On the Shores of Islands: The Ocean Feeds the Zanzibar Archipelago

By Stone, Wendy | The World and I, August 2004 | Go to article overview

On the Shores of Islands: The Ocean Feeds the Zanzibar Archipelago


Stone, Wendy, The World and I


Wendy Stone is a freelance photojournalist, represented in the United States by Corbis, and is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

A thousand years of trade, settlement, and Islamic expansion have left historic ruins up and down the East African coast. In the second century, the Greeks knew of this coast and called it Azania, meaning Land of the Blacks. Later, in the ninth and tenth centuries, Arab and Persian traders and settlers called it Bilad-al-Zenj. Their small settlements grew into fiercely independent city-states which brought forth a distinct Arab-African culture.

The Zanzibar archipelago lies in the Indian Ocean off Tanzania in East Africa. It is believed that Bantu people from the African mainland settled in Zanzibar around the fourth century A.D. By the seventh century, Islam had made its way to Zanzibar by way of Arab and Persian traders. The Arabs intermarried with the local African population and these people referred to themselves and their culture as Swahili from the Arabic word sahil, meaning coast. Their language is called Kiswahili. The buildings in Zanzibar's historical core date from the eighteenth century, though both folklore and archaeological sites suggest older settlements all over the island.

Zanzibar's economy is still dominated by maritime activities: fishing, mangrove cutting, shipping and shipbuilding, and seaweed cultivation. Fishing is most important. Most places along the shores of islands in the archipelago are fishing villages with homes built from coral rock. The majority of Zanzibaris are devout followers of Islam, and prayer calls can be heard rolling from the mosques day and night.

Traditional sailing ships, called dhows, are part of Zanzibar's modern- day charm. They are viewed by some as a symbol of the island. According to historical texts, dhows--sailed by Ottoman Turks--traveled along this coastline long before the Hegira in 622 A.D. Over the centuries, trade along the legendary spice route increased as Arab dhows covered the entire Swahili coast from Somalia to Mozambique. Typical cargoes bound for Persia and Arabia consisted of gold, animal pelts, tortoise shells, ivory, ebony, and slaves. Returning ships contained porcelain, beads, and cloth. Chinese junks visited Zanzibar harbor as early as the thirteenth century. Zanzibar became the main island in East Africa for the extremely lucrative slave trade. By the early eighteenth century, this was the principal activity along the coast. More than 600,000 slaves were sold in Zanzibar between 1830 and 1873 and put to work in the archipelago's clove plantations or sent to other districts.

Despite the part they played in the slave trade, the dhows were formidable cargo vessels that promoted the establishment of Swahili culture. …

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