Zanzibar Doors – Relics Of Stone Town’s Affluent Past

UPDATED AUGUST 2021

Ornate carved doors are common in many parts of India. But I have never seen such a profusion in any one place as I did in Stone Town, Zanzibar.

The Zanzibar doors – stark contrasts to the drab, peeling walls they grace – are impossible to miss anywhere you turn. All striking reminders of the cultural melting pot that is Stone Town and of the affluence it once enjoyed.

The tradition of carved doors was originally borrowed from immigrant Indian trading communities and later transformed into an eclectic, homegrown Swahili aesthetic.

Gujarati and Omani are the two main styles. The former are simpler with square coffered panels and folding shutters, and usually conceal shopfronts with residential quarters on the floor above. Much like traders houses of the early nineteenth century back in Gujarat, India.

The Zanzibar/Omani doors are grander. They sport ornate square lintels with Quranic inscriptions and are usually adorned with decorative metal studs and spikes mimicking the defensive spikes on Indian fortress doors.

Elaborate curved lintels top a third distinctly hybrid style.

Less than 800 original Zanzibar doors remain today, most dating back to the late 18th, and 19th centuries. They were deemed cultural heritage in 1980 and are protected by the Stone Town Conservation and Development Authority.


READ NEXT: STONE TOWN – ZANZIBAR’S HISTORIC HEART (COMPLETE GUIDE)


Shop in Zanzibar with ornate door and yellow car number plates on a wall on the left
Zanzibar folding door in Gujarati style in a shop and three children at play beneath a wooden bench for sale.
Gujarati folding doors in a furniture shop. (No they weren’t for sale…I checked!)

ZANZIBAR ON YOUR RADAR? πŸ“Œ PIN FOR LATER

A typical Zanzibari door: The carved wooden doors of Stone Town, Zanzibar are striking reminders of the island's affluent past and a cultural heritage worth exploring.
Doorway of Ojha Photo Studio in Zanzibar: The carved wooden doors of Stone Town, Zanzibar are striking reminders of the island's affluent past and a cultural heritage worth exploring.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

97 thoughts on “Zanzibar Doors – Relics Of Stone Town’s Affluent Past

  1. I love those doors. It’s a shame they don’t make them like this any longer. Doors symbolize so many things. Thank you for yet another treat, my dear Madhu! πŸ™‚

    1. You are most welcome MaArina. They do make carved doors on the island for sale, but somehow they do not look the same.

  2. These are so beautiful! I do love the doors in Oman and can see the similarities here. Interesting post πŸ™‚

    1. Me too. One of my very first posts was on the same subject. Thank you for your stopping by to share your thoughts πŸ™‚

  3. This is a beautiful collection of doors, Madhu. I have a huge collection of photos of Omani doors from my two years in Oman. I am always attracted to doors wherever I travel. πŸ™‚

  4. Beautiful doors, and I love your explanation of the origin of the doors. Well research.
    Thank you for sharing it with us….

    1. I am sure you do, considering most of these doors are concentrated around Baghnani street. Ron’s photo of the two little girls in white is my favourite from his Zanzibar gallery.

  5. Beautiful doorways – love seeing the designs up close and how solid they are. Today doors are thin and lack character of a past.

      1. That is so true. I’ve priced out some heavy wrought iron doors, that alone stopped me in my tracks and research on heavy wood doors wasn’t any better. These beautiful old relics need to be preserved.

  6. Nice to hear the story behind this beautiful work of art πŸ™‚

    So hard to spot such delicate carvings still surviving in India, apart from temples.

    1. You are right. Chettinad had quite a tradition in carved woodwork. Haven’t been there in a while though. Time to plan a trip.

      1. If you are a Non-vegetarian, you will have a great time trying Chettinad style food also πŸ™‚

        I really like their spicy preparations πŸ™‚

  7. Excellent doorways .. reminds me of our old old house back in the village has the side door almost like the one in the first pic

    1. A side door that ornate? That must be quite a house! You should write a post about it Bikram πŸ™‚ In the South ornate doors were usually reserved for temples and puja rooms.

      1. Na its not like that, when we made a Pucca house and modernised it a bit the old things were put aside.. Now that you say maybe I should write a post on the changes I have seen..

    1. You are most welcome. I can imagine how hard it must be to prune your RTW wish list! Still twelve months should see you fit in a fair bit. Good luck with the planning πŸ™‚

    1. I agree. They seem more striking against the decay all around. Perfect for a contrast themed challenge πŸ™‚

  8. What a cool photo essay. I like the graffiti on the one door and the intricate carvings on the others. The bench outside is also interesting. A nice place to hang out.

    1. That particular one was very intricately carved. Those are two geese a serpent and a lion! Thank you for your visit and comment Ami.

  9. So ornate! I’d love to live behind a door like that πŸ™‚ Those youngsters under the bench… what a lovely shot too πŸ™‚

  10. Wow! I love these doors and what amazing captures Madhu. Great detail and colour as well. I had to smile at the writing on the one door. It does give it character. πŸ˜†

    Thanks for sharing these beautiful doors hon. The one with the beautiful carvings and cute kitty is my favourite. πŸ˜€

  11. Wow! Very ornate and beautiful. It’s unfortunate that graffiti has marred the view of one of the doors. I do admire the intricate details and am so glad the entrances have been preserved. πŸ˜‰

  12. Fascinating, Madhu! This reminds me (and I am dying of curiosity) will your symbolism post be tied to a specific country or several of them, if one, which one? Please, respect my curiosity πŸ™‚

  13. Interesting post. The doors are one of the many things of beauty on the island. Having lived there for a number of years in the late eighties and again more recently, it is still one of my favourite places on the planet. Unfortunately uncontrolled tourism has not benefitted the majority of the Zanzibari people and poverty has many associated problems.

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