Zanzibar has been a huge attraction to traders, adventurers, and explorers for centuries. When I visited the magnificent island, I learnt a lot of rich history about Zanzibar. Some of the travellers who have been to the shores of Zanzibar include, but not limited to Persians Sumerians, Omani Arabs, Portuguese, and Egyptians. In fact, the Omani Arabs and the Shirazi Persians settled and ruled Zanzibar for decades. Hence, the predominant religion in Zanzibar is Islam with 97 percent of its residents being Islamic while 3 percent is made of Christians, Sikhs and a few Hindus. The earliest visitors to Zanzibar are believed to be Arab traders who arrived in the 8th century. Kizimkazi is home to the oldest mosque, which is today regarded highly as a tourist attraction site.
Arab traders are said to have sailed with the monsoon winds for centuries from Oman to trade in ivory, slaves, and spices in Zanzibar. The Omani Arabs found Ugunja and Pemba, which were fairly smaller and ideal to defend at the time. Sultan Seyyid Said moved his Busaid dynasty from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1832 simply because he found it easier to protect the Sultanate in Zanzibar for over 130 years. Indeed, most of the wealth in Zanzibar belongs to the Arabs who have remained the main landowners in Zanzibar for several years. Interestingly, most Arabs didn’t intermarry with Africans, and thus maintained their supremacy for long.
On the other hand, the Persians of Shirazi origin descended from the Middle East decided to migrate when they considered the East African coastal stretch not habitable for them. It is said that the ruler of the Shiraz in Persia (currently Iran) Sultan Hasan had a nightmare in AD 975 in which a rat devoured his house. Sultan Hasan took this as an omen, and to avoid the devastation of his community, decided to migrate with some of his followers. Although it was taken as a serious joke by some of his people in the Shirazi court, he set out in seven dhows with his troops into the Indian Ocean.
Unfortunately, it is believed that they were further separated from each other when they encountered a huge storm and ended up forming different landfalls at seven places and settled along the East African coast; Zanzibar is one of them. Widespread intermarriage between native Africans and Shirazis gave rise to a coastal community that has distinctive features and spoke a language became to be known as Swahili that is derived partly from Arabic. In fact, the word Swahili was originally meant to refer to an Arabic word “sawahil”, which means coast. However, since the Zanzibar descendants of this community were not actively involved in the barter trade of slaves and spices, they chose agriculture and fishing as their primary economic activities.
The Shirazi of Persians that didn’t intermarry with Africans retained their unique identity along the coast. Indian traders arrived at the East African coast around this time as skilled artisans, professionals, and shopkeepers. When the British missionaries arrived in most parts of East Africa, they started suppressing the slave trade along the East African coast, especially in Zanzibar. Interestingly, the spices that Zanzibar grew during this time made it one of the most prosperous countries in Africa. Although there are sad relics of human flesh found on the spice fields and the island, the use of slave labour in the spice plantations is what made the trade grow and prosper.
Facts about Zanzibar
Zanzibar is regarded as an island partner within Tanzania. It is located in the Indian Ocean and is about 35 km off the coast of the United Republic of Tanzania at six degrees south of the Equator. The highest point of the two islands of Zanzibar, namely Ugunja and Pemba is 390 feet above sea level. While Kiswahili is the main language spoken in Zanzibar, Arabic is also widely used. No longer prosperous in terms being a significant port in Africa where goods from Britain dock before proceeding to other African countries, Zanzibar has numerous historical monuments which commemorate the British and Arab influences such as the cathedrals, sultan palaces, and spice plantations.