An antique door in Stone Town © Bartosz Budrewicz, Shutterstock
Around Zanzibar and particularly in Stone Town, you’ll come across massive, carved and decorated doorways, some on imposing frontages and others tucked incongruously down narrow alleys.
When a house was built in Zanzibar, the door was traditionally the first part to be erected. The greater the wealth and status of the house’s owner, the larger and more elaborately carved his front door. Symbolic designs and quotations from the Quran were added to exert a benign influence: a kind of hand-crafted insurance policy. Waves of the sea climbing up the doorpost represent the livelihood of the Arab merchant to whom the house belonged, while frankincense and date palms symbolise wealth and plenty. From a darker side of history, chains carved at the side indicate that slaves were held in the house. Some designs are thought to pre-date the Quran: the stylised lotuses could relate to Egyptian fertility symbols, and the fish may possibly represent the protective Syrian goddess Atargatis or the ancient Egyptian fish god.
Many doors are studded with brass spikes and bosses, which may stem from the Indian practice of studding doors of medieval castles with sharp iron spikes to prevent their being battered in by war elephants. In 915AD, an Arab traveller recorded that Zanzibar Island abounded in elephants, and around 1295, Marco Polo wrote that Zanzibar had ‘elephants in plenty’. But they must have been extinct long before the Arabs built houses in Stone Town, and the studs and bosses seen today are purely decorative.
The oldest carved door in Zanzibar, which dates from 1694, is now the front door of the Zanzibar Museum of Art.
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