Zanzibar, a minute archipelago off Tanzania, East Africa faces India across the Indian Ocean. It passed from the hands of local Swahilis, into Arabs, Oman and British hands over centuries; but, the earliest reference to the Indian Ocean trade hub was written in a commercial guide to oceanic trade by an anonymous sailor from Alexandria in 1st century CE.
By the 8th- 10 centuries the Zanzibar Swahili combine with Mombasa, Kilwa, Lamu and Bagamayo, was trading goods from the interior with visiting merchants from not only India, but also Indonesia and China; effectively making the Swahili civilization the meeting point of the diverse East African and West Asian cultures.
No political invasions happened but a cultural footprint did evolve in food, dress, religious, costumes and most, architecture – telling a story of constant change and cosmopolitan integration, not invasion. Foodgrains, cloves, ivory, mangrove poles and slave magnets drew first the Arabs, then Oman and finally the British.
Each invader left physical traces of its architectural ideology; in true Swahili tradition, it was fused with the deeply rooted local and Indian philosophies that led to the famed Stone Houses, magnificent edifices of ancient rubbly limestone coral reef building blocks in place of earlier mud and cocoanut palm shanties. Interiors often boasted of poroits bowls carved into walls to hold light.
The interiors with internal courtyards framed in wide verandahs and balconies were reminiscent of the Indian architectural style dictated by ventilation and weather needs. Doors and frames were intricately carved, semicircular on top; doors studded with pointed nails to resist charges.
After the Arabs came, the Muslim influence saw inscriptions from the Quran atop the door lintels. In 1883, Sultan Barghash built the House of Wonders, and the Chuini Palace atop a river so that the flowing water could be used for the bathhouses in the palace!
In the commercial arena, the bazaars began to take the shape of Indian bazaars with narrow long shops opening into the street, with barely any space in between. Residences were either stacked on stop or tucked behind the shops. In fact, Omani quarters boasted of long narrow residences with rooms one behind the other for the privacy of the womenfolk in the lavishly decorated inner most rooms.
The Europeans introduced their own Gothic architecture in churches, hospitals and other public spaces. In the 1800s, religious competition saw 4 painted Hindu temples vie with mosques and churches.
While many of those were preserved, older ones languished when the African revolutionaries unceremoniously swept the British out. Arab and Indian traders too exited precipitately and rural migrants took over their lavish establishments, ruining those luxury settings.
Socialist developments took place in suburbs, away from the city centers; by the time heritage concerns arose around the1980s, neglect and damage had defaced ancient heritage considerably.
Again uncomfortably close to Ahmedabad’s own neglected ancient walled city, while development happens in far off suburbs.
Zanzibar’s city planners laid legal foundations for urban planning to include heritage conservation then; we struggle yet that elusive ‘heritage’ tag.