Although, as already stated, Zanzibar (Tanzania) is an island currently known as a tourist destination thanks to its spectacular coastline, it is certain that this point in the Indian Ocean became an important commercial center a time in the past and its capital, Stone Town, the first stop of sellers and traders with spices coming from Arab countries and India en route to the East African coast. Their arrival on the island mixed with the local customs still retains its character, being a small town typically Arab, while one of the landmarks of the Swahili culture worldwide at the same time. Besides spices, Zanzibar based its economy, with Stone Town as the main port, in two other not so praiseworthy activities: the ivory trade from the African elephants and the slave trade.
Despite the historic events, today the city keeps a peculiar charm in its colourful buildings with their multiform wooden doors and also in its local markets, fulls of different tropical fruits intermingled with huge pieces of fresh fish. To be completely honest, Stone Town (and the rest of Tanzania) is one of those places where the traveler needs to have an open mind, trying to understand and to enjoy the reality of the local people in the same way which they do. This is actually a dirty city of buildings with worn paintings and sellers, guides and other characters who come to the visitors' arrival in search of easy money. The recommendation is to be patient and stay calm, since it is not difficult to find beautiful places that speak of, for example, Indian splendor mixed with the absolute African reality. And it is not us the only ones saying this is; in 2000, UNESCO decided to include Stone Town in the list of World Heritage.
A visit to the island of Zanzibar, whether by air or sea, always starts with Stone Town as a first point, since the city has an international airport and the sea port that connects with neighboring Dar Es Salaam. However, not all travelers decide to make a stop to see this little part of the world, attracted by the beautiful beaches of the different coasts on the island. Our advice is to at least spend one morning getting to know the streets of the city. Why? For all these little secrets:
- Stone Town's famous doors: the carved wooden doors are probably the most characteristic decorative elements of Stone Town for its artistic richness and its beauty. The first examples appeared in the seventeenth century, first brought by Indian traders and later by the Arabs. In these first moments, the door was a symbol of wealth and its size increased as the fortunes of the family that lived in the house did, so that the person who passed by knew that the property was inhabited by a rich family. Arab doors differ from the Indian ones for usually having carved wood with texts in Arabic. On the other hand, the Indian doors have elements in bronze with peaks designed to scare soldiers that used to ride elephants in the city.
- David Livingstone and Zanzibar: the well-known explorer and missionary David Livingstone has gone down in history for, among other achievements, be the first Westerner to discover the Victoria Falls, between Zambia and Zimbabwe, but, where was the starting point for his trips? You may have guessed already: Stone Town. If you do a walking tour through the city with a guide, the tour will probably culminate in the House of Livingstone where the explorer used to sleep before heading to the heart of the continent. However, what few people know is that the Cathedral of Stone Town, also in the center, keeps a closely related object with him. When Livingstone died, his aides decided to bury his heart in today's Zambia, where he died, before his body was sent to London. They did so under a tree that years later, also died and whose wood is now a cross that rests on the altar of the cathedral of this unique city.
- (Freddy) Mercury House: with this place, unknown to many, it happens a great and terrible irony. Freddy Mercury was born and lived during his childhood in Stone Town, which was then a British protectorate, due to his father's work in the Secretariat of State for the Colonies. His adolescence was spent between India and the island of Zanzibar until, when he was 18, the family moved permanently to England because of the dissension that was happening in the archipelago and that resulted in the accession of Zanzibar to Tanganyika to form Tanzania. When that boy of Persian descent became a music world star as vocalist of the band Queen, Stone Town tried to get some benefit and people filled the facade of his former home with photographs of the artist, becoming the place a mandatory stop during the walking tour through the city. And here we speak again of the terrible irony: if you ask twice to your guide you will discover that, in reality and due to the cruel and conservative mindset of this part of the world, itheir nterest in Freddy is only economic and they do not understand and even hate homosexuality, which can be indeed punished with jail in Tanzania. Despite this terrible thing, visiting the Mercury House, as it is known on the island, it serves to continue praising one of the greatest artists of all time, so the visit is worthwhile.