Zanzibar doors – a closer look at Stone Town’s wooden masterpieces

The city streets of Stone Town were calling. Zanzibar’s beautiful port city looked like a place frozen in time – many streets were so narrow that cars could not squeeze through, and they were rarely built in straight lines, making this city a veritable labyrinth. But something in particular was catching our eye.

The incredible Zanzibar doors.

Carved masterpieces

There are an estimated 560 doors around Zanzibar city (the majority in Stone Town), and most of them are over a century old. And they’re very, very easy to find – just start wandering in a random direction, and you’ll surely find Zanzibar doors everywhere!

The front doors of many buildings in Zanzibar’s beautiful Stone Town are individual works of art, but carry deeper meanings – measures of the original occupant’s social status and religion are advertised here.

Some were warped and leaning from centuries of load bearing, others splintered and cracked and graffitied. Doors of rich families or hotels were gleaming with polish, and one even had a cage full of heavy rocks suspended in a cage over the doorframe.

Different cultures’ doors

Stopping to consider each door began to reveal clues about the world that lay beyond, and suddenly those ugly discoloured building facades began to form beautiful, watercolour backdrops these unique Zanzibari gems. The doors are usually built of heavy teak or mahogany, giving them rich warm colours and a sense of strength and pride.

Indian doors

The Indian style of door is called a gurajati door, and can be recognised by their small, square shutters embedded in the door. Great brass studs are an Indian-influenced feature as well, a throwback design once used to stop war elephants from battering down Indian palace doors!

Swahili doors

The oldest and most humble of the giant wooden doors are Swahili designs, which are usually carved with twisting vines, flowers or other emblems.

Arabic doors

Arabic doors feature more detailed, intricate carvings along the door frame and the lintel, often in Arabic script. A frieze, a wide, decorated panel that often features a sequence of carvings, is often seen above the door frame.

The meanings behind the decorations

There are theories about the symbolic meanings behind the common carvings that climb up the door frames. The patterns of fish and flowers may have roots going all the way back to ancient Middle Eastern cultures. Common motifs are: fish (fertility), lotus and the rosette (reproductive power), water (life), palm tree (plenty), and frankincense (wealth).

Other, more intricate designs such as vines, flowers and fish scales indicated the professions of the originals owners, and the number of rosette flowers showed how many families once lived inside the building.

Small hatches were present in some doors, allowing for quick access when the owners didn’t want to creak open the massive teak doors (and let possible intruders inside).

Which wood?

Such strong, load bearing doors require a strong wood, which is also fine enough in grain to allow for the beautiful carvings. Imported teak or ebony was often used for the older doors, and more recent examples use jackfruit or mango tree woods (how exotic is that!).

The doors of Zanzibar are a hidden gem in an already enchanting city, and absolutely worth the time to discover!

Have you been to Zanzibar? What was the most impressive door you came across?

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