Archive | October, 2011

From traditional Zanzibari henna painting on the body to henna painting on canvas

28 Oct

Henna has been around for centuries, from as far back as the Bronze Age across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It’s used to decorate the body and hair and even as a dye for silk, leather and wool. Traditionally, henna is worn at times of celebration, for weddings and religious festivals such as Eid.



Henna is made from the leaves of a flowering shrub, which thrives in tropical regions and can be found across Zanzibar and Tanzania. To make the dye, branches are cut down and
left to dry in the sun, until the leaves fall off. The leaves are then collected and ground into a powder, then sifted to remove any impurities. The powder is mixed into a paste with lemon juice and sometimes essential oils like lavender, tea tree or eucalyptus are added to the mixture to strengthen the colour, making the dye last longer. When the paste is ready, it’s applied to the skin, usually piped through a cellophane cone although sometimes toothpick is used to trace out the designs. The paste is left to dry and flakes off to reveal the reddish brown patterns underneath. The dye darkens after the first couple of days and can last for up to a fortnight. Henna can also be used as a hair dye, fresh leaves are covered with coconut oil and left to infuse over a stove for 30 minutes, and then the coloured oil is applied to the hair, giving a red tint and leaving the hair healthy and shiny.

Black henna, known as wanja in Swahili, has become increasingly popular in henna designs. Wanja used to be made using seeds which were burnt and then cooked with coconut oil to make a paste, similar to red henna, but nowadays, black hair dye has been increasingly substituted for the organic paste.

For a Swahili wedding, the bride is decorated with henna for luck and to bless the marriage. A bride can sit for hours, as the henna artist paint flowers across the her skin, flowers blooming over her arms, decorating both sides of her hands and over her feet and legs. Her finger nails and toe nails are stained orange with the dye and some brides choose to have their backs and shoulders decorated. Henna patterns in Zanzibar are a fusion of Arab and Indian designs, combining the intricate fine floral and paisley patterns found in Indian mehindi with the larger flowers found in Arab henna. Both red henna and black henna can be used and it’s a Zanzibari tradition that the bride does not have to do any housework in her new home until her bridal henna has faded.

Designs and patterns change over time, falling in and out of fashion. Western influence can clearly be seen, with mamas at the beaches offering henna along with massage and hair braiding to tourists, as part of the beach beauty package. Chinese symbols, Celtic tattoos and pictures of dolphins are increasingly found in pattern books but henna traditions remains strong.

The powdered leaves of Lawsonia inermis crushed and painted onto the skin represent a Zanzibar woman’s ascension into adulthood. Her henna is so seductive that the decoration is mostly reserved for married women; the bride is adorned for her wedding and every other joyful occasion after the wedding night. Unmarried girls are forbidden to decorate themselves with henna as married women do. There are distinct ‘childish’ designs that distinguish, in the crowded marketplaces, maids looking to attract a husband mark from wives.

The famous Makunduchi-born poet, mwalimu Hija Saleh wrote about the language of henna: ‘Zinanishangaza hina zipakwazo mikononi, Utaona lako jina limekoza kiganjani, kiyachungua sana silako utabaini, Napindi uulizapo jina hili ni la nani? Utaapiwa kiapo lazima utaamini!’

(Hennas surprise me those painted on hands, You will notice your name in bold on someone’s palm, If you investigate deeply it’s not yours you’ll realize, And when you ask whose name is this? It will be affirmed as yours and believe it, you will!)

Women of Zanzibar wear henna for the end-of-Ramadan (Siku Kuu) celebrations. They stain the soles of their feet for relief after a hard day working in the village, using its cooling
properties to heal sun-burned skin and fatigue. The birth of children and the circumcision of boys are all marked by the wearing of henna. Henna is the glory of a Swahili woman. It’s difficult to say just how long the Swahili have been using the plant, since the first people to begin cultivating henna were Egyptians, and the caravans that traded there 9000 years ago carried it all the way to the Far East. So while not exclusive to Zanzibar, the Swahili have created a unique eclectic style.

