Island stories: digging Zanzibar's Arabian past

The stories of Emirati seafarers who sailed from the Gulf to east Africa inspired a team of archaeologists to excavate in Zanzibar and now their work is reshaping our understanding of the island's history and the Indian Ocean trade

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Just in time, Mariyam Al Hammadi managed to record her grandfather's recollections of his seafaring youth.

Now in his 80s, Mohamed Ali Mubarak Al Hammadi's memory has recently faded, but when she interviewed her grandfather earlier this year, the old man regretted that Mariyam had not come to him earlier.

"I kind of feel bad," Mariyam tells me, her regret tempered by the pride she feels about her grandfather's ocean-going adventures. "He told me that if only I had asked him when he was just a bit younger, he would have remembered more, but speaking to him like this made me value him even more."

Throughout the 1950s, Mohamed was one of many Emiratis who made a series of long-­distance dhow journeys throughout the Gulf and down the coast of East Africa. They sailed on favourable monsoon winds to trade mangrove poles, which were used in construction, and foodstuffs such as raisins, corn, cloves and dried fish. Cargo was shipped between Muscat and Mogadishu, Mombasa and Zanzibar, Dubai and Kuwait.

"Generally, we made most profit from ­[mangrove] wood trading and on our journey we sang different songs, in a language that often mixed Arabic with African languages such as Swahili," Mohamed remembered.

"From Basra, we buy big cows for their meat, and the fish and meat would both be dried so we can eat them in stages, and for dinner we also ate fish and lentil beans with coconut, and we bought a lot of drinkable water for the journey."

The living embodiment of a mercantile tradition that can be traced all the way back to the 17th century, Mohamed's tales shed light on now largely forgotten maritime trading networks. They are also part of a deeper history that not only transports now-familiar Emirati family names such as Al Hammadi, Al Darmaki and Al Mazroui to the East African littoral, but which also locates them within the story of a far broader Arab empire that once stretched all the way from Zanzibar to the Arabian Gulf.

"We know from historical references and oral history that there was a long-standing connection between the Gulf and East Africa right up until the 1960s," explains archaeologist Timothy Power, an assistant professor at Zayed University who taught Mariyam Al Hammadi as part of the university's Emirati Studies programme.

"But the problem with these sources is that they are qualitative and it's very difficult to try to get a handle on just how significant that trade was," the Englishman says.

"So we've set up a project with a research grant from Zayed University to explore those historic links that will involve not just oral history – we want to partner up with the National Archives in Abu Dhabi to be able record the memories of elderly Emiratis who used to make these voyages – but archaeology as well."

Power and an international team of archaeologists – including the University of Bristol's Mark Horton, a maritime archaeologist who is an expert in the Indian Ocean trade, as well as Omar Al Kaabi and Mohamed Al Dhaheri from Abu Dhabi's Tourism and Culture ­Authority (TCA) – have just completed their first season of excavations on Zanzibar. Against all expectations, they have already made a series of discoveries that have the potential to rewrite the island's history, as well as that of the wider Indian Ocean trade.

"We came down to Zanzibar to try to pick up Indian Ocean trade wares – ceramics – which made their way around the west of the Indian Ocean and into the Gulf, the same kind of material that we are used to finding at Qasr Al Hosn, in Ras Al Khaimah and Al Ain," Power says.

A selection of ceramic finds reveal the trading ties that made up the triangular, Indian Ocean trade including 18th century porcelain from China (top), 14th-16th century pottery from Hormuz and 18th/19th century ceramics from the Arabian Gulf (bottom).

"The idea was that by excavating we'd be able to count the proportion of [ceramic] imports from Europe, China and India and then compare those with what we find in the Gulf region from the 18th and 19th centuries – periods that tend to be ignored by archaeologists."

Led by Horton and Power, and accompanied by Zayed University alumni, as well as archaeologists from American institutions the College of William and Mary and the University of West Virginia, the team have conducted two excavations, the first on a 19th-century Arab house at Unguja Ukuu and the second inside an Arab fort with impressive ramparts and towers that still dominate Zanzibar's Stone Town, a Unesco World Heritage site.

"Unguja Ukuu is a beautiful natural harbour and a very important East African site with major connections to the slave trade," Power explains.

"The 'Arab house' there was built at the height of the island's prosperity as part of a clove plantation, a crop that profited Zanzibar hugely, and the house represents a micro-history of the rise and demise of Arab colonialism on the island."

Dr Mark Horton, a professor of archaeology at the University of Bristol in the UK, and members of the team processing finds inside Stone Town's fort in Zanzibar. An expert in the maritime archaeology and the Indian Ocean trade, Dr Horton has been conducting excavations in East Africa since 1984.

For Horton, who has been excavating in East Africa and Zanzibar since 1984, the older history of Unguja Ukuu also connects directly with the discoveries the team have made inside the Omani fortress in Stone Town, a site that has never been excavated before.

In the eight and ninth centuries, Unguja Ukuu was one of the places where the Abbasids, the dynasty who transferred the capital of the ­Islamic Caliphate from Damascus to the circular Madinat Al Salam (City of Peace) in Baghdad, obtained the slaves that were used to drain and farm the marshes of southern Iraq. It's also during this period that large numbers of African slaves were imported from East Africa into Oman.

