Zanzibar brings four thoughts to mind: Ancient pottery, which links the city to global trade dating back to the 24th century BC; slave trade, which flourished in the Middle Ages as a result of merchants coming to the place to do business and take indentured labor with them; Scheherazade, whose haunts of the city where in her 1001 Nights; and Freddie Mercury, the rock band, Queen’s front man who was born and raised in Stone Town—the original part of the city.
According to scholars, ancient pottery unearthed implies that there had been trade routes with Zanzibar dating back to the time of the Assyrians of Mesopotamia who established vast empires across the Mediterranean and Africa.
Abdurahman M. Juma, one of the scholars, noted in his academic journal published in 1996, that pottery excavated from the city “suggests a possible trade with the classical world in which the earliest settled community on Zanzibar may have participated.”
“Archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler famously tied together the worlds of ancient Rome and ancient India by finding Roman ceramics stratified into levels at Arikamedu, south India. Late Roman pottery from far down the East African coast now allows the same kind of matching link from the Mediterranean to a distant shore, this one in the Swahili world (of Zanzibar),” Juma wrote.
Traders from the Persian Gulf region of modern-day Iran, and west India visited Zanzibar as early as the first century, using the monsoon winds as guide to sail across the Indian Ocean and dock at the sheltered harbor located on the site of present-day ZanzibarCity, scholars said.
The world was still asleep in the dark recesses of the Middle Ages but not Zanzibar, which at the time, was already up-and-about with businessmen from all over, trading spices, ivory and slaves from the vast African interior.
Since the first expeditions, wooden dhow boats were used for trade from the Arabian Peninsula through the Indian Ocean, and then from distant countries like the United States, which established a consulate in the city in 1837.
Zanzibar, famous for its endemic Zanzibar Red Colobus Monkey, also conjures images of slaves huddled together with chains to their necks, boarding wooden ships for an unknown land, similar to Alex Hailey’s 1976 New York Times Best Seller, “Roots: The Saga of an American Family”, a novel about an 18th-century African captured and sold into slavery in the United States.
Historians note that Zanzibar, being East Africa’s main slave-trading port, had as many as 50,000 slaves sold in the 19th century. Slave trade finally ended around 1876 following a series of agreements between the British and local leaders, the first of which was signed in 1822.
Great for adventure holidays with its outdoor activities, Zanzibar has a year-long cool weather with the coldest months being July and August at a daytime average of 29°C.
It has the original part of the city among its major attraction: StoneTown or Mji Mkongwe, which is Swahili for "old town."
Categorized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, StoneTown, the birth place of 70s rock icon, Freddie Mercury, is famous for its architecture. Remnants of the city’s colorful past with its mixture of Arab, Indian, Persian and European elements fused with the indigenous Swahili culture.
What probably is very much Mediterranean about Stone Town is its labyrinth of alleys too narrow for cars and fit only for bicycles and motorbikes that one can hop on to enjoy scenes of the houses, bazaars and mosques lined up on the sides.
As Marrakech is known as the “OchreCity” because of the rose-red Terra cotta clay-based ceramic used to build houses for a burnt sienna hue, StoneTown derived its name from a coral stone largely used as main construction material thus giving the entire place its reddish colour.
StoneTown is Zanzibar’s first village and was where traders settled following a long voyage across the Indian Ocean to then prepare their caravan for a business expedition into the African interior all the way up Central Africa and the Congo River.
Scheherazade, storyteller of Arabian Nights, is also believed to have hailed from StoneCity, where she holds a strong place in its history, and from where some of her anecdotes were derived. Scheherazade was a beautiful lady who had the misfortune of having to be married to a sultan whose ill-fated experience with his first wife had caused him to slay his succeeding wives after honeymoon lest they give him reason to forego the murder for the next evening. Scheherazade gave the sultan one reason—i.e. one story—a night.
Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara on Sept. 5, 1946 was the son of a Parsee couple from India. He went to a school run by British nuns in Zanzibar. In 1964, the Bulsara family fled the Zanzibar revolution and moved to England.