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.