Stone town

Stone Town of Zanzibar (United Republic of Tanzania)

Historic building attributes

Although the overall urban fabric and townscape give Stone Town its unique character, many individual buildings of historical and architectural significance represent local architecture and building traditions. Typical building types include Swahili courtyard houses, narrow Indian shopfronts along bazaar streets, and large mansions facing the seafront.

“The continuity of traditional uses of most of the buildings in the historic town as residential and commercial space maintains the town as an important administrative and economic centre of the archipelago.”

Most of Stone Town’s buildings are dedicated to commercial and residential uses and follow basic construction techniques used along the East African coast for many centuries. The most commonly seen building materials are coral rag masonry set in thick lime, earth, and sand mortar, covered with lime plaster and lime wash

In addition, buildings in Stone Town showcase distinct elements such as particularly well-recognized across Zanzibar wooden carved doors, elaborate balconies with intricate fretwork, and crenellated parapet walls surrounding flat terrace roofs.

Diversity in Building Traditions

“The individual buildings in Stone Town manifest, through their structure, construction materials and techniques, the interchange and influence of the different cultures around the Indian Ocean rim.”

The distinct tradition of wattle and daub construction with thatched roofs of palm leaves, found on the East African coast, was overwhelmed by the rapid growth and immigration in the nineteenth century. Today, the building design in Stone Town reflects a complex fusion of materials, techniques, and elements from Arab, Indian, and European cultures while still retaining its indigenous features, creating a unique urban environment in Stone Town.

Arab influence

In the early 19th century, the Omanis arrived in Zanzibar as traders and later plantation owners. They introduced the massively built, multistory square block of coral stones and mortar with flat roofs and crenellated parapets. Although a relatively simple design, Omani houses featured intricately curved square wooden doors with patterns and motifs rich in symbolism. This type of housing included an interior courtyard reflecting Arabic beliefs and providing privacy for the residents.

Indian influence

Typologically and functionally, the largest class of traditional structures of Stone Town are the narrow shop-front houses along the bazaar streets derived from Indian traders. Their simple four-leaf Gujarat-style doors exposed the whole front of their houses to the customers, while the domestic quarters were hidden at the back of the house. The Indian influence brought into Stone Town haveli spacious houses of the Gujarati region, with carved verandas, intricate fascia boards, and windows with coloured glass lintels, creating highly ornamental facades, in comparison to Arab houses featuring simple external wall design. As trade activities became more profitable, many Omani houses were bought by Indian merchants and transformed by introducing external verandas. Indian architectural influence is also pronounced in Hindu temples present in the town.

British influence

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Zanzibar was a British Protectorate. During that time, Saracenic or Moorish features borrowed from Istanbul and Morocco were introduced in Stone Town, along with a few examples of churches and cathedrals inspired by these seen across Europe.

Monumental architecture

The influence of diverse cultures and religions is well exemplified in the monumental architecture of Stone Town. The major buildings date from the 18th and 19th centuries and include monuments such as the Old Fort; the House of Wonder, a large ceremonial palace built by Sultan Barghash; the Old Dispensary; St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Cathedral; Christ Church Anglican Cathedral; the residence of the slave trader Tippu Tip; the Malindi Bamnara Mosque; the Jamat Khan built for the Ismaili sect; the Royal Cemetery; the Hamamni and other Persian baths.

  • Old Fort

    stands on the ruined Portuguese Church and residential quarters, which had been converted by the Arabs into the fort for the use of the town garrison.

  • The House of Wonders

    was built by Sultan Barghash in 1883 from a design of a British Marine Engineer for ceremonial purposes. It was among the first buildings in East Africa to be installed with electricity and tap water

  • Old Dispensary

    was built by an Indian architect in 1887 and is an example of a typical building with Indian decor.

  • Roman Catholic Cathedral (St. Josephs’)
  • Anglican Cathedral

    is standing on the site of the last open slave market to be open in Zanzibar. It is a monument to commemorate the history of the official abolition of the slave trade in Stone Town.

  • Tip house

    is an example of a vernacular Arab townhouse representing changes in the built form common to the development of Zanzibar Town.

  • Malindi Bamnara Mosque

    is one of the few mosques with a minaret, built in 1831.

  • Jamat Khan

    is a religious building constructed in 1907, displaying massive stone pillars with exquisite carved capitals.

  • Royal Cemetery

    is the half-finished tomb holding the remains of the Royal Family.

  • Persian baths

    Hamamni is one of the two Persian-style baths in the Stone Town. It is one of Zanzibar’s largest and best-preserved historic monuments built for public use.


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