Zanzibar is an archipelago made up of Unguja and Pemba Islands,
and several islets. It is located in the Indian Ocean, about
25 miles from the Tanzanian coast, and 6° south of the
equator. Zanzibar Island (known locally as Unguja, but as
Zanzibar internationally) is 60 miles long and 20 miles wide,
occupying a total area of approximately 650 square miles.
It is characterised by beautiful sandy beaches with fringing
coral reefs, and the magic of historic Stone Town - said to
be the only functioning ancient town in East Africa.
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Stone Town old city and cultural heart of Zanzibar, has changed
little in the last 200 years. It is a place of winding alleys,
bustling bazaars, mosques and grand Arab houses whose original
owners vied with each other over the extravagance of their
dwellings. This one-upmanship is particularly reflected in
the brass-studded, carved, wooden doors - there are more than
500 different examples of this handiwork. You can spend many
idle hours and days just wandering through the fascinating
labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways.
Historically, the Assyrians, Sumerians, Egyptians, Phoenicians,
Indians, Chinese, Persians, Portuguese, Omani Arabs, Dutch
and English have all been to Zanzibar at one time or another.
Some, particularly the Shirazi Persians and Omani Arabs, stayed
to settle and rule. With this influence, Zanzibar has become
predominantly Islamic (97%) - the remaining 3% is made up
of Christians, Hindus and Sikhs. The earliest visitors to
Zanzibar were Arab traders who are said to have arrived in
the 8th century. The earliest building that remains on Zanzibar
is the mosque at Kizimkazi, which dates from 1107, and is
a present-day tourist attraction.
For centuries the Arabs sailed with the Monsoon winds from
Oman to trade primarily in ivory, slaves and spices. The two
main islands, Unguja (normally known as Zanzibar Island) and
Pemba, provided an ideal base for the Omani Arabs, being relatively
small, and therefore fairly easy to defend. From here it was
possible for them to control 1,000 miles of the mainland coast
from present day Mozambique to Somalia. Indeed, in 1832, Sultan
Seyyid Said, of the Busaid Dynasty that had emerged in Oman,
moved his Sultanate from Muscat, which was perhaps more difficult
to protect, to Zanzibar where he and his descendants ruled
for over 130 years. Most of the wealth lay in the hands of
the Arab community, who were the main landowners, kept themselves
to themselves, and generally did not intermarry with the Africans.
This was not true of the Shirazi Persians who came from the
Middle East to settle on the East African coast. The story
goes that in AD 975, Abi Ben Sultan Hasan of Shiraz in Persia
(now Iran) had a terrible nightmare in which a rat devoured
the foundations of his house. He took this as an omen that
his community was to be devastated. Others in the Shiraz Court
ridiculed the notion, but Sultan Hasan, his family and some
followers obviously took it very seriously because they decided
to migrate. They set out in seven dhows into the Indian Ocean
but were caught in a huge storm and separated. Thus, landfalls
were made at seven different places along the East African
coast, one of which was Zanzibar, and settlements began.
Widespread intermarriage between Shirazis and Africans gave
rise to a coastal community with distinctive features, and
a language derived in part from Arabic, which became known
as Swahili. The name Swahili comes from the Arab word sawahil
which means 'coast'. The Zanzibar descendants of this group
were not greatly involved in the lucrative slave, spice and
ivory trades. Instead, they immersed themselves mainly in
agriculture and fishing. Those Shirazis that did not intermarry
retained their identity as a separate group.
Two smaller communities were also established. Indian traders
arrived in connection with the spice and ivory trade, and
quickly settled as shopkeepers, traders, skilled artisans,
and professionals. British missionaries also set up on the
After the death of Said the Great in 1856, the royal house
was left with numerous power struggles. Faced with the advent
of slavery abolition and jealousy within the family, the British
managed to gain control of much of the island. whilst attempting
to abolish the slave trade centred in Zanzibar, on which they
were largely unsuccessful. They were limited to intimidating
slave traders and effecting quotas. The British managed to
pressurise Said's successors into stopping the trade, but
many treaties were ignored. In 1890, Sultan Ali, the last
of Sultan Said's successors, finally honored his treaty in
declaring all slaves free, and freeing any slaves that entered
In 1896, Sultan Hamed bin Thuwain died, leaving the throne
vacant. Hamed's cousin, Khaled saw an opportunity and crawled
through the palace window, gained a few supporters and announced
he was the new Sultan.
The British were obviously not impressed with this, as Zanzibar
was a British protectorate. The British ordered Khaled to
lower his flag by 9a.m. on the 27th of August 1896. Needless
to say this was not done, and the shortest war in history
ensued (it is still listed in the Guinness Book of World Records).
The British opened fire on Stone Town, destroying the Palace,
the Harem, the Sultan's ship and the lighthouse. The House
of Wonders was slightly damaged. 40 minutes later, the war
was over and Seyyid Hamoud bin Mohammed was declared the new
The British protectorate continued until constitutional independence
was granted to Zanzibar on 10 December 1963. On 12 January
1964, John Okello, a Ugandan President on Pemba, began what
was to be the bloodiest revolution ever seen in Zanzibar.
Okello began by gaining support amongst the black population,
then started to capture strategic police and government buildings.
Okello based himself in the building of the radio station,
to help him broadcast his message to the now hungry revolutionaries.
Within a couple of days, 17000 Arabs and Indians were killed
and those that survived fled, their land confiscated and nationalised.
Abeid Karume, leader of the Afro-Shirazi party, was declared
the new president and proceeded to form the Revolutionary
Government of Zanzibar.
This was a new beginning for the people of Zanzibar that had
witnessed centuries of oppression.