"Unguja Ukuu was a major trade port of the Abbasid period, probably the largest and most prosperous along the East African coast between AD 750 and 850," Horton explains.

"Excavations on the site have revealed that it's full of glazed wares, Chinese porcelain and stoneware, thousands of beads and huge quantities of Islamic glass," he adds.

"But one of the big mysteries has always been what happened to Unguja Ukuu, because it came crashing to an end around AD 1000. Where did everyone go? Well, we think we might have found the answer."

Excavations at the so-called Arab House in Unguja Ukuu, Zanzibar. A residence overlooking the sea, the house was built on the edge of an Omani clove plantation but has been abandoned since the bloody Zanzibar Revolution in 1964.

Horton and Power decided to excavate inside the fort to look for evidence from the 17th to the 19th centuries, a period when the modern identities and ruling dynasties of the emirates began to be established, and that not only saw the construction of the historic buildings that are now crucial to our understanding of the UAE's history, but of Gulf Arab dynasties in Oman and East Africa such as Al Ya'Aruba, Al Mazroui and Al Said.

First centred in Oman and later in Mombasa and Zanzibar, these dynasties thrived thanks to their ability to control the trade routes in the western half of the Indian Ocean, and with them, the flow of slaves and ivory, gold and hardwoods, ceramics and cloves.

It was also during this period that Omani Arabs of the Ya'Aruba Imamate built aflaj irrigation systems throughout Oman in places such as Wadi Bani Awf, a castle at Rustaq, and installed wali, or governors, in Ras Al Khaimah and what is now Al Ain.

"Although the Emirates didn't exist as a state at this time, Emirati tribes were involved in the Arab conquest of East Africa and they maintained those links all the way through to the 20th century," Power explains.

"The first Arab governor of Mombasa appointed by the Ya'aruba was from Al Darmaki family, and when, during the 18th century, the Ya'aruba empire collapsed because of civil war, a powerful Al Mazroui emirate emerges in Mombasa and the island of Pemba."

Between December 1698, when the Portuguese were first expelled from Mombasa and July 1895, when the Kenyan coastal city came under British control, 17 Arab governors ruled Mombasa, 15 of whom bore the name Al Mazroui and between 1746 and 1823, Mombasa became an Al Mazroui-ruled emirate that was independent of both Oman and Zanzibar.

Today's fort in Stone Town is largely a product of Zanzibar's occupation by the Ya'Aruba who expelled the Portuguese from the island following their capture of Mombasa, effectively ending Portuguese colonialism in East Africa in the process. "In 1498 Vasco de Gama rounds the Cape of Good Hope and lands in Malindi where he hires the services of the navigator Ahmad Ibn Majid, who came from Ras Al Khaimah, to take him to India, which is really the start of the Portuguese empire in the Indian Ocean," Power says.


"We also know that the Portuguese were in Zanzibar for 200 years from the early 16th century, and yet they have left very little behind," Horton muses.

"That's always been rather puzzling, so from my perspective, the fort provides an opportunity to understand the Portuguese occupation up until the Omani takeover in 1698."

Traces of what was presumed to be church have always been visible in the walls of the Omani-Arab citadel, but Horton and Power were unprepared for what their excavations uncovered.

"We've found an absolutely massive church which is maybe 30 to 40 metres in length and 12-metres-wide," the archaeologist tells me from the excavation site, audibly excited.

Built on the scale of Catholic mission churches that still stand in New Mexico and Mozambique, the structure also contains the ruins of a later, smaller church or chapel in which the team have unearthed multiple burials including one they believe might belong to a priest thanks to the discovery of a Catholic sacred heart brooch, a small crucifix and a ring.

One of several burials that have been discovered inside the remains of a previously undiscovered 17th century Portuguese chapel in Stone Town, Zanzibar. The chapel lies buried beneath a later 18th century Omani fort.

If the discovery of the church allows Horton and Power to add to the history of Portuguese colonialism in the Indian Ocean, their discovery of previously unguessed at earlier African layers of occupation at the fort site, push back the horizons of what is known about the history of Zanzibar.

"Underlying the Portuguese [layer] we've found evidence of a Swahili port city with very extensive trade links that go back to the 11th century, maybe further. We've reached 1000AD and haven't hit sand yet," Horton enthuses.

The exploratory trenches dug by Horton, Power and their team reveal six major phases of occupation. These begin with a 12 to 13th century African village that is followed by a 14 to 15th settlement, a major 17th century church which was destroyed, Horton believes, during an Arab raid in 1651 and a later, smaller chapel.

These are followed by the 18th century Omani fortress which was extended in the 19th century, when the fort served as a prison before becoming a railway siding and a ladies' club during the period when Zanzibar was a British protectorate.

"It's an amazing sequence now that goes back 800 years and everything is there: the origins of the Swahili occupation, Indian Ocean trade networks, the beginnings of European colonialism in Africa and the Indian Ocean, the rise and demise of the Gulf Arabs and 20th century decolonisation," Power explains, relocating the origins of what is now Stone Town back in the medieval period.

"The guides here tell the tourists that Stone Town is only 300 years old when actually it's over a thousand," Horton beams.

"Despite the incredibly close cultural relations and links between the Gulf and East Africa, this is the first time that an Arab University has conducted an excavation here and it's been absolutely pioneering."


Read more:

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