The streets are, as they should be under such a sky, deep and winding alleys, hardly twenty feet broad, and travellers compare them to the threads of a tangled skein.
Richard Burton, British explorer (1857)
Zanzibar Town, sometimes called Zanzibar City, is situated about halfway along the west coast of Zanzibar Island. It has a population estimated at 205,870 in the 2002 national census, which makes it by far the largest settlement on the islands of Zanzibar, and the sixth largest in Tanzania. During the colonial period, before the development of towns such as Dar es Salaam, Nairobi and Mombasa, Zanzibar Town was the largest settlement in the whole of east Africa.
Zanzibar Town is divided into two sections by Creek Road, though the creek itself has now been reclaimed. On the west side is the ‘heart’ of Zanzibar Town: the evocative old quarter, usually called Stone Town. This is the most interesting section for visitors: many of the buildings here were constructed during the 19th century (although some date from before this time), when Zanzibar was a major trading centre and at the height of its power. The trade created wealth which in turn led to the construction of palaces, mosques and many fine houses. Discovering the architectural gems hidden along the tortuous maze of narrow streets and alleyways that wind though Stone Town is part of the town’s magic and mystery for many visitors. Aside from the souvenir tinga-tinga painting and beaded jewellery, it’s a scene virtually unchanged since the mid-19th century, when it was described by Burton in this chapter’s epigraph.
On the east side of Creek Road is Michenzani, or the ‘New City’, though this part of town used to be called Ng’ambo (literally ‘the other side’) and is still often referred to by its unofficial name. It’s a sprawling area of mainly single-storey houses, local shops and offices, covering a much wider area than Stone Town. This used to be where the poorer African and Swahili people lived, while wealthier Arabs, Indians and Europeans lived in Stone Town. To a large extent this rich–poor division still exists today. Some attempt has been made to ‘modernise’ this area: at the centre of Michenzani are some dreary, uninviting blocks of flats (apartment buildings) which were built in the late 1960s by East German engineers as part of an international aid scheme. Few visitors go to this eastern part of Zanzibar Town, as there is little in the way of ‘sights’, though a visit certainly helps to broaden your perception if you realise that outside the tourist areas of Stone Town is a place where many thousands of real people live and work in much less exotic, but no less authentic, surroundings.
The best way to explore Stone Town is on foot, but the maze of lanes and alleys can be very disorientating. To help you get your bearings, it is useful to think of Stone Town as a triangle, bounded on two sides by sea, and along the third by Creek Road. If you get lost, it is always possible to aim in one direction until you reach the outer edge of the town where you should find a recognisable landmark.
Although most of the thoroughfares in Stone Town are too narrow for cars, when walking you should watch out for bikes and scooters being ridden around at breakneck speed! It’s also useful to realise that thoroughfares wide enough for cars are usually called roads while narrower ones are generally referred to as streets. Hence, you can drive along New Mkunazini Road or Kenyatta Road, but to visit a place on Kiponda Street or Mkunazini Street you have to walk. When looking for hotels or places of interest, you should also note that most areas of Stone Town are named after the main street in that area: the area being referred to as Kiponda Street or Malindi Street, instead of simply Kiponda or Malindi. This can be confusing, as you may not be on the street of that name. But don’t worry: at least you’re near!
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