And it’s not only on skins – the Swahili have merged body art and canvas to produce permanent artwork that attests to the beauty of their henna. The Hurumzi Gallery in Stone Town is the home of ‘henna art’ in Zanzibar. It displays some of the most beautiful designs created by local artists. A new spectrum of colour has revolutionised henna culture on the islands and the designs – once doomed to fade after a week or so – are now tattooed on canvas. Henna art is now embraced – alongside the more iconic and mainland tinga tinga painting, and pieces are joining private collections of African art. For a large canvas by an accomplished artist you can expect to pay around 300 USD.

Check:  and Zayaa Art Gallery

Back on the body, the artwork is far less pricey, though no less work to create. If you want to have authentic henna done in Zanzibar, it’s worth searching for an artist that works with locally produced, organic henna. Some painters use a tint called pico, a synthetic dye that produces a much darker tint in about a fifth of the time henna takes to produce its sensual colour. Pico can produce allergic reactions and it’s definitely not organic. ‘Real henna’ is natural, deliciously fragrant and takes time to stain the skin; sometimes several hours are required to allow the paste to set before a woman can move. The practice has created a henna culture that celebrates pleasure and relaxation to create beauty. Women sip spiced tea while the artist adorns them, leaving plenty of time for gossip while they’re at it. When the artist is finished, she’ll slip home to her husband and reveal her secrets to him. Enjoy henna painting while sipping pepper, cinnamon and clove tea and listening to taarab music at



Medicinal Usage

Apart from its traditional and ceremonial uses, henna is known for its medicinal properties of healing and relaxation. It is used to heal skin diseases, cure headaches and cool the skin
to reduce swelling in hot seasons. Mehndi oil is used by therapists to treat a number of ailments, such as scalp treament for hair fall, hair growth and nail conditioning.

  • Soak mehndi leaves in water all night and drink the decanted water in the morning for 40 days—this is an effective remedy for jaundice, leprosy and healing wounds.
  • Gargle with mehndi water for relief from stomatitis and ulcers of tongue, cheeks and lips.
  • Henna paste is applied on the soles of patients suffering from small pox and chicken pox, as it is believed that this prevents the eyes from damage associated with these diseases.
  • Henna paste mixed with vinegar is applied to nails that get disfigured after fungal infection.
  • Mehndi also acts as a blood purifier.
  • Headaches caused by heat strokes can be treated by smelling henna flowers.
  • Olive oil mixed with mehndi leaves is very effective for easing muscular pains and rigidity.
  • As mentioned earlier, henna has always been used to cool the body, particularly feet.

Emily Ruete: behind the veil of Princess Salme binti Said

24 Oct

There is a permanent exhibition about Sayyida Salme – Emily Ruete in the People’s Palace in Stonetown, the palace constructed by her brother, Sultan Barghash. She was the daughter of Sultan Said who eloped to Hamburg with a German merchant in 1866. It’s a fascinating story, told by the princess herself in her book Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar.  It contains family photographs and excerpts from her book titled, “Memoirs of an Arabian Princess,” as well as a sample of her typical wardrobe.

Set against a backdrop of political intrigue in the great age of European colonialism, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar is an engrossing tale offering a vivid portrait of 19th century Arab and African life; life not only in the palace, but in the city and plantations as well. Ruete provides a comparison between a woman’s life in Muslim society and the conditions within the 19th century European bourgeoisie. It is considered to be a very important work because it is the only one of its kind. Women in the royal court of Oman and Zanzibar were not taught to read or write (outside of basic Koran lessons) and therefore there are no written legacies that describe what life was like for them, except for Salme’s. Her memoirs highlights her role as an ambassador for the country of her birth, the contemporary relevance of her ideas on and commentary about cross-cultural awareness, appropriate health care, literacy and education for women as well as her unique non-European and female ethnographic commentary on nineteenth century Europe. Her writings celebrate her Omani heritage, describes her life in Zanzibar, Aden, Syria and Germany. They also describe her struggle as a minor pawn in the diplomatic battles of her time over world trade and the scramble for Africa; and evokes her life as a German citizen during the Franco-Prussian and the first World Wars. Her ideas and commitment to appropriate health care, literacy and education, especially for women were visionary and put her ahead of her time – all of which are of real relevance in our contemporary world.

