While Zanzibar’s main attractions are its beaches, warm ocean and sunny climate, dig a little deeper and you’ll discover Zanzibar history and culture that dates back centuries. Zanzibar’s location – in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa – means that it’s been influenced by a great many different cultures. You can still find traces of all of them on the Spice Island today.
Game of thrones
It wasn’t long before Zanzibar’s riches attracted the attention of powerful empires, and the archipelago has changed hands several times. The first overseas visitors were traders from Persia (now Iran). Among other things, they introduced new methods of building – which is how Stone Town got its name.
The Portuguese conquered Zanzibar in the 15thcentury, followed by the Omanis in 1698. They ruled Zanzibar for almost 200 years and left an indelible mark on Zanzibar history and culture. Britain eventually claimed Zanzibar as a protectorate after a period that included the shortest war ever fought, at just 38 minutes long.
Finally, Zanzibar gained its independence in 1963, and then joined Tanzania a year later.
Zanzibar historical sites
With so much history, it’s no mystery why Zanzibar is littered with ruins including old forts and ancient mosques. These make wonderfully atmospheric places to visit – and great backdrops for holiday pictures.
Stone Town’s Old Fort is one of the most interesting Zanzibar historical sites, and its varied past mirrors that of Zanzibar itself. Originally built to defend the island from attack, it was later used as a prison and even a tennis club during colonial days.
Today, it’s best known as the venue for ZIFF – the Zanzibar International Film Festival. This event is the perfect example of Zanzibar history and culture coming together and being reinvented.
Be sure not to miss the House of Wonders, a palace built over 100 years ago for the brilliantly named Sultan Barghash. It was the first building on the island to feature such ‘wonders’ as running water and electricity.
A living museum
Zanzibar’s capital, Stone Town, is the sort of place you can lose yourself in – literally. But it’s not a problem if you do – it just means that you’ll meet more local people and gain more insights into Zanzibar history and culture.
You never know quite what – or who – you’ll bump into in Stone Town’s narrow alleys: a blushing bride in her wedding finery, excited schoolkids running home when their lessons or done, or a donkey with a gravity-defying stack of cases of drinks.
Zanzibar’s carved wooden doors are famous all over the world – peer through one and you could be rewarded with a glimpse of everyday Zanzibar life continuing just as it has for centuries.
Take a trip back in time
Zanzibar culture is rich and varied – it’s certainly worth taking the time to venture beyond the standard tourist scene and discover authentic Zanzibar culture.
Not quite African, not quite Arabic, Zanzibar is the epicentre of East Africa’s Swahili coast. Swahili culture is founded on trade in gold, ivory, spices (of course) and even slaves – to feel a real chill go down your spine, spend some time in the Old Slave Market and try to imagine what life must have been like for the captives there.
Today, slavery is only a memory, but many more positive aspects of Zanzibar history and culture live on. Look closely and you’ll spot Arabic inscriptions above doorways, and several times a day you’ll hear the Muslim call to prayer echoing from the minarets of Zanzibar’s many mosques.
If you’re into arts and crafts, the ultimate Zanzibar souvenir is probably a kanga – a multi-purpose, colourfully printed strip of fabric, often decorated with pithy Swahili proverbs.
A true melting pot
Perhaps the most direct – and enjoyable – way to understand Zanzibar culture is to try some traditional Zanzibari cuisine. The Driftwood Beach Lodge chefs make a mean spice cake with cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and chocolate – perfect with a cup of Tanzanian coffee.
Savoury specialities include pepper shark – yes, it has quite a bite! – and octopus in coconut milk. Spices feature heavily in all these dishes – a reminder that so much Zanzibar history and culture is based on the wealth created in the past by the spice trade.
If you have more questions about Zanzibar, we’re here to help, so please feel free to contact us to learn more about Zanzibar culture.