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When a house was built in Zanzibar, the door was traditionally the first part to be erected. The greater the wealth and social position of the owner of the house, the larger and more elaborately carved his front door.
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 never been elephants in Zanzibar, the brass knobs were simply added as a decoration and to show the wealth of the owner.
Zanzibar’s Stone Town was a city divided into ethnic and economic districts; Arab, Asian, European and Shirazi peoples all lived in relatively distinct pockets of Stone Town. Each of these peoples usually specialised in a certain trade, and the different trades were concentrated together into business districts. As you walk around Stone Town, it is easy to notice that similar doors are found together in groups.
Each Zanzibar door acted as a ‘carved business card’ to passers by, conferring status. As people conducted business in their homes rather than offices, door symbols indicated both the trade and personal information of their owners.
In principle, there are two main types of doors found in Stone Town. One type is the Indian or Gujarati 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 ‘Arab doors’; these are often found with an inscription in Arabic – most likely a phrase from the Holy Quran – on the top frieze, and richly decorated around the frame. The older doors were all square at top. The semi-circular frames were introduced later, but are still referred to as ‘Arab doors’.
The four types of door:
- Gujarati doors were, essentially, security doors. Their panels acted as reinforcements to the strength of the doors, protecting the contents of the building's merchants. More often than not, these were gold and jewellery merchants. The Gujarati style, therefore, is seen in old gold trading districts, especially Kiponda. Once you identify this style of door, you can quickly see just how much gold was traded in the Zanzibar of old.
- The Punjabi door stylr, as the name suggests, originated in India. These are distinguished by the arched top of the frame, in the same shape as the minarets of the Taj Mahal and heavy brass studs that jut out from the panelling. Indians would protect their houses from war elephants this way and when the merchants moved to Zanzibar, they continued the tradition regardless of an absence of war elephants on the spice islands.
- Arabic doors are almost always rectangular in shape and often contain Koranic script on the lintel. As slave trading was an almost exclusively Arabic trade, chains are featured on these doors more than any other. Meanwhile, geometric patterns indicate Arab merchants who acted as accountants for other traders in Stone Town. The most impressive examples are in the Shangani district.
- Lamu-style doors are unique to the island of Lamu in Kenya and are not found in Stone Town.
The symbols on Zanzibari doors:
Flowers: A flower represents a family; every flower that is found at the top of a door indicates that a distinct family lived inside. Often they were distant or close relatives, but were always distinct families. Some doors contain only one or as many as twelve in palatial buildings.
Pineapples: Pineapples were a sign of welcome - similar to writing 'karibu' on a business sign.
Fish scales: Fish were caught for export to the mainland and even as far as Oman. This motif said that the owner was a fisherman - or traded fish.
Rope: This was commonly seen to symbolise security and also showed that the occupant owned fishing vessels.
Chains: The most ominous symbol found in Zanzibar; the presence of chains on the doors was said to protect the entrance from evil spirits - but more truthfully, it was a clear indication that the owner both possessed and traded slaves.
Vines: The owner dealt in the spice trade. Floral vines were appropriate symbols as pepper, vanilla and other spices often grow this way.
Geometric squares: Geometric designs indicated that the owner was a proficient mathematician and offered his services as an accountant.
Beads: The owner was a jeweller and specialised in precious stones.
Arabic script: The symbolic designs and quotations from the Koran were intended to exert a protective influence.
Waves: Waves of the sea climbing up the doorpost represented the livelihood of the Arab merchant to whom the house belonged.
Frankincense and date palms: These symbolised wealth and plenty.
If you go on a Stone Town tour, make sure your guide shows you a selection of the best Zanzibari doors and shows to you the carvings and their meanings. And get some photographs - many of these doors are a work of art, and making them is a skilled trade passed down from generation to generation even today.