Zanzibar Doors – intriguing pieces of history in Stone Town

The Zanzibar doors are a key talking point when you visit the island. When you stroll through the crumbling streets of Stone Town, your impression may flit between two trains of thought. Is this a town that’s in serious disrepair? Or is this an incredible time capsule of mysterious beauty and faded grandeur?

Personally, I think both are true. In some lights, Stone Town looks sad and beaten. Yet the more you explore, the more you will appreciate its unique character and precious historical quality.

And a lot of that is down to these beautiful doors.

An elaborate Indian door

Three centuries on from when Stone Town’s historical buildings first emerged, it’s been recognised that this UNESCO World Heritage Site needs to be preserved.

The sad news is that the number of original Zanzibar doors is dwindling. Restoration is slow due to lack of funds and apparently, many have been removed.

That said, I witnessed some signs of restoration when I visited Stone Town which is good news for both the people who visit and the Zanzibari locals who live here.

A street in Stone Town, Zanzibar

Many of the famed Zanzibar doors represent a time when rich aristocrats on the island thrived off a brutal slave trade, but the beautiful carvings also tell many stories of the Omani Arabic, Indian and Swahili cultures that still exist here.

An Indian style door in Stone Town, Zanzibar

There’s no denying, they’re one of the most photographed attractions for travellers to Stone Town. And the restoration programme itself, is helping create jobs for local people.

They’ve become a hallmark for this intriguing part of East Africa and were one of the sights that captured my attention most while we explored Stone Town’s frenetic streets.

What’s so interesting about these doors is that their characteristics and detail tell many stories depending on which culture they originate from.

Here’s a little explanation…

Indian door in Stone Town, Zanzibar

Zanzibar Doors – the different cultural influences

Swahili Doors

The Swahili doors are perhaps the least elaborate, but equally intriguing. I didn’t capture many pictures of the Swahili doors to be honest. However, I did snap this example of the colourful doors you’ll find in and around Jaws Corner, a photographer’s dream.

Swahili door in Zanzibar

Indian Doors

You’ll recognise the Indian doors with their arched frames and elaborate brass studs. Some of the Punjabi-influenced doors are also arched at the top.

There are many explanations for why the Indian doors boast those elaborate studs. Some say they derive from a design used in India that stopped the door being damaged by elephants. Another says that the studs are a symbol of wealth – the more studs you have, the more prestigious or wealthy you are.

It’s likely, the reason is a combination of the two but these days, of course, the studs are purely aesthetic as there are no elephants in Zanzibar. I love that there’s a story behind them though.

An Indian Zanzibar door

Arabic doors

The Omani Arabic doors can be distinguished by their rectangular shape and intricate carvings, many symbolising inscriptions form the Quran. In a similar way that the brass studs represent wealth in the Indian doors, the more intricate the carvings of the Arabic doors, the more socially ‘prestigious’ the owners were.

An Arabic Zanzibar door

Another characteristic you may spot when you’re exploring the streets of Stone Town is that some Zanzibar doors display chain carvings which indicate that the home was occupied by people working in the slave trade. Those in the fishing industry may have had fish carvings on their doors and interestingly, vines symbolise residents who worked in the island’s famed spice trade.

There are many other symbols you may pick up on and find out your own stories while you’re there.

Indian door in Stone Town, Zanzibar

I tell you what, it makes many of our own front doors look rather dull, doesn’t it?!

I do hope the restoration project carries on and these pieces of history continue to be preserved.

Elaborate door in Stone Town, Zanzibar

Studs typical of Indian Zanzibar doors

Elaborate door in Stone Town, Zanzibar

Have you been to Stone Town and did you explore the famous Zanzibar doors? Feel free to leave your thoughts and comments here.

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