Zanzibar’s Doors by Lynne Mayhew

Upon arriving in Zanzibar, a large island off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa, the first things visitors marvel at are the magnificent wooden doors found in Stone Town, a World Heritage Site. Dedicated to preserving the remaining 200 plus doors and buildings out of the 800 that once existed, the Stone Town Historical and Cultural Society work hard to preserve the past, while educating visitors on the significance of the doors.

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Zanzibar’s Stone Town is a blend of Arab, Indian, European and African cultures. Each door represents the owner’s occupation as well as his status. Many of the tradesmen and ethnic groups are clustered together, giving each section of Stone Town its own cultural distinction.

When houses were built, the first part to be erected was the door. Its craftsmanship was reflected technically and artistically. Originally, doors were made from Burmese teak shipped across the Indian Ocean. East African teak replaced that and now other exotic woods are used. Skilled carvers from India were brought to Zanzibar to create the doors.

One of the well known doors is the Indian or Gujarati. These are heavy door panels made into small sections and reinforced. They were built for security and often used in the gold trading district. The Punjabi door style, also from India has an arched top over the frame. Carvings of the Taj Mahal and minarets adorn it. Heavy brass studs jut out of the paneling and are referred to as “elephant doors” when Indians once protected their homes from war elephants. Today, the brass studs are merely elaborate decorations.

Another door type is the Arabic door. Most have carved inscriptions from the Koran on the door lintel, a holy and protective influence.  The sides of the door frames are intricately carved as well.  Often time carved chains representing slave trading or keeping evil spirits from the home are featured. Other doors may use fish scales signifying the owner was a fisherman, sold or exported fish. Rope symbolizes security and signified the owner owned fishing vessels. Arab merchants used carved waves to signify their wealth and ties to the sea.

Carved symbols on the Zanzibari doors may include pineapples which are a sign of welcome.  When a merchant dealt in the spice trade, he would have floral designs carved on the door frames. Frankincense and date palms symbolize wealth and plenty. Jewelers had carved beads to advertise their trade. Geometric patterns often times indicated the owner was an accountant.

Living and trading as they did hundreds of years ago, Arabic, Indian, African and Asian families continue to reside and work in Stone Town.

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More great images of Zanzibar and Tanzania can be found here.


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