Black Kingdoms of the Nile



Gate's Diary

Culture Close-up

Retelling the Story

What is Africa to Me

The Africa Shop

Wonders: Island of Zanzibar


Photo: view off the coast Often overshadowed by its larger partner in the United Republic of Tanzania, the island of Zanzibar nevertheless maintains a history and culture different and separate from that of the mainland. Once a key port on the thriving Indian Ocean trade routes, Zanzibar's history has been shaped by the people who sought to participate in and control these trades. Consequently, Zanzibar's population and culture reflect not only its proximity to the East Africa coast, but the influences of Asians, Arabs, and Europeans. During the colonial era, European powers took advantage of Arab hegemony to assume economic control of this thriving city-state and, in an effort to increase its prosperity, turned Zanzibar into a mono-crop export economy. Since independence, Zanzibar, with the aid of its mainland Tanzania, has tried to overcome this colonial legacy and prepare to compete in a global market where one-crop economies are becoming obsolete.

Historians believe that Zanzibar was first inhabited by fisherpeople who traveled to the island from mainland Africa around 4000 B.C. By 1000 B.C., Zanzibar and the islands off the coast of East Africa were familiar to the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans. As these Mediterranean empires extended their trade routes to the south and east, Zanzibar became one of several major commercial ports along the East African coast. Around the 3rd century, the trade in goods attracted the attention of merchants from southwestern Arabia who also began trading with the island residents, bringing weapons, wine, and wheat to barter for ivory and other luxury goods.

Source: Microsoft Encarta Africana. ©1999 Microsoft Corporation. Used with permission.


Regional Map


Historic Gedi
The Swahili People
Island of Zanzibar