Sayyida Salme was born on August 30, 1844 as daughter of Sultan Said and Jilfidan, a Circassian concubine. Her first years were spent in the huge Bet il Mtoni palace, by the sea about eight kilometers north of Stone Town. (The palace was mostly demolished in 1914). In her book Seyyida Salme gives descriptions of the various palaces, especially of Beit il Mtoni, where she grew up:   “Everywhere in the large courtyard, man and beast lived together quite amicably, without in the least inconveniencing each other. Peacocks, gazelles, guinea-fowls, flamingoes, geese, ducks and ostriches roamed about in perfect liberty and were cherished and fed by young and old. For us children it was always a great joy to collect the eggs that lay about here and there, especially the large ostrich eggs and to hand them over to the chief cook, who used to reward us for our trouble with all kind of sweets.” She grew up bilingual in Arabic and Swahili.

In 1851 she moved to Bet il Watoro, the house of her brother Majid bin Said of Zanzibar, the later sultan. Her brother taught her to ride and to shoot. In 1853 she moved with her mother to Bet il Tani. She secretly taught herself to write, a skill which was unusual for women at the time. When her father died in 1856 she was declared of age, twelve years old, and received her paternal inheritance. This consisted of a plantation with a residence, and 5,429 pounds. After her father’s death, her brother Sayyid Thuwaini bin Said al-Said became Sultan of Muscat and Oman, while her brother Majid became Sultan of Zanzibar.

In 1859 her mother died and Salme received her maternal inheritance, three plantations. The same year a dispute broke out between her brothers Majid and Barghash bin Said of Zanzibar. Though she favoured Majid, her favourite sister Khwala made her side with Barghash. Because she could write she acted (at the age of fifteen) as secretary of Barghash’s party. With the help of an English gunboat the insurrection of Barghash was soon brought to an end; Barghash was sent into exile in Bombay for two years and Salme withdrew to Kisimbani, one of her estates.

Salme eventually moved back to Stone Town and made up with Majid. This earned her the lasting enmity from Barghash, as well as a split with her favorite sister Khwala. When she moved back into the town, she occupied a house near the old fort. The building across a narrow alleyway from it belonged to Koll and Ruete, a German merchant trading company. (This house is now part of the People’s Bank of Zanzibar.) Sometime after this, Salme met Rudolph Heinrich Ruete (born 10 March 1839; died 6 August 1870) and became pregnant by him. He was one of the partners in the firm. He was born on March 10th 1839, the son of a respectable Hamburg schoolmaster; he had been in Zanzibar for about ten years. The flat roof of Ruete’s house was a little lower than Salme’s and she used to chat to him and his friends from a barred window.

In August 1866, after her pregnancy had become obvious, she fled on board the British frigate “H.M.S. Highflyer” commanded by Captain [Thomas] Malcolm Sabine Pasley R.N. and was given passage on his ship to Aden. There she took Christian instruction and was baptised prior to her marriage at Aden on 30 May 1867. She had given birth to a son, Heinrich, in Aden in December 1866, and he died in France en route to Germany in the summer of 1867. She and her husband settled in Hamburg.

The Ruetes settled in Hamburg, where they had another son and two daughters.  Her husband died in 1870 after a tram accident, leaving Ruete in difficult economic circumstances because the authorities denied her heritage claims. Partly to alleviate these economic problems she wrote Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar, first published in the German Empire in 1886, later published in the United States and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The book provides the first known autobiography of an Arab woman. The book presents the reader with an intimate picture of life in Zanzibar between 1850 and 1865, and an inside portrait of her brothers Majid bin Said of Zanzibar and Barghash bin Said of Zanzibar, the later sultans of Zanzibar.

After the death of her husband Emily Ruete was caught up in the colonial plans of Otto von Bismarck. There were speculations that Bismarck wanted to install her son as Sultan of Zanzibar. She revisited Zanzibar in 1885 and in 1888. Between 1889 and 1914 she lived in Beirut, Lebanon and Jaffa. On February 29th 1924 Emily Ruete née Salme binti Said died at her daughter Rosalie’s house in Jena, at the age of 79, from severe pneumonia. Her ashes were buried in Heinrich Ruete’s grave together with a small bag of sand from the Zanzibar beach which was found in her possessions. A palm tree was planted by the grave and the text on her tombstone is as follows: “Faithful in his innermost heart is he, who loves his homeland like you”. (An excerpt from Theodor Fontane’s ballad “Graf Douglas”).

