Fabled Zanzibar, by Ted Cookson

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by Ted Cookson
Published in November 2009
View over Zanzibar from the House of Wonders, 83-second video clip
Zanzibar harbor scenes #1, 37-second video clip
Zanzibar harbor scenes #2, 46-second video clip
Zanzibar harbor scenes #3, 25-second video clip
Zanzibar harbor scenes #4, 70-second video clip

On 28 January 2009 my fiance Barbara and I arrived off the island of Zanzibar on the 296-passenger Silversea cruise ship Silver Wind, which had sailed overnight from Dar es Salaam during a 16-day cruise from Cape Town to Mombasa via Mozambique, Madagascar and Tanzania. During our ship's one-day call at fabled Zanzibar we visited the House of Wonders and the Palace Museum and then took a stroll through Stone Town.

Exotic-sounding Zanzibar, which merged with Tanganyika in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanzania, consists of two major islands, Unguja and Pemba. Somewhat confusingly, Unguja Island is often called Zanzibar also; and Zanzibar Town is situated on Unguja. 96 km/60 miles long and some 35 km/22 miles from the mainland, the island of Zanzibar is steeped in history.

During the first and second centuries A. D., Bantus migrated from modern-day Cameroun into East Africa. At that time there was trade with Arabia. Ivory, rhino horn and palm oil were exported while metal tools, weapons, wine and wheat were imported. It is thought that around 700 A. D. Omani Arabs and Persians from Shiraz emigrated to Zanzibar. In the following centuries the trade routes to Arabia and Persia were further developed, and slaves began to be exported from East Africa to the Arabian Gulf. Sailors from Java and Sumatra reached Madagascar and East Africa, perhaps introducing the coconut and the banana. The first mosque was constructed in Zanzibar in the twelfth century. Although Marco Polo didn't visit Zanzibar, he commented on it in his writings. By the fifteenth century there was direct trade between East Africa and both India and China. Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama called at Zanzibar in 1499, and Portugal wrested control of the island in 1503, only being overpowered by the Omanis finally in 1698.

From the middle of the eighteenth century there was a thriving trade in slaves, 3,000 of which were exported annually to Mauritius and Reunion to work on the sugar and clove plantations there. In 1840 prosperous Zanzibar was made the capital by Sultan Said, who lived in Zanzibar and called himself Sultan of Zanzibar and Oman. Dutch slaving ships also called at Zanzibar where the slave market, which eventually grew to become the world's largest, was finally closed down by the British in 1873. Up to 600 slaves a day were sold in Zanzibar's slave market during its heyday.

Both Livingstone and Stanley spent time in Zanzibar in the late nineteenth century; and other explorers such as Burton, Grant and Speke all passed through. From the 1890s onward Zanzibar was a British protectorate. With the exception of the sinking of one British ship in Zanzibar's harbor during World War I, Zanzibar saw no action during either of the world wars. Movement toward self-government followed the Second World War. Finally self-government was granted by Britain in 1963. Although briefly Zanzibar was an independent sultanate, a full member of the British Commonwealth and a member state of the United Nations, it opted to become part of Tanzania four months later in 1964.

After taking a tender ashore from Silver Wind, our initial destination was the House of Wonders. The first building on the island to have electricity, it acquired its name from the seemingly wondrous features it contained, such as Zanzibar's first elevator. The structure, which until recently housed the local government bureaucracy, was for long the tallest building in Zanzibar. Four stories high and built in 1883 by Sultan Seyyid Barghash, it has lovely big verandas and today offers, among various other things, an exhibit on Zanzibar's struggle for independence. The entrance of the House of Wonders sports two bronze cannons dating back to the sixteenth century. One of those cannons bears the royal arms of Portugal. The building's carved Arab-style doors are inscribed with verses from the Koran, and its marble flooring and silver decorations were imported from Europe. In 1896 the House of Wonders was bombarded by the British navy in an attempt to convince the sultan to abdicate!

Our next stop was the three-story Palace Museum, which is located amid gardens along the waterfront next to the House of Wonders. This was the abode of the sultans and their families from the 1880s until the revolution in 1964, and today the museum tells their story. A great number of pieces of furniture are exhibited, and from the top floor there are superb views of dhows sailing out in the harbor.

Stone Town consists of a maze of narrow streets where occasionally it seems as if one can almost touch the buildings on both sides. Here it is the nineteenth-century architecture which catches one's eye. Visitors to the old city walk past white-washed houses and ornately-carved teak doors galore. The arches and latticework trim are especially attractive. It's easy to get lost in Stone Town. But it's safe enough, and locals will gladly point visitors in the right direction. The Anglican cathedral was built on the site of the former slave market, and its high altar sits where there was once a whipping post. The Old Fort was built near the harbor by the Portuguese in 1700. It's worth a look as there are some interesting handicrafts shops inside.

Cloves were first introduced to Zanzibar and Pemba from the islands that are now Indonesia in the 1820s. Production grew until at one time Zanzibar was the world's largest producer of cloves, enjoying a near-monopoly on world clove production. However, production has declined nearly 60% since the 1950s due in large part to the effect of Tanzania's centrally-planned economy. Although Zanzibar's cloves are still said to yield the highest-quality oil, flavor and aroma, nowadays Zanzibar enjoys only a 10% share of the world clove market, lagging far behind Indonesia. In addition to being a spice, cloves are used in cigarettes, perfume and in herbal medicines. Interestingly, although Pemba supports about three times the clove production of Zanzibar, all cloves are exported via Zanzibar.

Situated south of the equator, Zanzibar, which is warm and can be visited year-round, offers excellent swimming and diving. In fact, its east coast beaches are some of the finest in the world. The island's climate is similar to that of coastal Kenya and Tanzania. The long rainy season lasts from March into early June. During this period tropical downpours occur on many days and the humidity is high. However, there can be pleasant sea breezes then and Zanzibar is very green during that period. This is followed by the long dry season from late June through October. Skies are mostly clear during then. In November and December there is a short rainy season when the rains are lighter and more variable. Typically there are just short showers during this period. This is followed by a short dry season in January and February.

Many travelers choose to conclude their safari in East Africa with a relaxing visit to fabled and exotic Zanzibar. There are two air routes from Cairo to Zanzibar. Kenya Airways flies daily to Zanzibar via Nairobi from approx. EGP 4,063 round trip, while Ethiopian Airlines flies daily to Zanzibar via Addis Ababa from approx. EGP 3,714 round trip. Both fares quoted include current taxes and fees. An overnight in Nairobi is required on the return when flying Kenya Airways.     


ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 311 of the 319 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com

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