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Written by: Andrew Hofmeyr

Zanzibar, the jewel of the East African coastline, has it all. With beautiful beaches, a fascinating history and cultural influences that stretch from Europe to Asia and back through time to the medieval Indian Ocean world, Zanzibar has an old-world charm that is unique in Africa. But how did this cultural melting pot come into being?

Many influences from across the Indian Ocean are woven together here, but to really understand the movement of people, languages and cultures through this enchanting entrepôt you need look no further than the dhow.

©Marc Veraart – Zanzibari dhow

Traditional dhows

Very simply, the Swahili word ‘dhow’ is a generic term for the pre-European ships of the Indian Ocean. Traditionally these dhows were sewn together using coconut coir (fibre) – a medieval practice born from the belief that magnets under the sea would suck any nails out of a vessel, thus condemning the crew to certain death beneath the waves. The dhows are typically rigged with a lateen sail, which is the classic triangular-shaped sail attached to a cross beam that is raised and lowered according to the winds. These boats range in size from small fishermen’s boats to vessels over a hundred feet long!

The Baggala for example, is an ocean-going dhow with a curved prow (the front) and an ornately carved stern (back) and usually has two lateen sails. The Boom vessel on the other hand is curved at both ends with a single large sail in the middle and was preferred by sailors from the Persian Gulf. It is believed that these boats have moved around the Indian Ocean for thousands of years carrying sailors from the Arabian Peninsula, along the East African coast, to India and even, some believe, as far as China.

Muscat Arab vessel bugala or dhow antique print 1873

Although there were many deep-water ships, the dhows were predominantly used for coastal trade. Moving up and down the East African coast, the dhows stopped at ports along the way, trading goods and ferrying passengers. Before the onset of steam and later petrol, these wind-powered ships were the cornerstones of a pulsating and cosmopolitan ocean trade. The constant movement of tradable goods and diverse people also meant the constant trade in ideas, technologies and religion.

Al-Idrisi 12th century map with Mecca (Makkah) center north above Arabia and Europe lower right.

The ancient dhow trade is recorded in a small book called The Periplus of the Erytraen Sea. Written in the first century by an unknown Greek author, the Periplus is a guide to the ports, people and trade goods of Arabia, India and the East African coast. The existence of this little book suggests a trade route that has continued for thousands of years, as empires rose and fell around it. A hint to its sustained importance over centuries lies in the function of the seasonal monsoon.

Ecology and the monsoon winds

The Indian Ocean dhows sailed according to the monsoon trade winds that enabled the movement of goods between rich, but completely different ecological zones. The lush tropical zones of East Africa and Madagascar were an important source of timber, gold and ivory, while the nutrient rich waters surrounding the desert zones of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula were abundant in pearls, fish and dates.

© Mark Berkowitz – Zanzibar dhow building

In January, the north-east monsoon carried dhows, laden with dried fish and pearls south from Arabia. In July, after nearly six months, the cycle reversed and the south-west monsoon would blow the dhows, having collected ivory, timber and gold back to Arabia. The combination of the seasonal monsoons, extended layovers and the need to trade between the different ecological zones created the ideal conditions for the development of a complex and cosmopolitan society.

Zanzibar and the Indian Ocean

Zanzibar is particularly unique as it was not only the last port of call for the Arabian dhows before sailing the treacherous waters of the Mozambique channel, but it was also the destination of larger, open ocean ships sailing from the Malabar coast of India. Seafaring culture that saw sailors staying for extended periods of time (up to six months waiting for the monsoon winds to change) meant that Zanzibar developed as a cultural hub. Sailors from all around the Indian Ocean gathered together, mixing religion, language and culture and it was not uncommon for sailors to take wives and start families, thus deepening the bonds between otherwise distant locations.

© Olivier Lejade – Pristine beach in Zanzibar

These ancient ties were further strengthened by the unification of Islam under the Abbasid caliphate in the 9th century. This era of peaceful trade and the spread of Islam is noted by some historians as the “Era of Sindbad” – a nod to the importance of maritime trade and commerce in history. This era of legendary figure – Sinbad the Sailor – lasted until the appearance of the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century, heralding a shift in the culture of the Indian Ocean.

Old Stone Town

Zanzibar, as the cultural nexus of this Indian Ocean trade, holds the evidence of this diverse and exciting history in Stone Town. It is the only functioning historical town in East Africa and its remarkably well-preserved architecture (mostly from the 19th century), bears the mark of Swahili, Arabian, Persian, Indian and even European influences. In 2000 Stone Town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as a direct result of its diverse historical and cultural influences.

Old Stone Town is the perfect place to soak up the old-world charm of Zanzibar, with its winding alleys, bustling bazaars, grand merchant houses and mosques calling to be explored.


© Yoni Lerner – Stone Town

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