Human settlement in Zanzibar history goes back as far as 20,000 years ago. Today’s Zanzibar, however, is shaped by the archipelago’s unique geographic location which made it the centre of trade and culture along the Swahili Coast of east Africa.
The first evidence of exploration to Zanzibar is of Persian traders who sailed through the Indian Ocean monsoon winds in Dhow sail boats and established trading posts here. Although lacking in natural resources, Zanzibar’s location offered an easily defended and navigable hub from which to trade along the Swahili Coast. This Persian (or Shirazi) influence significantly shaped the indigenous culture and ethnicity of Zanzibari people before the later arrival of Arab influence. The first mosque in Zanzibar was built around 1107 AD by Arabic Yemeni muslims but it was the later arrival of the Omani Sultanate that reinforced Islam as what is still the dominant religion in Zanzibar and shaped its modern history.
After two centuries of Portuguese colonial rule beginning in the early 16h Century, Zanzibar became an oversees holding of the Sultan of Oman who kicked out the Portuguese and established a lucrative trade in cloves, ivory, and slaves. Zanzibar served as the key trading post for Arab slavery and was so successful that Sultan Seyyid Said actually moved his capital from Muscat in Oman to Stone Town, Zanzibar in 1840. While establishing an Arabic elite based on the trade of cloves, and slavery of the African population, the Sultan also oversaw an influx of traders from the Indian subcontinent who came to dominate commercial trade on the islands.
In 1890, the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty established Zanzibar as a Protectorate of the British Empire to remain under the governance of the Sultan. This Treaty also agreed to non-interference of Germany who had established mainland Tanganyika as a colony. In 1896 the death of Sultan Barghash led to a contention of the Sultanate’s succession that resulted in the “shortest war in history” where the British Royal Navy shelled the Sultan’s palace, ceasing the conflict after no longer than 45 minutes. After the short conflict the new Sultan Hamoud bin Mohammed, under pressure from the British, ended Zanzibar’s centuries old slave trade. Although the Sultan continued to rule, the British appointed their own resident governors and essentially shaped the modern administration and system of government that remains to this day.
However, with the departure of the British in 1963 the Sultan was overthrown in a violent 1964 revolution that saw the uprising of the Afro-Shirazi local population against the Arab elite and Indian commercial class. A massacre, led by a Ugandan revolutionary called John Okello, took place of between 5,000 and 20,000 Arabic and Indian Zanzibaris. Effectively ending nearly three centuries of Arab rule, the Sultan went in to exile and was replaced by the government of Abeid Karume, whose party still holds democratic power in Zanzibar today.
A few months after the revolution, Zanzibar and mainland Tanganyika united under a Republic which became known as Tanzania. This union still exists but allows Zanzibar to remain a semi-autonomous region with its own government and President.
Today, Zanzibar’s history can be explored through the ruins of palaces, forts, and houses of former rulers dotted throughout the Islands or walking through the streets of Stone Town which itself is a monument to its seat at the centre of Swahili and Zanzibar history.
When you get there, you will realise why it is called Stone Town, and certainly not because it is boring. Quite the opposite, Stone Town is the bustling centre of Zanzibar City that lies on a small peninsula on the Western side of the main island Unguja. It is the cultural hub of Zanzibar and the historic centre of Swahili history where you can find anything from Batik workshops and traditional art galleries, to lively restaurants and one of Africa’s biggest music festivals: Sauti za Busara.
Stone Town began as a settlement that flourished under the Swahili spice trade and later as the main hub for the Arab trade in African slaves. Stone Town’s unique architecture represents the Arab, Persian, Indian, European, and of course African influences that underpin Swahili history and culture. Its unique history and architecture has made Stone Town a UNESCO World Heritage site that is a must see in Zanzibar. It is a truly unique place where winding narrow streets are surrounded by tall stone buildings made of coral rock that give the town its name.
Significant sights to see include the Old Fort, Forodhani Gardens (where there is a delicious night time food market), and the House of Wonders that dominates the port side of Stone Town as you arrive by water. There is also the Sultan’s palace, the Hamamni Baths, and historical houses such as that of Freddie Mercury and infamous slave trader Tippu Tip. Indeed, the slave trade’s influence can be seen in the names of former slave markets such as Kilele square (Swahili for “noise”, after the hustle of the slave market which used to be there), and there is also a commemoration of the slave market near the Anglican Cathedral. A Stone Town tour is recommended to get to all these sights in before simply letting yourself get lost amid the streets. The guide will tell you everything about Stone Town including the traditional Zanzibari doors which proudly and impressively decorate homes around town.
The streets are too narrow for cars so you will be walking among a flurry of people and bicycle bells with shops eagerly trying to entice you in to see traditional Zanzibar hand craft and clothing. Take a break at Jaw’s Corner where you can chat and drink chai with the welcoming locals, or step into the Hurumzini Movie Café and catch a smoothie with a film. Stone Town also boasts a lively nightlife with a mix of local and more “ex-pat” restaurants and bars. For some good Swahili cuisine, try out Lukmaan’s restaurant or if you’re looking for more Western styles and a drink there is Taperia and Six Degrees. Stone Town is extremely safe and small so you can simply walk around and explore everything this amazing site has to offer.
