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The doors of Stone Town, Zanzibar, add much to the character of the town and with the buildings make up the architecture that earned it a World Heritage listing. The coralline walled houses of the ancient city are simple and imposing but their most distinctive feature is their doors. The door was the visual statement of the occupant's status in society; the greater the wealth and social position of the owner of the house, the larger and more elaborately carved his front door was.

As people conducted business in their homes rather than offices, door symbols indicated both the trade and personal information of their owners. The Zanzibar door acted as a 'carved business card' to passersby.

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 three 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 style, 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.

The symbols on Zanzibari doors:

The range of styles, of carving, makes each Zanzibari door a delight. There is much symbolism in the carvings and inscriptions on each door. See if you can find the sea waves, fish or pineapple emblems, rows of dates, Arabic inscriptions, vines, rope, flowers, beads, geometric squares, and a lot more.

  • Brass Knobs: Most Zanzibar doors have brass knobs, this 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.
  • 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; these are usually at the bottom of the frame.
  • Vines: The owner dealt in the spice trade. Floral vines were appropriate symbols as pepper, vanilla and other spices often grow this way.
  • 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.
  • Sea Waves: Waves of the sea climbing up the doorpost represented the livelihood of the Arab merchant to whom the house belonged.
  • Date palms: These symbolised wealth and plenty.
  • Beads: The owner was a jeweller and specialised in precious stones.
  • 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.
  • Rope: This was commonly seen to symbolise security and also showed that the occupant owned fishing vessels.
  • Geometric squares: Geometric designs indicated that the owner was a proficient mathematician and offered his services as an accountant.
  • Arabic script: The symbolic designs and quotations from the Koran were intended to exert a protective influence.

If you go on a guided historical Stone Town tour, your guide will point out a selection of the best Zanzibari doors and explain to you the carvings and their meanings; a perfect opportunity to get some photographs.