Photo Essay – The Doors Of Zanzibar

Ornate carved doors are common in India. But I have never seen such a profusion in any one place before. They are impossible to miss anywhere you turn in Stone Town. Striking reminders of Zanzibar’s affluent past, in stark contrast to the drab, peeling walls they grace.

The lavish entrance to the mansion of notorious slave trader Tipu Tip – named after the sound of his guns! – is a testament to his wealth and influence. Chains carved into the bottom portion of the door frame and threshold are said to indicate the passage way used to transport slaves.

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.

The Zanzibar/Omani doors are grander, with ornate square lintels with Quranic inscriptions, and are usually studded 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.