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Zanzibar > Pictures and travelogues > Stone Town's carved doors

Pictures from carved doors in Stone Town, Zanzibar Island: Arab and Indian styles.

Arab-styled carved door with lotus flowers in Stone Town
Carved door of a traditional building located not far from the Ismaili Mosque in the old town of Zanzibar (Stone Town).
Arab-styled carved door with lotus flowers. 

Zanzibar has been a major coastal trading town of East Africa for several centuries. It controlled a substantial portion of the East African coast for much of the 18th and 19th centuries. At the time, Zanzibar was the main hub of spices, ivory, and slave trade.  Most heritage properties in Stone Town, the old town of Zanzibar, date back to this glorious period.

Stone Town's traditional buildings have a long stone bench along the outside walls. This elevated sidewalk may help when heavily raining or otherwise may be used as benches to sit down, rest or socialize. The buildings look inward on to a cool  courtyard. The wealth of the building largely expressed the social standing of the owner. The door, as the main visible part of a house in the medina, became a major way of expressing the opulence of the family.

During the 1800's, craftsmen in Zanzibar achieved a style and tradition of carving huge wooden doors that can be found nowhere else in the world. That is why Stone Town is famous for its many finely decorated wooden doors with rich carvings. The doors made of teak or sesame often outlast many other elements of the houses. The doors are divided into two panels, the male (mlango mdume) on the right, the female (mlango jika) on the left.

Two main types of decorative wooden doors can be distinguished in Stone Town: those of Indian style have rounded tops, while those in Arab style are rectangular. The Arab-styled doors are usually older. Gujarati doors are a modern variant of Indian style. Carving content is often Islamic (verses of the Qur'an) and sometimes Indian (e.g. lotus flowers as emblems of prosperity).

The 1964 Revolution had a disastrous effect on the architectural heritage of Stone Town since many Arab and Indian owners of Stone Town houses departed. The craft of making doors is almost extinct in Stone Town.  Although Stone Town is still hosting the largest concentration of carved doors in the Swahili coast, less than 280  of these doors (compared with more than 800 a few decades earlier) are left in the old city.

With the financial assistance of the German Government, the
Stone Town Conservation and Development Authority strives to preserve this heritage.




Main door to the House of Wonders in Stone Town
Main door to the House of Wonders (Zanzibar National Museum) in Stone Town.
Large Indian-style carved door with a semi-circular pediment.

Stone Town's carved doors got a boost during the reign of Sultan Barghash, the third Omani ruler (1870 - 1888). Sultan Barghash who had lived in Bombay and also visited England had a lot of exotic tastes. Barghash's contact with India made it possible for carvers and craftsmen to come and work in Zanzibar. They have a fresh Indian influence on Zanzibar architecture, including the Zanzibar doors.

Sultan Barghash built a large number of palaces, including the House of Wonders in 1883, which hosts 13 carved doors. These doors often have semi-circular lintel filled with intricate foliage carving that is sometimes perforated to allow light to pass through. 

 The doors with the new design are concentrated in Shangani and Baghani quarters, where rich Omani landowners settled, including the famous Tippu Tip and Indian merchants.


Carved door of the Aga Khan Mosque in Stone Town
Carved door of the Ismaili Jamatkhana (Aga Khan Mosque) in the Gujarati style in Stone Town (Zanzibar).

The present mosque of the Ismaili community in Stone Town dates back to 1905, even though the first construction was done already in 1838. It is situated in the historical heart of Stone Town. It is a large and beautifully detailed building. The façade shows European influence in its gothic windows.


Finely carved door in Stone Town
Carved door in the old town of Zanzibar, Stone Town.  One of the most finely carved door in the heart of Stone Town.


 

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Travel guide and travel directory to Zanzibar with many pictures.