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Zanzibar: A love story

This magnificent island off the coast of Tanzania changed for the worse when it lost its favourite princess to forbidden love

brunch Updated: May 26, 2018 22:00 IST
Amitava Chaudhuri
Amitava Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
Zanzibar,Tanzania,Princess Nafiza
After Zanzibar became an Omani sultanate, the old fort of Zanzibar was built(iStock)

Princess Nafiza looked out of the window of the fort in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Born to a concubine, she was the favourite daughter of the Sultan of Zanzibar, active, intelligent and popular in the royal household. The sunny morning, the beautiful silver sands and blue waters of the Arabian Sea beckoned her. “Let’s go riding,” she called out to her companions as she left the fort on her favourite horse.

Island of forts and palaces

Zanzibar is the main island in the Arabian Sea close to the African mainland in Tanzania. It has endless silver sand beaches, calm blue seas, historic architecture, friendly people and a past associated with wealth, greed, cruelty, sultans, princes and princesses.

Inhabited for around 20,000 years, it has been ruled down the ages by outsiders – in the 7th century BC by Sabeans of the Semitic civilisation of Sheba of Yemen, and then successively by the Persians, Portuguese, Arab and the British. As the main port of East Africa, it traded in gold, ivory, frankincense, ebony, turtle shells, silks, spices, corals, weapons and slaves.

A view of the Old Fort, also known as Ngome Kongwe, in Stone Town, Zanzibar (iStock)

The Persians arrived in the 12th century. They brought with them their thoughts and culture and built the Zoroastrian fire temples of Zanzibar, the first in Africa. The Portuguese replaced the Persians and ruled from 1498. When the Portuguese could not be tolerated any longer, the Zanzibari Africans took the help of the Sultan of Oman and overthrew them in 1698.

Zanzibar then became an Omani sultanate. The old fort of Zanzibar was built. Plantations of cloves, ginger, pepper,cardamom and vanillawere set up and Zanzibar became known as the ‘Spice Island’. Business boomed and a new Arab-African culture grew up, and from it a new language – the Kiswahili, which is today a major language of East Africa. The Omani sultans liked their life so much that they abandoned Muscat to settle in Zanzibar.

The stone town

The Stone Town is a cluster of buildings, roads and alleyways in the older part of Zanzibar. The name originates from the use ofreddish coral stoneas the main construction material for houses.With narrow alleys lined by houses, shops, bazaars and mosques, its architecture is a combination of Arab, Persian, Indian, European and African styles. It is a little like Dariba Kalan of old Delhi, or parts of old Jerusalem.

The roofscape of Stone Town at sunset (iStock)

To keep their interiors breezy and their appearance majestic, the houses have extensive balconies, embellishments, windows with shutter work and magnificently carved wooden entrance doors. Also, they often have a baraza, or a long stone bench running along the outside walls of the houses, which is used as an elevated sidewalk if heavy rains waterlog the alleys. At other times the barazas can be used as benches to sit down, smoke and socialise.

When Persians arrived in the 12th century, they built the Zoroastrian fire temples of Zanzibar, the first in Africa

The Stone Town of Zanzibar is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The majestic wooden entrance doors of stately houses for which Zanzibar is famous, have elaborate carvings and reliefs sometimes with big brass studs like in Mombasa, Muscat or Kutch. The carvings on the doors often feature verses from the Quran, or occasionally lotus flowers, betraying Zanzibar’s ancient connection with India. Sometimes one comes across a door where cultures meet; these doors have arches that are Indian and carvings in Arabic.

The House of Wonders, the landmark building in Stone Town, is striking in appearance (Shutterstock)

When the old was new

Zanzibar was extremely modern in its heyday. It was the commercial capital of East Africa and the main gateway to the interior of the African continent. The House of Wonders, the landmark building in Stone Town with extensive balconies, is striking in appearance. Built in 1883, it was the first multistory building erected in much of Africa, with running water, electricity and a lift. The building has been restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and it houses the last Sultan’s furniture, artefacts and his motor car.

