Ah, Zanzibar. Simply saying the name evokes images of exotic spices and warm tropical winds. As I recently discovered, however, a trip there reveals something else special about the town: its carved wooden doors. They as much as anything illustrate the blending of cultures that occurred though Stone Town’s history, spice trade and all.
The heavy doors are strongly associated with Swahili culture, itself a blend of Middle Eastern, Arab, European and Asian cultures, and are found in East Africa, including Lamu and Mombasa (Kenya). The sheer number of them in Stone Town has given them the name Zanzibar doors.
The Arab influence is seen in the older doors; they are square, like the houses, and feature geometric designs. The “newer” doors, dating primarily to the late 19th century, reflect Indian influence and have arched tops and floral designs. Commonly seen elements are passages from the Quran, fish (representing the wish for many children), date trees (representing abundance) and lotus flowers (signifying regeneration).
It is interesting – and a bit terrifying – to note the large brass spikes on a great many doors, most likely a modification of a tradition from India where doors were spiked as a defense against elephants in war. While Zanzibar once had an abundant elephant population, today sadly there are none to be found on the island and the spikes are purely decorative.
The door was often the first part of the house built, a tradition that originates from the Persian Gulf region and by the 15th century had reached Zanzibar. With their heavy jambs and ornately carved surfaces, they reflect the solid coral rag construction of the homes themselves.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize that the doors also reflected the relative wealth and stature of the owner of the house. According to my Footprint guide, “The door was the badge of rank and a matter of great honour amongst merchant society.”
In Stone Town the remaining doors date primarily from the 18th and 19th centuries. At present, approximately 560 doors remain. They are carefully monitored and maintained by the Stone Town Conservation and Development Authority.
Though they are protected, it’s easy to take one home: Stone Town’s curio shops are full of hand-carved miniatures and replicas. If you have the space, adding a Zanzibar door would be a great way to add a little “spice” to your home!