Islamic Architecture on Zanzibar
Zanzibar has long been a place of religious tolerance and diversity, and this characteristic is reflected in its architecture. The East African archipelago in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania enjoys a reputation as a melting pot of religions. In the maze of narrow alleyways that make up the old quarter of Stone Town on the main island Unguja, mosques stand side by side with Hindu temples and churches among houses made of coral by Muslim Arabs some 300 years ago. Impressions and images by Arian Fariborz.
View of a traditional Omani dhow in the harbour of the capital of the archipelago, Stone Town, which has a population of approximately 440,000. Muslim Arabs have lived on Zanzibar since the eighth century CE. In around 1200 CE, the Shirazi, who trace their origins back to Persia, started settling here too. Over the centuries the island became an important centre for the trade in spices, ivory and slaves in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.
The origins of Muslim architecture: the oldest mosque in Stone Town is the Malindi Bamnara Mosque, which dates back to the seventeenth century. Apart from the projections for the kibla in the northern wall, most mosques in the Old Town have simple exteriors not unlike those of the other buildings, allowing them to blend harmoniously into the townscape.
Zanzibar has around one million inhabitants, an estimated 95% of whom are Muslim. The numerous mosques, madrassas and caravanserais, and the calligraphy on facades, entrances and doors all bear witness to the rich cultural heritage of Islam on Zanzibar. Here we see suras from the Koran on a madrassa near Darajani Market in Stone Town.
Simple Arab elegance: the Sultan's Palace ("Beit al-Sahel") on the coast in the Kiponda district. With the end of Portuguese rule in 1699 the Omani influence on Zanzibar grew. In the centuries that followed, Omani traders discovered the island's economic potential. Its particular economic significance as a trading hub finally prompted Sultan Sayyid Said to move the Omani sultanate from Muscat to Stone Town in 1832. The long complex of buildings, extended in the 1870s by the addition of several p
Glimpses into the world of the Omani sultans: the seaside palace was the royal family's secondary residence in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1869, parts of the once magnificent building were reduced to rubble by bombardment. In 1936, it was renovated and modified. Today it houses the palace museum.
Interior view of the Persian baths. The Hamamni Persian Baths were built in 1880 in the Persian style by the Sultan Bargash and designed by the architect Haj Gulamhussein. They were the first public baths on Zanzibar.
View of the adjoining Sultans' Graveyard, where many of Zanzibar's ruling Omani dynasty are buried. Behind it is the guesthouse for the sultans' visitors.
The historical centre of Stone Town: the Forodhani Gardens and the Arab Fort, which were restored with the help of the Agha Khan Foundation. These were constructed by the Omani rulers in the early eighteenth century as a barricade against the Portuguese. The fortifications initially served as a barracks, later as a prison, and have also housed a train station. Today, the fort is the site of Stone Town's cultural centre. The capital of the small archipelago has been a protected UNESCO World Herit
Jewel of the "Harun ar-Rashid" of the Busaidi family: The "House of Wonders" in the heart of Stone Town, built at the command of Sultan Bargash in 1883, displays many elements of Victorian and Indian colonial architecture. This monumental building, situated directly on the coast, is so called because at the time, it was the only house on Zanzibar to be supplied with electricity, and had an electrically-powered elevator.
Symbol of status and prosperity: a gate in the "House of Wonders", decorated with verses from the Koran. These characteristic, imposing, square gates and portals are found throughout the old quarter of Stone Town. They provide information about the owner of the building, his origin and profession. The wood inlays and calligraphy are indicative of the diversity of Arab, Indian and Swahili tradition.
Melting pot of world religions: in Stone Town alone, there are 48 mosques (including a Twelver Shia mosque), four Hindu temples, a Zoroastrian fire temple and two Christian cathedrals.
The main entrance of the Ismaili jamatkhana with its great double doors in the Gujarati style carries the name of the benefactor who took over the financing of the building of the mosque at the start of the twentieth century.
Simple Omani architecture: many of Zanzibar's mosques have no minaret, like this one on Chumbe Island, which dates back to the first half of the eighteenth century. The call to prayer was often made from the highest point of the building.
The High Court of Justice in the Vuga district, with its signature Arab dome, Moorish fortifications and British clock. This building is an example of architecture in the colonial style of so-called "Sinclairian Saracenism", which reflects the interplay between Arab and the new British colonial architecture after Zanzibar became a British protectorate in 1890.
Architecture influenced by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul: the Peace Memorial Museum ("Beit al-Amani"), built in1925, was also designed by the British architect J.H. Sinclair. The museum was built in memory of the victims of World War One. The six-sided building complex and the combination of a central dome and several side domes, as well as the central prayer room, are reminiscent of their Ottoman-Byzantine model.