlandege Bazaar (joining from the left). This was the site of the main bridge across the creek and consequently the oldest part of Ngambo, known as Darajani. From here, continuing down Creek Road is the main market area. To the right are the Darajani Chawls – a long, plain building with small shops below and accommodation above, built-in 1880 by Sultan Barghash with the intention that the rent paid by tenants would pay for the maintenance of the new water supply pipe, which can still be seen alongside the Bububu road. On the left-hand side is the ramshackle bus terminus. No buildings, stop or timetables, just buses, passengers and mountains of luggage. The interesting areas of the market are on the Town side.
The main building of the Central Market is a long single-storey, tin-roofed building with a large bicycle stand in front. This practical building was put up by the British Residency in 1904 to house the meat and fish markets (which were previously in the Old Fort) and it appears to have changed little over the years. Those with a strong constitution can take a stroll inside – the smell and the flies can be overwhelming. Behind the main market, building spread the fruit and vegetable markets, with additional special areas for poultry and bakeries. On Wednesday and Saturday, there is a flea market of antiques and bric-a-brac.
The best time to visit the market is in the morning between 9.00 and 12.00 hrs.
Returning to Creek Road, after a further two hundred metres, is a large crossroads. To the left, a dual carriageway leads up to the 1960’s developments of Michenzani. Taking a turn to the right, down New Mkunazini Road, after about fifty metres another right turn leads into the cathedral courtyard. The building to the left at the entrance to the courtyard is the Anglican Missionary Hospital, which is constructed on top of the old slave chambers. Here there are guides who will give a short tour of the slave chambers and cathedral (every day 8.00 to 18.00 hrs.)
The Cathedral Courtyard is now one of the quietest places in Zanzibar Town – some contrast to the clamour and tumult that must have prevailed in times gone by. The market was opened by Sultan Seyyid in 1811, at a time when the tide had already turned against slavery. Despite this, the market was to be a great success, rising to become the hub of the slave trade for the whole of East Africa and pivotal in Zanzibar’s commercial success for most of the 19th century.
At its peak in the 1830s, up to 60,000 slaves passed through the market each year. There is little left on the site to testify to its sordid history and of the pain and torture of over a million slaves whose lives were traded here. The market was finally closed in 1873, the last slave market in Africa.
When the Great Slave Market was finally closed down, the land was bought by a British Christian mission, who started work on the Cathedral immediately. The mission had been inspired to come to Africa by David Livingstone, calling for support in his fight to extinguish slavery from the region. The building of the Cathedral was inspired by and performed under the guidance of Dr. Edward Steer, Bishop of Zanzibar from 1874 to 1882, who raised the funds, oversaw the construction and even trained local people in masonry skills. He conducted the first service on Christmas Day 1877, despite the roof not being completed until three years later. Bishop Steer was later laid to rest beneath the altar.
It is said that the Cathedral clock was donated to the project by Sultan Barghash in return for an undertaking from the Bishop that the spire would not be taller than the House of Wonders. The Crucifix is said to be made from a branch of the tree at Chitambo (Zambia) under which Livingstone’s heart was buried before his body was returned to Zanzibar.
Tradition also has it that the altar was constructed directly on the site of the whipping post, to which slaves were tied and whipped to show their strength and bravery, before being auctioned.
There are services in Swahili every Sunday and in English once a month. Even for non-enthusiasts, a visit to the church to listen to the gospel singing will prove a memorable experience.
Returning to Creek Road, we continue South, past a number of substantial buildings on the right-hand side – the Haile Sellassie School, the Khalifa Hall (where taarab concerts are given) and the Karume House (home of Zanzibar Television). On the left-hand side of the road is Jamhuri Gardens, a public park created on reclaimed creek land.
The road now enters the old diplomatic quarter, around which the British administration was centred. The open ground to the left-hand side is the Mnasi Mmoja Recreation Ground. This park was laid out in the finest British tradition in 1915, on the reclaimed site of the stinking upper reaches of Darajani Creek, described rather a tongue in cheek by Burton as Zanzibar’s ‘Bois de Boulogne’. This broad field, surrounded by a ring of stately trees, once played host to a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, hockey and cricket pitches. In the South-Eastern corner of the park, the Cricket Pavilion lies in a state of decay, but the view from the terrace can still conjure up images of times gone by. A hundred metres away, lost in the long grass lies an artificial wicket with six stump-less holes still in evidence.
Opening times: Mon to Sat: 9.00 to 18.00 hrs.
Opposite the Mnasi Mmoja Park and its, Cricket Pavilion is a small but elegant domed building that looks more like a temple than a museum.
This building represents the culmination of the work of John Sinclair. Whilst the Bharmal Building hinted at the respect that Sinclair had for foreign cultures, it resulted in a clumsy mixture of styles. The museum, however, is a little gem. Built essentially in an Islamic style, with little if any compromise to British colonial tradition, it was constructed immediately after the first world war to house a ‘national collection’.
The latticework and arch details complement well-proportioned lines and a beautiful little garden to make this small building ‘the little Taj Mahal of Zanzibar’.
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The museum houses a selection of relics and artefacts, most having been prepared by keen amateurs and devoted Zanzibar enthusiasts during colonial times. There are interesting sections on archaeology, early trade and ships, slavery, Sultans of Zanzibar and clove oil production, as well as many yellowing photographs of times gone by. Don’t miss the photos of various weird fish washed up onto Zanzibar’s beaches over the years, including the Miracle Fish, with verses from the Koran on its tail.
Across Museum Road is the Annexe, housing an aged natural history collection, with some interesting specimens, stuffed, pickled, pressed, and desiccated, including a Zanzibar Leopard, Kirk’s Monkeys (see page 46) and the bones of a Dodo. In the back yard lives a giant tortoise, brought across from Prison Island. It has apparently been there since the museum was opened in 1925 and until recently had a mate. He does seem a bit lonely and often enjoys some attention.
