For Freddie Mercury fans, Zanzibar may not be foreign to their ears. The biopic Bohemian Rapshody (2018) brings back Zanzibar as a fragment of the earliest life story of the lead vocalist and songwriter of the British-based rock band Queen. The first ever Museum dedicated to the world superstar, located in Stone Town (the historic and culturally rich main city of Zanzibar), in the same house where Freddie and his family stayed. You can walk in the footsteps of the Zanzibar’s legendary son, where he lived until 1964, when the Zanzibar Revolution forced the family to leave.
Outside of the conversation about Freddie, Zanzibar actually has a role and a long history. Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous administrative region of the Republic of Tanzania in eastern Africa. The administrative area of Zanzibar includes the Zanzibar Archipelago which contains Unguja, Pemba, Latham and Mafia Islands led by a President with two Vice Presidents. If Tanzania is geographically united with the mainland of the African continent, the capital and seat of government of Zanzibar stands on Unguja Island, which is about 35 kilometers off the coast of East Africa. In the agricultural sector, the main commodities are cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, oregano and other spices, hence the nickname “Spice Island.” However, tourism is the major economy sector that Zanzibar sells to the world. It is perhaps the most successful industry since the island got its independence about 51 years ago. This tropical country offers the ultimate Indian Ocean experience, with its spectacular oceanic ecosystem of corals and marine life combined with fascinating history, rich cultural heritage, incredible nature, enchanting sunset, and magnificent beaches, altogether embraced by the scent of exotic spices.
Because it’s specific position in the Indian Ocean, the history of Zanzibar is rough and turbulent. Unguja was a perfect place and port for traders voyaging between the African Great Lakes, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indian southern region. The first inhabitants of Zanzibar Island were the Africans, Bantu people from the mainland of Africa 3,000-4,000 years ago. The next were the Persians, who came from the Middle East in the 10th century. They named the island Zangi-bar, which means “the land of the Black people” (Persian words Zangi = Black, Bar = the Place of). Over a brief period, they became absorbed into the local population with their specific language – Swahili. This African-Persian population converted to Islam and adopted many Persian traditions. While searching for the route to India, the Portuguese came to Zanzibar at the beginning of the 16th century. They traded in spices and ivory, but also in slaves.
Zanzibar was a part of the Portuguese Empire for almost two centuries and became a host for the slave trade originating from Lake Nyasa (Malawi), Lake Victoria (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Lake Tanganyika (Uganda). The slave market in the island was the last legally operating slave market in the world when it was officially closed in 1873, under the pressure from the British government. A Christ Church Cathedral was built at the site where life-size statues of chained slaves depicting the hardships of life during the slave trade. Today, the greatest way to delve into Zanzibar’s historical rhythm is by exploring the Stone Town. Also known as Mij Mkongwe, which is Swahili for ‘Old Town’, Stone Town is the oldest part of Zanzibar City. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, it is known for its rich cultural heritage of Arab, Persian, Indian, and European elements including Makusurani graveyard, where many of the islands’ former Arab rulers are buried; the Dunga Ruins, palatial ruins dating for the 15th century; and the Peace Memorial Museum, the national historical museum. The best way to explore Stone Town is on foot, though renting a bicycle is an option if time is short. Hiring a local guide is a great way to discover the hidden histories and lesser-known sights. As Zanzibar is a predominantly Islamic society, the end of Ramadan is especially festive with lanterns lining the alleys and a feast of street food on every corner. Visiting Changuu Island is another option for history buffs. Also known as ‘Prison Island,’ this island can be reached on a short 20-minute boat ride from Stone Town. Changuu is home to dozens of giant tortoises, some of which are over 200 years old, and its sandy white beaches and crystal-clear water make for some great swimming and snorkeling. You can also visit some of the former cells that housed prisoners in the 19th century.
Geographically, Zanzibar is only around 40 kms across and 100 kms from north to south at its widest points. Featuring outstanding, powder white beaches along its eastern shores, flanked by barrier reefs, and the Stone Town on its western edge, Zanzibar is fairly narrow, with a ridge running through its middle from north to south. Along its eastern coastline runs a protective barrier reef and then the Indian Ocean. This is where the best beaches are located, Nungwi and Kendwa are some of the beaches worth mentioning. They are on the only side of the island which is consistently crystal-clear water lapping brilliant white sands.
For those that are a little restless there is a small forest in the interior called Jozani Also known as Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park, it is the only national park on Zanzibar Island. Located 38 km Southeast of Stone Town, the forest, though very small (only 50 kilometers square), is a great place to encounter many indigenous varieties of flora and fauna, including the Zanzibari Red Colobus Monkey, in fact, Jozani is one of the last remaining sanctuaries in the universe for the rare monkey. Other species that you might catch a glimpse of include Blue Sykes’ Monkeys, Bushbaby, 50 different species of butterflies and 40 species of birds. The forest is a natural pharmacy and truly an amazing source of natural remedies. Every plant or tree cures something. The beautiful thing about the Jozani forest tour is that the height of the trees and palms are just outstanding. Apart from that, Jozani has an excellent nature trail, and the guides are well trained and informative. A walk through this impressive flora and fauna is one of the highlights Zanzibar has to offer.
Zanzibar is an equatorial paradise, with a warm climate and almost no seasonal variation (high temperatures are between 82- and 91-degrees F year-round). The best time to visit Zanzibar is during the dry season from June to October. This also coincides with safari high season in Tanzania, making the Zanzibar Archipelago a very popular post-safari choice. However, this tropical island is good to visit at most times of the year, thanks to its regular sunshine and balmy Zanzibar weather. However, if you want to visit during the best diving season in Zanzibar, you can choose between two periods: diving off the north coast of the island is particularly good between June and October, and off the south coast between November and March.