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Doors of Zanzibar (Summary)

Photographed by Uwe Rau

Text by Mwalim A. Mwalim

The Zanzibar doors are found in the Stone Town, located in the old part of Zanzibar City in Tanzania. They were first described around 1500 AD in Mombasa by a renowned traveler, “the doors are of wood, well carved, with excellent joinery”. and flourished during the reign of the third Omani ruler, Sultan Barghash towards the end of the 19th century, who stayed in Bombay and a brief visit to England before his coronation. With this connection with India, many carvers were exported to Zanzibar, which may explain the conical decorative brass bosses that are typical of the Zanzibar doors. The decorative brass bosses originate to the spiky entrances in Punjab residences during the tribal wars, that prevented such doors from being banged open by the enemies’ domesticated elephants. It is said that these pikes transformed into the conical bosses of today. Otherwise known as the “Arab door” is wrapped in a layer of intricately carved frames: the outer frame in the shape of a chain, later a rope, to enslave evil-spirits attempting to force their way into the residence; thee inner frame is carved into almonds, lotus or palm leaf and the fish below, that originates from the Assyrian god Attargatis. Bwana Yahya, the last survivor of the older generation of door carvers preferred to call the palm leaves as millipeded. But the symbols change and transformed into a pine-apple, still later, a flower vase. In the case of the House of Wonders, symbols of might and power (the eagles and the lion) are used to denote the royalty. Above the lintel is a square, or sometimes a semi-circular frieze carved rosettes and a plaque bearing inscriptions from the holy Qoran or the date of carving and the name of the house owner. The two shutters are aligned by the central post which is also carved with symbols. The post is normally attached to the left leaf, and on the right leaf, halfway the height, sometimes has a door-knocker, as for the ordinary knock-knock used in Swahili culture, “hodi”, is not practical with such massive doors. Indian teak was most favored by the carvers to produce light and shade effect through various depths in the carvings. By 1982, 806 of these doors existed in Stone Town through the conservation effort. Despite the effort, bosses are jerked out, whole friezes removed and sometimes whole doors are taken out all for sale. A struggle is being made to protect the heritage. At the same time, carvers are encouraged to make new carvings for sale and to fetch up the missing items. Such activities will not only preserve the historic doors but also be a great “hodi” into the cultural future.


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