Tourism has become a mainstay of the modern and peaceful Zanzibar. Stone Town, part of the ancient port and city of Zanzibar, has had a long and sometimes turbulent history. It has strong Swahili and Islamic influences, and the old city is a UNESCO heritage site. Arab architecture has been saved, with beautiful old buildings separated by minarets and elaborately carved wooden doorways studded with brass. The House of Wonders, a former sultan’s palace, takes pride of place. The architecture is a fusion of the influences of Arab rulers and the Indian Merchant class that profited from running commerce for the Arab rulers. Europeans left their mark with the Anglican and Catholic cathedrals. The Anglican cathedral was built on the site of the last slave market. Tourism has been a driver of restoration, as former dilapidated and once grand homes of the Arab ruling and merchant classes have been painstakingly restored capturing the former glory of a bye gone age but with the addition of all mod cons for the comfort of the modern traveler. The lively and colorful market is a reflection of the richness of exotic tropical fruit, vegetables and spices from the hinterland.
There are few things better or more evocative than watching the sunset from a veranda, perched above the western approaches, sundowner in hand and gazing west towards the mainland. The scene that unfolds as the huge red orb sinks below the skyline is timeless. Numerous dhows, plying between Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar or all the way from Dubai, silently move slowly to anchor at dusk. As the wind dies, the toiling crews furl the huge white sails before coming ashore, a scene that takes one back a thousand years. The smell of spices and freshly roasted coffee and a crier calling the faithful to prayer from a nearby minaret is quintessential Zanzibar.
Along the palm-fringed beaches are popular hotel sites to suit every taste, and most offer either diving or water sports. Spice tours are easily arranged as well. A mecca for diving and snorkeling enthusiasts or simply those who want to soak up the sun and enjoy the tranquility of some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, Zanzibar is a fascinating and fitting end to a wildlife safari. It is a perfect setting for honeymooners.
A beach holiday may also be the beginning of a visit to one of the nearby Southern national parks, easily reached by aircraft. The islands of Mafia and Pemba are less developed, but they’re becoming increasingly popular and are supported by good quality hotels and lodges.
Zanzibar has a long history of human occupation that started in the Paleolithic some 20,000 years ago. People of Arab descent visited and settled before Christ and Bantu people in the first 1000 years AD. Its shores were visited as the Empires that bordered the Indian Ocean rose and fell. These seafaring scholarly civilizations of antiquity became rich and powerful beyond measure. They first sent out explorers then merchants to the East African coastline to trade beads and weapons for ivory, gold, ambergris, leopard skins, pungent spices and slaves. Chinese, Persian, Arab and Indians settled here, long before the arrival of Europeans. The Portuguese represented the first wave of western European arrivals that culminated in the Imperial “Scramble for Africa” in the late 18th century.
The earliest Arab settlers mixed with the Bantu people and pastoral Cushitic ethnic groups that represented African migrations from West Africa and The Horn. Intermarriage and conquest produced a distinct Swahili people and culture along the coastal city states. Today, the Swahili language has spread throughout Eastern Africa and as far as the Congo.
With its safe anchorage, plentiful fresh water and fertile land, Zanzibar became a hub. Graceful Arab dhows glided into its harbors at the end of long voyages, their huge lateen sails filling with the seasonal monsoon winds. When the monsoon changed, they would return to Arabia, Persia and India, laden with exotic goods. It is remarkable that a giraffe was taken to the Chinese Court of the Ming dynasty in 1414.
Like many empires that have come and gone, Zanzibar experienced a long period of Arab rule, from about the 11th century to the 16th century. There was an interlude of Portuguese rule broken by Omani Arabs and their sultan from Muscat. Later the Arab sultans came under British influence and the British ruled indirectly through them.
The British explorers Burton and Speke used the island as a base for their forays into the interior. Dr. David Livingstone, pioneer, missionary and hero of Victorian England, stayed at what is now known as Livingstone House, courtesy of the Sultan. Livingstone campaigned for an end to slavery and his accounts of the cruel trade ended with a British treaty with Zanzibar Sultan Bargash in 1873, the same year Livingston died. Ironically, the British encouraged him to trade in more ivory and a new tax on exports was split 50/50 between him and the British to make up for lost slave revenue.
Germany and Great Britain avoided war over their African ambitions by carving up East Africa in “The Scramble for Africa”. Germany took what was to become Tanganyika, and Zanzibar slipped out of British influence until the end of the First World War.
In 1963, Zanzibar was granted internal self-rule by the British and while the Arab community were in a minority they managed to gain power in parliamentary elections but a year later a bloody revolution ended the last 200 years of Arab rule. Zanzibar was in 1964 merged with mainland Tanganyika to form Tanzania, and to this day it is semi autonomous and tradition has it that the Vice president of Tanzania comes from Zanzibar and the presidency itself has been held by one Zanzibari , Ali Hassan Mwinyi , since the union.
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