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Venture to Persia without ever leaving Africa

Updated on June 6, 2009
White washed buildings allign the streets and alleyways.
White washed buildings allign the streets and alleyways.
Ariel view of Stone Town.
Ariel view of Stone Town.

Through the Looking Glass

STONE TOWN, ZANZIBAR -- When most people think of Africa, they picture desolate wide-open golden plains with scattered acacia trees aligning the horizon. Perhaps a herd of zebras roam in the distance while a local tribe chants to the beat of a drum.

Africa does indeed possess these elements, but what most people tend to overlook is the continent’s wide array of cultural diversity. Let’s bring you to the small island of Zanzibar, Tanzania – an entirely different world, just a ferry ride away.

After finding the harbor in the port city of Dar es Salaam, hop on a ferry and be prepared to “step through the looking glass” into a completely different land in a completely different century! Upon your arrival in Stone Town, which is nestled on the island’s western coast on the Indian Ocean, is like venturing back to Persia in the times of great Sultans and magical carpet rides.

As far back as the 10th century, the island was first settled by Shirazi traders from Persia who mostly used the island to export slaves to Arabia, Persia, and the Indian Ocean islands. Between 1830 and 1873, it is estimated that close to 600,000 slaves passed through Zanzibar's market.

Typical road throughout the city.
Typical road throughout the city.

In addition to slavery, the Sultan of Persia exported many types of spices including cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper, which only contributed to the immense about of wealth that existed on the island. The architecture and style of the city is almost completely influenced by the Arabian and Persian cultures. Because of the heat and constant sunlight, the Sultan built the city with very narrow streets (about 5 feet wide), and buildings 3-5 stories in height. That, combined with whitewashing their structures on a weekly basis, created a very comfortable environment to live in. It kept the sunlight out, and the ocean breezes flowing.

Old Dispensary Building envisioned and funded by Sir Tharia Topan.  Completed in 1887 shortly after his death.
Old Dispensary Building envisioned and funded by Sir Tharia Topan. Completed in 1887 shortly after his death.
Stone Town is known for its doors.     Each one is different.
Stone Town is known for its doors. Each one is different.
Two Muslims relaxing on the steps.
Two Muslims relaxing on the steps.
Persian influence can be seen throughout most buildings.
Persian influence can be seen throughout most buildings.

Nowadays, the glory of the Persian Empire is long gone, but the structures still remain. The buildings aren't as white as they once were, but walking around the city still gives you the feel of ancient times. You could get lost for hours in Stone Town. It's like one giant maze of narrow streets that never stay straight and tall buildings that make it almost impossible to see the sky. The attention to detail is remarkable as well. Every door is different... intricate wood cravings mixed together with brass knobs and handles. It's a work of art.

The friendly African Muslims align the slender alleyways with food vendors selling the best 'grandmother' has to offer, retail stores to suit your most basic needs, and bargain antique shops with magnificent jewelry dawning from the old world traditions.

Nearly everyone on the island is of the Muslim religion. Beautiful, elaborate Mosques are present throughout the town. I tried to enter one of the Mosques the other day only to get yelled at by a Muslim man passing by on the street. "No woman inside, you not Muslim," he said peering up at me from the steps below. Being American, I played dumb and laughed to myself as I walked away. Despite the strict nature in which the Muslin religion ensues, the culture is quite friendly and open to all type of societies and ways of life. The women are still traditionally covered up, but no resentment is present towards the white people (or muzungu as the Africans call us; which translated literally means "of the white people" in many Bantu languages of east, central, and southern Africa).

Fresh fish market!
Fresh fish market!

Nightlife is also an experience in itself. With a beach-front, fresh fish market every night, how could it get any better? Anything you want, the locals will grill right in front of you from fresh shark, swordfish, king fish, or lobster, they have it. The budget traveler would be in heaven too; one can eat an entire plate of shark for 1500 shillings, which is equivalent to 1 USD! There’s no worrying about accommodation either; the typical residential stay with private bathroom goes for around $15 per night. Island rasta music can be heard well into the night as locals mingle, and backpackers exchange stories from their adventures throughout this persian influenced island.

Typical hotel room for $15 per night!
Typical hotel room for $15 per night!


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    • hafeezrm profile image

      hafeezrm 6 years ago from Pakistan

      Nicely narrated, took me again to the places I have been in the past week.

    • Neverletitgo profile image

      Abdinasir Aden 7 years ago from Minneapolis, MN

      Carmen-sandiego, you brough very intresting story that you had exprienced. I really enjoyed it.Thanks for sharing.

    • Cheeky Girl profile image

      Cassandra Mantis 7 years ago from UK and Nerujenia

      From the way you describe it, it sounds just marvelous! I would love to visit this place, especially Stone City! Thanks for a wonderful hub! You have been to some amazing places!!

    • Carmen_Sandiego profile image

      Carmen_Sandiego 7 years ago from USA

      I would go back if time and money permitted! However, after checking out Zanzibar, it has motivated me to travel to the Middle East! I really like the Muslim culture :)

    • Gemynii profile image

      Gemynii 8 years ago from Texas

      Beautiful pictures. You have shown me something new and I am grateful. Thank you. Very interesting!