Perhaps the most spectacular impression of Stone Town for its first time visitor is the magnificent wooden doors serving as grand entrances to the grand buildings.
The doors have become more or less synonymous with the Swahili culture in East Africa, Lamu and Mombasa (Kenya) and in Zanzibar. Zanzibar has more and more elaborate doors than on the mainland and thus the doors are named ‘Zanzibar doors’. An inventory done in the 1980s reported around 800 doors. Unfortunately the number has decreased, also due to theft, following the increased demand from international collectors.
The doors of Stone Town add much to the character of the town and with the buildings make up the architecture that earned it a World Heritage listing. The door was the visual statement of the occupant’s status in society and, particularly in a Muslim society, the entrance door has a vital role in protecting the home and its privacy. In other Muslim countries, doors are made of a size that you have to almost kneel to enter - as a sign of respect of the house.
Although doors show high technical and artistic craftsmanship skills, 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.
Wealthy traders and house owners appointed skilled carvers brought in from India for the delicate job of arranging the entrance ornament. The oldest doors are often made out of Burma (Indian) teak, shipped all the way from Asia across the Indian Ocean. The shutters are made in one impressive piece and not mended together as is the case on newer doors. The Burma teak no longer exists, so newer doors are made of East African teak. Even this wood has become rare and difficult to find, often demanding a very high price.
In principal there are two types of doors found in Stone Town. The Indian doors, or Gujerati doors, with square shutters and made into smaller sections so that the door can fold together.
These doors are to be seen along the busy bazaar streets where the Indian businessmen lived.
The second type are called ‘Arab doors’.
These doors are often found with an inscription in Arabic – most likely a phrase from the Holy Koran – on the top frieze, and richly decorated around the frame. The older doors were all square at the top. The semi-circular frames were introduced later, but are still referred to as ‘Arab doors’. The custom of putting brass knobs on the shutters comes from India, where the knobs were said to prevent elephants from crushing the doors.
Since there have been no violent elephants in Zanzibar the brass knobs were simply put there as a decoration and to show the wealth of its owner
By looking at the lower part of the side posts a rough estimate can be made of the age of the door. The oldest doors have a symbol resembling of a fish. The fish gradually transformed into a shape of a pineapple and thus if the carving shows a clear and distinct pineapple the doors is of a newer generation.
Another symbol that became part of the decoration was the chain-like row at the very outside of the whole door. The chain was said to protect the entrance from evil spirits.
One of the oldest doors in Stone Town can be found at the entrance to the Old Fort. Another one is the well maintained door at the Zanzibar Conservation Centre (former Old Customs house) along the Forodhani seafront.
Cesare and Anna Giacomelli are the owners of the House of Spices in Zanzibar