Zanzibar’s history has been defined by the importance of the spice trade to its economy, giving it the nickname “the Spice Islands”. Sultans rose and fell based on how they controlled the lucrative supply of cloves to the world, and the Zanzibari people continue the grow all kinds of spice for day to day eating and trading as well as many other uses. Spice packets are easily available from sellers in Stone Town, any local market, and even people walking the beaches. However, to get a true sense of what spice really means to Zanzibar you have to take one of the famous spice tours.
If you are starting from Stone Town, the spice tour usually begins at the busy Darajani market where the guide will pick up some meat and vegetables for your later cooking lesson. When you get to the spice farm, a guide talks you through the spices plants and explains their many uses: from food ingredients and medicinal treatment, to painting ceremonial dresses and henna tattoos for women. The knowledgeable guide will have your senses in overload as he offers you the raw taste and feel of everything from cinnamon, coffee, and clove, to baobab sweets and some of Zanzibar’s exotic fruit selection such as mango and coconut. Meanwhile, locals will decorate you with hand crafted ties, hats, glasses, and jewelry made from palm leaves: try guess what they’re making while they walk around with you! They will even weave a little palm leaf cone to carry your collection of spices and smells.
In fact, the spice tour is a great way to see the Zanzibar country side and explore the local culture, meeting the people behind the spice trade. Here, you will see the truly hospitable nature of Zanzibaris who are delighted to have you visit their farms and who are equally fascinated by you as you are of them. Many spice tours will also let you sit down with a local Mama who will teach you how to cook good Swahili food, including coconut milk for a curry made of spices you have just collected. Of course, you will then dine on the delicious meal before ending your time on the spice farm.
The spice tour in Zanzibar is one of the great local experiences and highly recommended. The best way to organize the spice tour is to talk with staff at the Pongwe Beach Hotel who will be happy to arrange a trusted guide. Be sure to request the cooking lesson if you want it as this adds cost and time to the tour. With a cooking lesson, you can expect the spice tour to last 3 to 4 hours.
Getting to Zanzibar has a number of options. The Abeid Amani Karume International Airport in Zanzibar is the easiest depending on where you are coming from. The airport takes in chartered flights from Prague, Warsaw, Rome, Brussels, Frankfurt, Doha, Muscat, Tel Aviv, Johannesburg and other international flights with the likes of KLM, Condor, and Oman Air. It is also served by all Tanzanian airports. So, if your flight arrives in Dar es Salaam you can book ahead for a transfer to Zanzibar (or Pemba) on a small mono-engine plane for about $50 with operators such as As Salaam Air, Auric Air, Precision Air, ZanAir, and Coastal Aviation. You can book these in advance but beware that these flights are known to sometimes leave earlier than scheduled. This is a short and enjoyable 20 minute flight which gives you some impressive views of the archipelago as you are getting to Zanzibar. Taxis are readily available at the airport when you arrive to take you to your hotel.
Another way of getting to Zanzibar is to take the Azam ferry service from Dar es Salaam. This is a two-hour journey but it is recommended you arrive at the ferry port an hour before departure and, as online purchase of ferry tickets is not possible, buy your tickets the day before. This is recommended if you plan to stay a night in Dar es Salaam before getting to Zanzibar: using the ferry, which is right in the city centre, often turns out quicker than flying because the car traffic in Dar is notoriously slow. Ferry tickets for a single journey getting to Zanzibar cost $35, or $50 for VIP, and the ride is usually comfortable in the modern Azam ferry across usually calm waters, but there is of course always the potential for sea sickness so take this into account before deciding on how you are getting to Zanzibar. Also beware that when you get to the port in Dar es Salaam, the people offering to carry your bag expect a tip and be sure you get your ticket at the official Azam vendor: do not allow a local to take you to a separate vendor. Daily ferry departures from Dar-es-Salaam to Zanzibar are at 0700HRS, 0930HRS, 230HRS, and 1545HRS.
For tickets see http://www.azammarine.com/
Zanzibar’s tropical climate is predictable and, depending on your preferences, dictates the tourist season and best time of year to visit Zanzibar. Rainy season kicks off around late March and until May heavy rains can be expected almost daily with many businesses closing for the season. However, the sun still regularly shines during rainy season and the temperature lowers to around 25°C which you may find more tolerable than the height of Dry season when temperatures average around 32°C but with a considerable humidity factor. However, this heat is countered by the Indian Ocean breeze that provides a welcoming relief, especially felt on the East coast in places such as the beautiful Pongwe beach where people come to cool off.
Coming out of the rainy season, July sees Stone Town host the Zanzibar International Film Festival. This time of year is when temperatures begin to increase but are still comfortable. However, between August and March are the best time of year to visit Zanzibar as this offers the ideal climate.
Undoubtedly, February is the best time of year to visit Zanzibar. The Zanzibar music festival Sauti za Busara (Swahili for “Sounds of Wisdom”) takes place around 9-12th February every year and brings an influx of artists and tourists from across the globe who gather in Stone Town for a four day African music bonanza that celebrates Zanzibar’s rich cultural and musical tradition.
February is also the best time of year to visit Zanzibar as it offers the ideal climate when temperatures begin to decline, while the rain hasn’t quite set in yet. However, if you are looking for peace and solitude and to get away from the festival crowd, February is still the best time of year to visit Zanzibar… simply come to the East coast where Pongwe Beach remains a vessel of tropical paradise where you can bathe and relax at your leisure.