Turn right at the bottom of Creek Road into Kaunda Road.
When first built in 1896, the hospital had six Asiatic and nine African wards, with a European wing being added in 1924 – a reminder of the degree of segregation common at that time. The new wing (to the left) was constructed on the site of the Old Barracks, which used to house the Sultan’s private army of around 1400 irregular troops, disbanded in 1907.
It is forbidden to take photos in the vicinity of State House.
Behind the white wall on the left-hand side lies another of Sinclair’s buildings, State House. Constructed to house the British Residency, it was designed in the Saracenic style, to complement the earlier Arabic buildings such as the People’s Palace. Like the Bharmal Building, the confusion of styles is again in evidence, with the overall layout of the building and its grounds being more in keeping with that of a European country house than of a Sultan’s palace. Since independence, the building has housed the President’s Office.
To the right, opposite the entrance to State House is a large, ceremonial milestone, octagonal in shape and made from green marble taken from the Palace at Chukwani. On it are marked the distances to settlements on the island, as well as the distance to London, which at 8064 miles represents the length of the sea voyage via the Suez Canal.
These gardens were originally laid out by Sultan Barghash for the use of his extensive harem. The pavilion, Victoria Hall (renovated in 1996 by German aid agencies), was built over the hareem baths and used to be the seat of the Legislative Council, which governed the islands before independence. Many of the plants in the garden were added in the 1880s by naturalist and British Resident Sir John Kirk. The gardens were opened to the public by Sultan Hamoud in 1899 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee.
The next building on the left after State House is the Old Soviet Embassy, with its large balcony. More recently it has been home to ZIPA (Zanzibar Investment Promotions Agency).
Next on the left, after the small library, is the Old Court House, another of Sinclair’s buildings and again Saracenic in style, with a projecting clock and a domed roof. There was a gilded ring on the roof by which it is said that the Archangel Gabriel would carry the structure up to the heavens come the day of reckoning. It seems now to be missing.
Opposite the Court House is a small triangular garden and graveyard, with an old stone arch which reputedly dates back 350 years to Portuguese times (a claim apparently substantiated by the presence of its Doric column capitals).
At the junction, pass straight across, into Kenyatta Road. The next junction meets the one way system.
Freddie Mercury’s House Freddie Mercury rocketed to fame in the 1970’s as the lead singer of rock group Queen. Born in Zanzibar, his real name was Farouk Balsara. His family had come to Zanzibar from Bombay (although originally of Persian extraction) and Freddie spent his formative years here (his father working in the House of Wonders as a clerk), before moving to London.
There are many buildings that claim to be Freddie Mercury’s house and its quite possible that he did live in some of them, but the genuine claimant is most commonly thought to be a small, unprepossessing, modern building along Kenyatta Road, its ground floor now occupied by Camlur’s Restaurant. Not quite the fabulous merchant’s house that one may have imagined.
On the opposite corner is the Saracenic styled Bank of Tanzania (previously the National Bank of India). The traffic comes up the Kenyatta Road to the right and out towards the sea on the left. Take the small passageway between these two roads, known as Suicide Alley.
Almost immediately on the left is a large carved door, the entrance to the Africa House Hotel. This building, with its high ceilings, panelled rooms, hunting trophies, sweeping stairway and fabulous sea views, used to be the English Club. Opened in 1888, (the oldest such club in East Africa) it provided British residents with a centre for social activities. As well as a bar and restaurant, there was a library, billiard room, lodgings and committee room. The club’s sports fields at Mnasi Mmoja provided golf, tennis, hockey and cricket facilities exclusively for members. In later years membership was opened up to permit European and American citizens to apply. It should be pointed out that it was usual at this time to have such secular clubs, there being similar organisations for other communities, including Hindu, Goan, Ismailee and Ithnaashery. One of the great events at the English Club used to be the New Year’s Eve fancy dress ball when great crowds of excited locals would gather to stare at the mad ‘wazungu’ in their costumes.
Garages were later added on the seafront to house members’ cars, with an outdoor terrace being created above. After the revolution, the building fell into disrepair, although there are plans for its refurbishment. Despite this, Africa House remains the most popular place in Zanzibar to take sundowners, meet friends and arrange trips, whilst watching a huge orange sunset over the distant horizon of mainland Africa.
A little further down Suicide Alley, another finely carved door marks the entrance to the Tippu Tib House. Although clearly a residence of some luxury in the nineteenth century, when it was built by the infamous slave trader (see page 17), this building is now all but dilapidated. Local people live here, their charcoal fires on the floors of some rooms and washing lines strung across the parapets. It has been described as ‘one of the world’s best-appointed ghettos’. Local youths will invite you in for a tour, but apart from the view from the roof, it is really only the degree of decay that is on show, with precariously balanced and broken stairways and glassless windows. The roof garden has long since been bricked in to make another storey and it takes some imagination to picture what this place must have been like in its heyday.
Turning right on Suicide Alley leads back onto Kenyatta Road and on down the hill.
On the left-hand side, just past the Shangani Hotel is a little alleyway, that leads through into an open area. To the right, behind a shed, is a covered grave, claimed to be that of Tippu Tib, although there are no inscriptions to this effect.
A little further down Kenyatta Road, to the right, is a grand collonaded building in green and white. This is the Old Post Office and is yet another example of Sinclair’s unconventional architecture, similar in style to the Bharmal Building. There is no sign of compromise to the modern world here, where facilities are delightfully old-fashioned. To make a call it is necessary to fill in a form and then wait for an attendant to make a connection before being ushered to a mahogany booth.