Palace Museum: another page of history in the Sultans’ life

21 Oct

This is a large white building with castellated battlements situated on Mizingani Road, where the latter runs very close to the sea. Originally called the Sultan’s Palace, it was built in the late 1890s for members of the sultan’s family. From 1911, it was used as the Sultan of Zanzibar’s official residence, but was renamed the People’s Palace after the 1964 Revolution, when Sultan Jamshid was overthrown. It continued to be used as government offices until 1994 when the palace was turned into a museum dedicated to the history of the sultans of Zanzibar.



Remarkably, much of their furniture and other possessions survived the revolutionary years and can now be seen by the public for the first time. The museum is well organised and informative: the ground floor is dedicated to the early years of the sultanate (1828 to 1870), while the upper floors contain exhibits from the later, more affluent period of 1870 to 1896. These include thrones, banqueting tables and ceremonial furniture, and also more personal items such as beds and the sultan’s personal water-closet.



The Palace also has other rooms on display showing a mix of various types of furniture acquired by the sultans over the years. The rooms are in various states of disrepair but provide a good idea about the quality of life for the sultan’s family toward the end of their reign. They also show proof of a typical lack of funds for historical preservation. Standing on one of the balconies and looking out toward the harbour, one might get a similar view to what the Sultans saw from the same spot.



Outside in the palace garden arethe graves of Sultans Said, Barghash, Majid, Khaled, Khalifa and Abdullah.

On the rocks? Rock’n’Roll? Both, you are at The Rock!

17 Oct

“It takes just one look to understand that no pencil nor brush could draw such beauty – only Mother Nature could have reach such heights. We simply added the love for cooking, courtesy, our professional skills and the joy to share all of this splendor with you.” That is how The Rock team introduces the restaurant which is on the East Cost not far from Pingwe.

Built on a rock in the middle of the turquoise sea it can be reached by walking with low tide and by boat with high tide. When the high tide is in the restaurant sends a long boat with porters to the shore to ferry you out.  We chose the 9th October to go there and you will not see pictures of The Rock with that weather anywhere else! The beginning of the short rains it was and we got ready to rock’n’roll on the sea… as there is a rocky outcropping and the building is standing alone atop a rocky island, around 50 meters off the shore of the beautiful Michanwi Pingwe beach.

When you arrive, you were welcomed up a climb a set of wooden stairs and past the bar area, and escorted to an open air, lounging area on the tip of the rock, facing the Indian Ocean.
The terrace has a fantastic view on the sea with dhows sailing and fishing. The perfect place to relax on the comfortable couches (when not raining!) and have a glass of white wine with chapati while watching the tide change.

The restaurant is mostly open air, with windows only on the southeast corner to hinder the ocean breeze.

Eating at Rock Restaurant is an experience you can’t miss: colours, relish and sensations blend together in unique magic. Go for the crab salad or crab soup, the prawns and papaya salad is more than worth it too!

Another page of History in Stone Town: Kholle House

15 Oct

After three years of meticulous renovation, Kholle House has opened its doors! Built in 1860 by Princess Kholle, the daughter of the first Sultan of Zanzibar, Kholle House provides us with a glimpse into the life of a Zanzibarian Princess.

Nestled in the heart of Stone Town, Kholle House stands as a quiet oasis offering you a private sanctuary from the bustling city life. The ten room luxury boutique hotel is designed in an elegant fusion of Swahili and French-Creole. Refresh yourself in the swimming pool or enjoy the breathtaking 360° view of Old Stone Town and the Indian Ocean from our roof top tea house.



Princess Kholle spent most of her life in the lavish Palace Bet il Sahel. Each of the Sultans Palaces had many residents including eunuchs, hundreds of slaves, and all of the Sultan’s wives & children from a variety of cultures.

Palace gardens were beautifully landscaped with lush vegetation and grand water features. Exotic animals like peacocks, flamingos, ostriches and gazelle roamed freely behind the walls of the palace gardens.



To feed the hundreds of residents at the palaces, cooks worked round the clock bringing in thousands of pounds of imported delights daily.

Princess Kholle and her siblings would spend their days horse-back riding, embroidering, bathing, reading, eating, and praying.

Sayyid Said bin Sultan Al-Said was Princess Kholle’s father and the First Sultan of Zanzibar.

