“When I was a child living on Zanzibar I just assumed all houses had big wooden doors with metal studs in them.”
(Michael Sweeney of Zanzibar Travel)
It is only when I returned many decades later that I realised the significance, and beauty, of the Zanzibar doors which adorn houses and hotels in historic Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
During your visit, no doubt you will take photographs of doors in their varies stages of neglect or restoration. It is worth having some idea of what they are all about, which I did not know until quite recently.
The larger and more elaborate the door, the greater the wealth, social significance and status of the owner who built the house. The intricate carving, usually surrounding the door, told passers by something about the trade of the owner of the house.
In those days there were no office blocks so business was transacted from the home of merchants and traders. For example, those in the slave trade would invariably have carvings of chains. Geometric patterns tended to indicate the owners were in the finance business, usually accountants or money lenders.
Carvings also have other symbolic significance, for example:
- Flowers indicate it was a family home.
- Rope and/or fish carvings indicated the occupant was in the fishing trade.
- Vines – that the owner was in the spice trade.
There are 2 basic types/shapes of the wonderful Zanzibar doors:
- Indian Doors. These can be identified by the arched shapes above the door, and the metal (usually brass) protruding spikes.
- Arabic Doors. These are generally rectangular in shape, the carvings are often excerpts of scripts from the Quran, and/or indicating their trade or profession. These tend to have ornamental brass studs rather than spikes.
So, why do Indian doors have spikes?
It is said they are to protect elephants pushing the door down and entering the house. But there have never been elephants on Zanzibar. The spikes replicate the doors of the houses they, or their forefathers, had left in India (where there are elephants) before making a new life on Zanzibar.
For those with a bit more time, and interest – one more thing to look out for.
You know how trades/professions today tend to gather in a similar place in the commercial centres of towns and cities around the world. High street banks are close to each other. Estate agents are close to each other. The same on Zanzibar centuries ago.
Different trades and professions gathered in distinct parts of Town. Look for similar carvings/symbols along one street, then another street will have a number of houses with carvings/symbols representing a different profession or trade.
When in Stone Town, look for a book on Zanzibar Doors at the excellent book and souvenir shop, The Gallery, on the corner of Kenyatta Road and Ghizenga Street.
These 2 are from our personal album.