Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Arab Doors of Stone Town

The doors of Stone Town, Zanzibar, add much to the character of the town and with the buildings make up the architecture that earned it a World Heritage listing. The coralline thick walled houses of the ancient city are simple and imposing but their most distinctive feature is their doors. The door was the visual statement of the occupant’s status in society. The home was a protected place, its privacy of vital importance in a Muslim society.

No two doors are the same. Look carefully and take in the various elements. The outermost frame usually shows a slim chain. The chain was meant to capture evil spirits that tried to enter the home. There is an inner frame, a lintel, frieze, centre post and shutters. The range of styles, of carving, makes each one a delight. There is much symbolism in the images. See if you can find the sea waves, fish or pineapple emblems that are at the bottom of the frame. The rows of dates in the centre post hark back to wishes for plenty. There are Indian influences, the winding lotus; the tree of life motif. Some doors have a central Koranic inscriptions in the lintel, one of which says, ‘Enter peacefully, believers’.

One of the pleasures of Stone Town is to wander the narrow streets and back alleys. You can find imposing doors in the old palaces but many gems are to be found in the hidden corners of the city. I bought a copy of the book, ‘Doors of Zanzibar’ by Rau and Mwalim and with the help of the enclosed map located some of the doors Rau photographed from Malindi to Shangani. Unfortunately, many doors have deteriorated in the eighteen years since these images were taken.

Around 500 doors remain. There are over 1700 houses in Stone Town, approximately 1300 are deemed to be of architectural significance. Over 100 have already collapsed. In my meanderings through the twisting streets I would suddenly find a sun filled space piled with stones where paw-paw trees climbed into the light. ‘We are losing what we had’. Charles Hiza of the Aga Khan’s Cultural program told me. The Aga Khan Cultural Services have a Historical Cities Support Program which has restored various significant sites and houses. It is race against time.

A house owner remarked that only 13% of the houses are in a good state of repair. Round many doors, blocks of the coralline stone are collapsing. Another local told me that it is better to let a house collapse as then you can build a cement block house without restriction on the site. He was frustrated with the law that requires permission from the Stone Town Conservation and Development Authority for any building work to be done. I was told that 300 buildings have been sold to the private sector on condition that they are repaired. Some houses are being preserved as boutique hotels.

The doors are showing their age, the effects of weather and neglect. Created during the heyday of construction in Stone Town most doors are around 150 years old. Although many are built of teak and built to last they do need care in the monsoonal climate. Dampness leads to rotting of the wood and termites can take hold. Some doors have lost their architraves, many doors have lost the brass studs and dark scars show their absence. Removed studs can be found for sale in the curio shops for a few dollars each.

Stone Town is a living, vibrant city. The doors are not museum pieces but used and enjoyed by residents and admired by tourists. However the new wave of tourism has resulted in the loss of many doors from the island. I have seen whole doors complete with heavy lintels and frames stacked for sale outside a Johannesburg curio shop.

There are many reports and plans for the conservation of Stone Town but from outward appearances it seems to be a losing battle. Each door removed, each house that collapses is a loss of its precious history, a loss for our future generations.


  1. Do you happen to have a copy of that map or could send a photo of it? I'm trying to localize the doors for my master thesis in Landscape Architecture and it would be very helpful if I could find their more exact spot with the help of a map.

    Best regards,

    1. Hi Freija, I do have a copy. It comes from the book:
      but it is hard to obtain and expensive. I could photo the map and send it to you. send me your email address to regards Anne