His rise to power began in 1804 upon the death of his father Sultan bin Ahmed who was the Sultan of Oman. He jointly ruled Oman with his brother Salim for two years until he successfully took control becoming the sole Sultan of Oman.



In 1832 he made Zanzibar his home after conquering Mombasa, Kenya. He decided to move the capital of his empire from Muscat, Oman to Stone Town, Zanzibar thus becoming the Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar.

During his reign on the island he built many palaces and gardens. He also dramatically improved the islands economy by promoting clove cultivation. His legacy lives on as Zanzibar
is still renowned for its cloves and is the number one producer in the world today contributing to its famous nick-name “Spice Island”.

He ruled Oman and Zanzibar from the island until his death in 1856. Sayyid Barghash bin Said Al-Busaid was Princess Kholle’s brother and Sultan of Zanzibar from 1870 – 1888.



Sultan Barghash is best known for modernizing Stone Town by creating an infrastructure with hospitals, roads, piped water systems, a police force, and administrative buildings like the famous House of Wonders. He also signed the agreement with Britain to end the slave trade and slave markets in Zanzibar.

Before becoming Sultan, Barghash had a bitter battle for power with his brother Majid who had taken control of Zanzibar upon the death of their father. Barghash was Princess Kholle’s idol and she was deeply devoted to him. Through clever planning and acts of bravery, Princess Kholle and Princess Salme assisted Barghash in his fight to become Sultan.

Barghash was eventually defeated and left Zanzibar until Majid’s death when he returned as the Sultan of Zanzibar. This fued would prove too much for the royal family with siblings changing loyalties and ending the relationship between Princess Salme and Princess Kholle.



Princess Kholle was Princess Salme’s most adored sister. After her father’s death, there was a power struggle between her brothers Majid and Bhargash. Salme later kept relations with Majid resulting in a divide between her and Kholle and a lifetime of bitter feelings from her brother Barghash. But that is another story…

Princess Kholle was renowned for her refined style and taste and this no doubt was exhibited in the original Kholle House architecture.

They pay homage to Princess Kholle and contribute to Stone Town’s restoration efforts by re-establishing Kholle House to its full glory. For three years they have carefully renovated the house with full respect to the construction methods of Princess Kholle’s time period by using traditional building materials such as coral, marble, mangrove and lime. Restoration was done in close cooperation with the Stone Town Development and Conservation Authority (STCDA) strictly adhering to UNESCO requirements regarding this heritage site’s preservation.

They spread this spirit of preservation of the architectural heritage of Stone Town by promoting artists and craftsmen who contributed to the rebirth of this house. They are in the process of launching a community project to clean streets of the town of Malindi and to rehabilitate the old cemetery of the Great Mosque nearby.


No time to loose: 5 more days to enjoy Visa 2 Dance Festival in Zanzibar!

13 Oct

Founded in 2007 by Aloyce Makonde a Tanzania choreographer, Visa 2 Dance Festival grew into an international event through a collaboration with Vanessa Tamburi from Flusso Dance Project and Rachel Kessi from Mawazo Art Centre.

The mission is to develop Contemporary Dance and Choreographic Research in Tanzania through yearly training programmes and to outreach communities via public events. Through workshops, exchange forums, and performances, Visa 2 Dance reinforces dance skills, rigour, team spirit and emphasizes creativity and openness to change. These skills contribute to
creating individuals better prepared to face the challenges of Tanzania’s future.

 Saturday 15.10.11 – Mtoni palace ruins ,Stone town – 6pm     

Tanzania – Zanzibari Capoerira / WORKSHOP + CAPOEIRA  chor. ZC

Tanzania /Sweden – Regionteater Vast / MOVE 3 chor. Camilla Ekelof

Tanzania/ Gabon / Madagascar – Compagnie Mboloh /FREEDOM REQUIRES

Norway – Pantarei dance theatre / PRIVATE RITE  chor. Hélène Blackburn

Sunday 16.10.11  – Forodhani, Stone town – 4.30pm

Tanzania – Zanzibari Capoerira WORKSHOP + CAPOEIRA chor. ZC

Tanzania /Sweden – Regionteater  Vast / MOVE 3 chor. Camilla Ekelof

Tanzania / Gabon / Madagascar – Compagnie Mboloh /FREEDOM REQUIRES

Norway – Pantarei dance theatre / PRIVATE RITE chor. Hélène Blackburn

Dance workshops in Zanzibar

– Wednesday 12 Oct 3.30-6.30 Pantarei Dance Theatre – Norway

– Thursday 13 Oct 3.30-6.30 Pantarei Dance Theatre – Norway

– Friday 14 Oct 3.30-6.30 Pantarei Dance Theatre – Norway

Sauti za Busara Music Festival (Sounds of Wisdom) 8 – 12 February 2012 – Advance Tickets available!