The majestic wooden entrance doors of stately houses for which Zanzibar is famous, have elaborate carvings (iStock)

There are many other magnificent buildings in Stone Town, some have been restored and turned into boutique hotels, upscale shops and restaurants. They remind the visitor of the original glory of Zanzibar, with their polished woodwork, brass inlay and stone and mortar walls. Some old buildings still carry the names of their past owners, like the one with the name ‘Currimbhoy’, who was perhaps a trader from India. The old forts on the beach are equally impressive with elaborate pillars and outhouses. There were hammams in the outhouses, where the Sultans had steam baths using huge copper vessels to generate steam.

To facilitate public transportation in Stone Town, the Sultan had set up a 12km railway line in 1879, which ran parallel to the beach and the town. After a few years, it was dismantled and another was built by the Americans. By 1906, long before even London had them, Stone Town had electric street lights. A brief period of socialism after the British left in 1964 resulted in the only major modification to Stone Town, when an apartment complex was built in a style reminiscent of Russian apartment complexes in East Europe or Central Asia.

The old prison courtyard on the Prison Island (iStock)

At the height of Zanzibar’s glory, it had German, French and American trading houses, and hosted any European or Arab of any importance to Africa. Major expeditions to Africa’s heartland like those of David Livingstone were financed by the Sultan. Much of East Africa was indirectly controlled by him and his wealth.

Princess Nafiza

Princess Nafiza returned to the fort, a little hot and breathless. She was accustomed to the life of royalty, but of late it bored her. Surely life must have something more to satisfy the soul, she thought. As she neared the fort she remembered that she would have to rest and dress up for the moonlit barbecue to be held that night on the beach.

At the barbecue that evening, Princess Nafiza sat with her companions languidly looking at the guests – among them an assortment of mostly young men from Europe. The royal women were served food inside the fort. The men and guests ate outside and discussed spices and the schedule of ships expected to call at the port.

The Stone Town is a cluster of buildings, roads and alleyways in the older part of Zanzibar (iStock)

One young man seemed familiar and Nafiza learnt that he was Karl, the representative of a German trading house from Hamburg. Nafiza asked her companions to find out if it was him she had seen riding on the beach. If it was, he was indeed a very good horseman. By coincidence she saw Karl again the next morning, when she looked out of the window of the west wing of the fort. Karl was standing at a balcony of the hotel opposite the fort. They waved and spoke across the buildings and met briefly on the beach a few days later when they went riding. Thereafter they continued to see each other.

Punishment and exile

It was forbidden by the Sultan for a member of the royal household to have such contacts. Princess Nafiza received 10 days to cut all relations with Karl or face the prospect of exile to Prison Island five kilometres offshore. Karl would have to leave Zanzibar immediately.

Today, Stone Town is crowded: one of the forts on the beach is an open air art gallery and hosts a film festival

The only alternative for the couple was Aden which was under the control of the British. Princess Nafiza and Karl left Zanzibar quietly for Aden where they married and embarked for Hamburg. An Arabian princess, she chose to live in Germany with a German name. She had no choice: the Sultan had sent word that she would never be allowed to set foot in Zanzibar.

The narrow streets of Stone Town (iStock)

The history of Zanzibar changed completely soon after Nafiza left. The Sultan died in 1896, and the new Sultan, Khalid bin Barghash, was seen by the British to be hostile to their interests. To bring Barghash to his knees, the British started shelling Zanzibar from the sea on August 27, 1896, in what became known as the Anglo-Zanzibar War. The Sultan capitulated within 38 minutes. The victorious British formally occupied Zanzibar. In 1964, Tanganyika in mainland Africa and the Zanzibar island secured independence from Britain, joined hands and named the new territory the nation of Tanzania with Dar es Salaam as its capital.

The sacred tree and ancient turtles

Today, Stone Town is crowded with people. One of the forts on the beach is an open air art gallery and holds the annual Zanzibar International Film Festival. The post office has fast Internet facilities. The African Grey Parrot at the entrance to the restaurant next to the post office cries out to guests who enter “Hello, welcome! Do come in and sit down.” The silver sand beach and the calm blue sea are unchanged. But there is nothing living today from the 1890s, when Princess Nafiza met Karl, except the sacred 1,000 year old giant baobab tree on the outskirts of Stone Town where people go to make a wish, and the dignified 150-year-old turtles that live quietly on the Prison Island where Princess Nafiza was to be exiled for falling in love with Karl.

Dr Amitava Chaudhuri is the former UN and World Bank Adviser to Africa

From HT Brunch, May 27, 2018

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First Published: May 26, 2018 19:42 IST