The warmth of Zanzibar

In Zanzibar, Myriam AlDhaheri indulged her passion for archeology and encountered human warmth

A street in Stone Town, a magnet for cosmopolitan Zanzibarians and tourists from around the world.   Getty Images
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Dating back to the 11th century, Stone Town has been a magnet for Zanzibar’s cosmopolitan inhabitants. Its authentic cafes, restaurants and bars continue to attract tourists from all over the world. However, many may not know that nightlife in the town ends by 11pm in accordance with local laws. When I landed in Dar es Salaam on July 16, 2017, and took a coastal plane with around 10 passengers to Zanzibar Island, I was set for a memorable adventure.

Back in 2014, Dr Timothy Power launched the first archaeology field school in the Emirates for female Zayed University (Abu Dhabi) students of his class and I was one of them. We learned the basics of the practice in Al Ain during our Spring break for a few weeks near Al Qattara Oasis. In the mornings, we were on the field with many curious local passers-by. In the afternoons, we catalogued artefacts in the storage areas of the Al Ain Palace Museum, having our daily lunch the traditional Emirati way, seated on the grass. Apparently, we were the first group of female Emirati archaeologists, and it on this trip that I discovered my passion for this field.

Dr Power, Professor of Archaeology at Zayed University (Abu Dhabi), encouraged his past students to join an excavation of the Old Fort of Zanzibar in Stone Town for over two weeks. Only two of us ended up travelling down the equator, Noura Al Hameli and me. We did, however, benefit from the company of world-leading archaeologists such as Mark Horton, along with university students from England, America, Zanzibar and Tanzania, as well as professionals and volunteers—among them Rosie Ireland, an adventurer who works at a circus in Britain – to whom we grew close. For once, I was not a tourist but mingled with the Zanzibarians.

From pickaxing to shovelling, towelling, brushing, cleaning, sieving, and cataloguing and then again surveying, the excavation site grew day by day. As we dug deeper, the lowest wall found in the “Islamic trench” could be the oldest in the region, dating back to the 14th century, when stone architecture spread through East Africa. We called that trench “Islamic” because of the remains we found of a mosque. We also saw walls of a Swahili house filled with pottery from the Arabian Gulf and China.

The other trench, which we called the "Christian trench", reflected the history of the Portuguese mission (16th and 17th centuries). We found walls of a church which marked the decline of the Estado da Índia (State of India), as well as two pendants, one of a Cross and another of a Sacred Heart of Jesus. But the finding that became the talk of the town was of a nun. When the Portuguese power fell to the Ya'rubid dynasty in the 17th century, the Portuguese church and settlements in Zanzibar were destroyed, It is on this site that the nun's remains was buried.

The Ya’rubids captured Zanzibar in 1698, and so began Omani rule for three centuries. Sometime before 1710, the Old Fort was built using the materials of the Portuguese church. Later, under the rule of Sayyid Sa’id bin Sultan Al Bu Sa’idi, the fort was enlarged and strengthened for protection against the hereditary governors previously appointed by the Ya’rubids.

We found pottery ranging from the late 12th to the 20th centuries, along with shells, bones, glass, countless colourful beads, and a cannon ball. Chinese pottery similarly found in the Gulf from the 17th to the 19th centuries, as well as European factory-made pottery from the 18th and 19th centuries were predominant amongst the findings. So it seems that our initial hypothesis of trade between the Gulf and Zanzibar was challenged. We discovered that the Emirates imported more pottery than they exported.

In our spare time, away from the dirt, we sailed along the coastlines of Unguja Ukuu, a humble village almost an hour’s drive from Stone Town, and set out on a road trip, visiting the ruins of Mtoni, Kidichi, Maruhubi, Kizimbani, and Noura’s personal favourite, the witch caves which spooked everyone else.

The people in villages like Unguja Ukuu live a healthy life from what we witnessed. Ali, a 60-year-old fisherman, could easily climb the tall coconut trees. The tricky part of the island, however, is the sea tide. We walked a mile to reach our traditional wooden dhow over the coral shells of shallow sea water, coming back to shore on high tide only a few hours later. The local sailors took us to a white sand bank and then to the undersea life of mesmerising coral reefs. Waking up at 5am to catch the tide was rewarding after all.

Zanzibarians are the warmest people I have encountered. On my last night, when everyone had left, and I was alone, I was kindly invited to a traditional wedding near my hotel. I sat at the bride’s relatives’ table, and was greeted, fed and entertained throughout the celebration with no hesitation but the purest heart.

We plan on going back again for some more excavations next year, hoping for more history to be uncovered.

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