Tag Archives: art & craft

The secret language of Zanzibar’s doors

Zanzibar Door

Wonderfully carved doors hiding the traditional Zanzibari homeplaces, owned once upon a time by rich merchants and traders. Having a walk around Stone Town, you will see lot of these unique artifacts – a traditional crafting expression that nowadays is still a must in the archipelago.

Not everybody know, but the there is a meaning behind each centimeter of these complicated depictions. When building a new house, the first part was the door: not just for safety reasons, but also as a kind of “business card” of the inhabitants.

Stone Town was divided into ethnic and economic districts, often more specialised in a certain trade rather than others. At a good observer’s sight the difference is clear: not all doors look the same. Styles and symbols change depending on different cultural roots.

A few common figures are the key to “read” a Zanzibari door. Flowers indicate a high class family. Chains are the symbol of a slaves trader. Fishes and ropes represent a businessman dealing with fishing and vessels. Geometric shapes were for mathematicians and accountants. Beads mean jewellers. And so on…

Along bazaar streets, you’ll see mostly the Indian type: built for security purpose as first, these doors are less decorated, reinforced and studded with dhow nails. The second type are Arabic doors, richer in carving with visible symbols and Koranic scripts.

Next time you visit Stone Town, pay a little bit of attention. Every door locking a house will open instead a window on a story of times gone by.