Common motifs found on Zanzibar doors

An alleyway in Zanzibar

Showcase 31 Mar 2015

Doors of Zanzibar

The legendary Doors of Zanzibar are surrounded by a mythical aura and traditionally the door was the first part of a house to be erected. As trade flourished in the region, several traders became wealthy, important, and prominent. Men of wealth and power sought to proclaim their affluence and enhance their social prestige by commissioning the carving of great entrances to serve as opulent indicators of riches within.

Important residential doorways in the old sections of Zanzibar city attained impressive dimensions, measuring about twice the height of a man from the base of the door. One such wealthy trader, Tippu Tip was especially instrumental in carved doorways becoming popular. 

Distinguishing Elements

A typical Zanzibar door has seven distinguishing elements with the most prominent being the door panel which is generally not carved but adorned with brass or iron knobs. Much of the carving is on the top, sides, and the centre of the doors. 

The doors have two distinct parts with  the right side being the male door and the left side, the female door. Some doors also have a smaller doorway within the door;  this was to ensure that only one person  could come inside at a time affording more security to the family inside. The feature  is not as relevant today as it was in the past when doors provided primary security to  the homes of the wealthy.

Cross-pollination of Designs

As Arab traders settled here, Islam also came to the island and influenced the designs of the doors. Brass knobs on doors didn’t exist in Zanzibar till the nineteenth century, though they were common in the Indian subcontinent. The concept of knobs travelled from India to Zanzibar and became an important art influence. In India brass knobs had a practical purpose and were used to ward off attacks from elephants as they could not use their trunks to break doors studded with sharp brass knobs. In Zanzibar the knobs were purely decorative in nature. 

Designs developed in Zanzibar have also influenced doors in the Persian and Arabian Peninsula, for example the doors  in Muscat in Oman, which bear a strong Swahili influence.

Types of Doors

Zanzibar’s doors are of three different types, each with its own distinct style and design elements: 

Arab Doors: Arabs were perhaps the first settlers on the island and when they came they brought with them their religion as well as culture which heavily influenced the designs of the doors they commissioned and were devoid of any human figures. Instead, they have Koranic verses incorporated as design elements. 

Indian Doors: These had two distinct influences from Indian settlers from Gujarat and Punjab and the brass knobs on the doors, found even now in many doors in the Indian subcontinent, were the most striking Indian influence. 

Local Swahilian Doors: Built for the local population of the island, these were much simpler in design and utilitarian in nature.

Motifs and their Symbolism

Stone Town, where Zanzibar’s doors are located, was a city divided into ethnic and economic districts. And clusters of similarly designed doors indicated the different districts. Door symbols indicated trade and personal status, functioning as ‘business cards’ as most traders conducted business from their homes. 

The motifs used to adorn these doors were a combination of local traditional designs and external influences. 

Flowers represented families and the number of flowers on a door would indicate the number of distinct family units residing in that house. Palatial houses would often sport up to twelve flowers! Pineapples denoted ‘welcome’, frankincense and date palms were symbols of wealth, fish scale motifs represented the fertility goddess Atargatis and indicated that the house owner was a fisherman, floral vines indicated an involvement in the spice trade, a rope indicated that the house was occupied by someone who owned fishing vessels, motifs of chains on the doors were purportedly to ward off evil spirits and represent security, but are said to be indicative of the residence of a slave trader and owner, geometric squares on a door indicated that the occupant was a mathematician/accountant, quotes from the Koran were to bless the house and motifs using beads indicated involvement in the jewellery business.

Colours of the Doors

The doors of Zanzibar are mainly wood with metal embellishments. Four prominent colours are seen — many hues of natural wood, pale blue, pale green, and pale yellow. Wooden finishes are most common, and most of the large and elaborate doors have natural wood finishes. The pale colours were usually used in markets for shops and for smaller homes. Indian doors have paler colours as compared to the Arab or local doors that have brighter hues. 

From tired grey to warm mahogany, chestnut brown to midnight black, the palette of the doors is dominated by wooden hues, with occasional flashes of turquoise blue and aquamarine echoing the colours of the surrounding Indian Ocean.

Demise of the Culture of Doors

The tradition of carving the doors developed and grew with the growth of trade, especially slave trade. As slave trade was abolished, Zanzibar lost its prominence and the need to show influence and opulence through doors also died out. 

Doors continue to be carved even now, but they have become linear, less ornate, and more functional. Many efforts are on to preserve these doors, but their numbers keep dwindling with every passing year.

Siddhartha is a designer, traveller, and a travel blogger who loves people more than anything else. He derives his passion from interacting with people and is extremely passionate about inspiring the world around him to travel more, as he believes that only travel can break barriers and make us more tolerant and accepting of our differences.





All images courtesy Siddhartha Joshi except:


All images courtesy Siddhartha Joshi except;

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