12 Oct

This is the OFFICIAL SITE for advance tickets:

The Old Fort Venue has a limited capacity. For peace of mind and to guarantee yourself a space we recommend you book your tickets early.

Tickets will be available online from 1 September 2011 – 31 January 2012. With your Advance Ticket you will receive a complimentary SOUVENIR FESTIVAL PROGRAMME.

The Sauti za Busara music festival – Zanzibar features a rich variety of African music from the region with more than four hundred musicians participating over five days in historic Stone Town supplemented with fringe events around town and across the island including a festival street parade.

The 9th edition of Sauti za Busara features:

400 musicians: that’s forty groups, with twenty from Tanzania and twenty from other parts of Africa; urban and rural, acoustic and electric, established and upcoming.

Carnival Street Parade: setting alight the streets on the Opening Day, including beni brass band, ngoma drummers, mwanandege umbrella women, stilt-walkers, capoeira dancers, acrobats… and surprises.

Swahili Encounters: Four days of artistic collaborations, for invited local and visiting musicians who get to reinterpret Swahili songs and present these on main stage.

Seminars and Training Workshops: building skills for artists, managers, music journalists, filmmakers, sound and lighting technicians from the East Africa region.

Movers & Shakers: Daily networking forum for local and visiting arts professionals.

African Music Films: documentaries, music clips, videos and live concert footage.

Festival marketplace: local food and drinks, music, jewellery, clothing and handicrafts.

Busara Xtra: Around the festival, Zanzibar and Pemba are buzzing with a range of fringe events: traditional ngoma drum and dance, fashion shows, dhow races, open-mic sessions, after-parties and performances of Zanzibar’s oldest taarab orchestras are all arranged by the local community.

The main aim of Sauti za Busara (Sounds of Wisdom) is to bring people together and celebrate the wealth and diversity of African music. A majority of groups participating are from the Swahili speaking region, with some visiting artists from other countries. A rich and vibrant mix of styles is showcased each year, including traditional ngoma, taarab, kidumbak, mchiriku, rumba, “muziki wa dansi”, Swahili hiphop “bongo flava”, r’n’b, mystic and religious music, theatre, comedy and dance.


The Zanzibar chests or kasha

11 Oct

The Zanzibar chests or kasha (from the Portuguese “caixa”, box) have intricate carvings and/or brass ornamentations. Like all chests there is a lid that lifts up and drawers in the
front. But what makes it a Zanzibar chest is that there is always a secret hidden compartment. The “secret” compartment is always concealed in the same place, behind the bottom set of drawers.



Since the age of sailing ships and spice routes, a Zanzibar chest has evoked treasure, mystery, and the legends of the East. They accompanied queens into exile and princes on conquest. A hard carved coffer plated with hammered metals, interior compartments and secret drawers, they were hard to make and harder to obtain. Their legends typically preceded them.

The Zanzibar chest was used by the rulers of Zanzibar, the Sultanate of Oman who were ousted by a revolution in the mid 60’s to transport their valuable personal belongings on their voyage to and from Zanzibar.  The chests are still made today and typically hold dowries, spices, or family heirlooms.



The chests are made of solid hardwood from Zanzibar, such as teak or mahogany. After treating the wood with oil, the teak turns black and the mahogany turns red. All chests are decorated with brass (golden) or copper (reddish), displaying various motives such as flowers, ornaments or even scriptures. Chests decorated with copper are less common, because the copper is not easy to work with. On the backside of the chest are usually no wood carvings or other decorations.

