The elaborately carved wooden doors of Stone Town manifest the cultural roots of Zanzibar. The clash of Swahili, Arab, and Indian traditions is probably most notable in the design of Zanzibar doors. If you look close enough, these giant teak masterpieces tell stories of the residents’ social status, religion, and profession.

Zanzibar’s Stone Town is a real treat for a photographer, but especially for all the door lovers out there. Stone Town should really be marketed as Instagram follies’ paradise destination, as pastel colored doors make just a perfect background for rustic urban scenes. Cats are stretching out and chasing each others in the doorways, men are gathering at street corners to sip coffee while caught in loud debates or sitting outside their houses playing bao inertly. Kids are running after a ragged soccer ball, and women are returning home from the market carrying heavy packages upon their heads. Those distinctive Zanzibar doors framing all the moments.

How to Identify Swahili, Indian and Arab Doors

After wandering for a few hours, you’ve probably seen hundreds of brass-studded doors, and some friendly local has already told you the differences between Swahili, Indian, and Arabic door design. Doors belonging to the same tradition can be found in groups since Stone Town has been divided into ethnic districts.

Brass studs come from India, where they were used to protect the doors against elephants. In Zanzibar, doors are embellished with brass studs purely for aesthetic purposes. Brass studs, just like other decorations, also showcase the wealth of the resident. Indian doors are usually divided into smaller sections and have foldable shutters. Another type of Indian door has heavy brass studs and arched top frame, just like in Indian palaces. Arab doors are generally rectangular and have intricately decorated frames. They are also likely to have Arabic inscriptions at the top of the frieze, commonly citations from Quran. Swahili doors are just modest wooden doors without fancy decorations.

Carved wooden Arab door, Stone Town, Zanzibar
Blue door representing simple Swahili design, Stone Town, Zanzibar
Carved Indian Door with brass studs, Stone Town, Zanzibar

When plunging deeper into the fascinating world of Zanzibar doors, you’ll discover that each door is preciously different. Ornaments and patterns tell the story of the resident. Wave-like patterns allude to seaborne trade, and chains are said to protect the building from evil spirits, but more likely mark the house of a wealthy Arab slave trader. Flowers at the top of the door tell how many families used to live inside, whereas vines refer to the spice trade.

The oldest Indian inspired doors are made from Burmese teak, imported all the way across the Indian Ocean. After it was no longer available, the East African teak was used instead until it was getting hard to find as well. Nowadays doors are made mainly from mahogany and black wood. In the 1980s Stone Town was calculated to have 800 historical Zanzibar doors, but unfortunately the number has decreased due to lack of renovation and eager international collectors.

Do you share our love of photographing doors? We’d love to know if you know destinations like Stone Town for door hunters!

Pin These Beautiful Doors!

The doors of Stone Town tell stories of the residents’ social status, religion, and profession. Get to know Swahili, Arab, and Indian doors!

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