Photo story: colours and culture in Stone Town, Zanzibar

Ruled for centuries by the Sultanate of Oman, Tanzania’s laid-back archipelago is home to a vibrant blend of African, Islamic and Portuguese architectural and artistic styles.

By Christopher Wilton-Steer
photographs by Christopher Wilton-Steer
Published 10 Oct 2019, 11:02 BST
Music in Stone Town
Taraab music, from Arabic tariba (‘to be moved’), fuses African, Arabic and Indian influences. Typically, a Taraab orchestra fuses Western and traditional local instruments, including a violin, a kanun, an accordion, a nay and drums, plus a singer. These group can be found playing at the Serena hotel.
Photograph by Christopher Wilton-Steer

As the heat of the day eases, people begin to emerge along the harbour in Stone Town, the old part of Zanzibar’s capital, Zanzibar City. Generations of fisherman have plied the shores of this seafaring island, which has seen the arrival of Omani Arabs and Portuguese explorers.

Children, some in their uniforms, mucking about after school, Pemba.
Photograph by Christopher Wilton-Steer
Looking over the tin roofs of Stone Town.
Photograph by Christopher Wilton-Steer

Restored to its former glory in the 1990s, the distinctive lattice-worked, peppermint-green facade of Stone Town’s Old Dispensary — a waterfront landmark — now houses shops, an Ethiopian cafe and a display detailing the building’s history.

Men relaxing outside Stone Town’s Old Dispensary building.
Photograph by Christopher Wilton-Steer
Stone Town is arguably most famous for its iconic doors.
Photograph by Christopher Wilton-Steer

Of all its intriguing architecture, Stone Town is perhaps most famous for its doors. These large, brooding portals stand out for their design, blending African, Indian and Arabic styles brought to the islands by traders and migrants. The brass knobs protruding from many of them are inspired by those found on much larger doors in India, a practical design created to deter elephants from smashing their way through the doorway.

The brass knobs that protrude from many of them hark back to those found on doorways ten times the size in India.
Photograph by Christopher Wilton-Steer
The knobs were intended to deter elephants from ramming the doors of great forts.
Photograph by Christopher Wilton-Steer
Some neighbours catching up on the streets of Stone Town.
Photograph by Christopher Wilton-Steer

Worn by men, traditional, hand-embroidered Bargashia hats are a typical example of Zanzibari headwear. The islands’ historical links to the Arabian Peninsula mean they’re also a common sight in Oman. 

Many of the men wear traditional hand-embroidered ‘Bargashia’ hats, which come in a variety of colours.
Photograph by Christopher Wilton-Steer
Morning light near Maruhubi fishing village near Stone Town.
Photograph by Christopher Wilton-Steer

See more images in our photo gallery:

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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