Beside the main compartment, the chest also has at least two pull-drawers plus a hidden drawer deep inside. Still today the local people of Zanzibar use the chests to store jewelry, money and other valuables. Some chests can be locked with a brass lock. One of the best shops to purchase a Zanzibar chest is Al-Tamimi Curio Shop in the centre of Stone Town, next to Jaws Corner. The owner, Nassor Abeid Tamim, is of Yemeni origin. In 1905 his grandfather came to Zanzibar and with him the skills of wood carving, which has been passed on through generations. Nassor is the only carpenter on Zanzibar who is specialized in copper carving. In his workshop he employs and teaches up to 25 wood carvers.



The last words will be for Aidan Hartley, excerpt from ‘The Zanzibar Chest’: “In the corner of the veranda was a Zanzibar chest, carved with a skill modern Swahili carpenters have forgotten. The old camphor box bore a design of lotus, paisley, and pineapple, and was studded with rivets tarnished green in the salty air. When I opened the chest lid, cobwebs tore and something scuttled into a corner.”

The Arab Fort – Ngome Kongwe

10 Oct

The Arab Fort (also called by its local name Ngome Kongwe) is a large building, with high, dark-brown walls topped by castellated battlements. It was constructed by the Busaidi Omani
Arabs on the site of a Portuguese church which had been built between 1598 and 1612. In the main courtyard, remnants of the old church can still be seen built into the inside wall. In the 19th century the fort was used as a prison, and criminals were executed or punished here, at a place just outside the east wall. The Swahili word gereza, meaning prison, is thought to be derived from the Portuguese word igreja, meaning church.

In the early 20th century, the fort was also used as a depot for the railway line which ran from Zanzibar Town to Bububu. In 1949 it was rebuilt and the main courtyard used as a ladies’
tennis club, but after the 1964 Revolution it fell into disuse.

Today, the fort has been renovated, and is open to visitors. It is possible to reach the top of the battlements and go onto the towers on the western side. In 1994 a section was turned into an open-air theatre. The development was imaginative and had a feel of the original building: seating is in amphitheatre style, and the fort’s outer walls and the House of Wonders form a natural backdrop. The theatre is used for performances of contemporary and traditional music, drama and dance. The modern-day fort is a great place to stop for lunch and at night there are often Taarab, Ngoma (local styles of music and dance) or movie nights. Also inside the Fort are shops and a beauty salon that does henna painting.

Beit Al-Ajaib, House of Wonders

7 Oct

Swahili rulers were called Wafalme or Mwinyi Mkuu (the Great Lord). Whenever he passed all those on trees had to come down and kneel at this feet. The palace of the 17th century queen Mwana Fatuma was on the side of the House of Wonders. Her son Hasan cleared the peninsula on which the Stone Town is located. In the middle of the 19th century mkwinyi Mkuu Muhammad b. Ahmed al-Alawi shifted his capital from the town to Dunga in the centre of the island. The dynasty died out in 1873.

Beit Al-Ajaib, House of Wonders was built in the 1880s as a ceremonial palace by Sultan Barghash Bin Said (1870-88) like an Omani mansion and external verandahs were added supported by cast iron pillars. It has 13 Indian inspired carved doors with semi-circular lintels with animal motives and gilded Islamic inscriptions. It was one of the first building to have electricity and a lift in 1913. This is the most prominent building in the old Stone Town. It was designed by a Scottish marine engineer in tropical Victorian industrial style and built in 1883.

The architecture is of extraordinary aesthetic standard, incorporating large cast iron pillars, beams, balustrades, open verandahs and galleries on the inside. The unique architectural elements include decorated verandahs, rooms fitted with fretted cedar and teak paneling, fine carved doors covered with gilded texts from the Quran. It is among the first buildings in East Africa to be installed with electricity and tap water. Once used for residence by two successive sultans after bombardment by the British fleet in 1896, in the shortest war in history but later reconstructed and converted in to the seat of the entire government in 1913.

The government has converted the building into the museum of Zanzibar history and Swahili civilization and officially opened by the vice president of the Republic of Tanzania, Hon. Dr Ali Mohammed Shein in 2002.

Bronze guns captured from the Portuguese by the Persian at the siege of Ormuz 1622 and probably captured later by the Omani Arabs in flight to Zanzibar by Sey Yid Said (Sultan 1804-56). These guns bear the royal arms of Portugal and a later Persian inscription.