Zanzibar Stone Town presents the problems of conservation in its most acute forms. Should it be fossilized for the tourists? Or should it grow for the benefit of the inhabitants? Can ways be found to accommodate conflicting social and economic pressures?
For its size, Zanzibar, like Venice, occupies a remarkably large romantic space in world imagination. Swahili civilization on these spice islands goes back to the earliest centuries of the Islamic era. Up until the nineteenth century it was the capital of a trading empire which spread Kiswahili and Islam over a large part of eastern and central African and the Indian Ocean.
Zanzibar then suffered the loss of its empire to the Germans and the British. In the last thirty years it has passed through its second period of crisis. After the Revolution of 1964 the new rural owners did not have the wherewithal to maintain the old stone houses. The Stone Town seemed to be on the verge of extinction.
In the 1980s the government reversed its policies and the old town became threatened by rapid redevelopment which disfigures as it builds. The Old Stone Town now stands in danger of being drastically transformed by tourism and trade liberalization.
Abdul Sheriff is a professor of history at the University of Dar es Salaam and the author of The History and Conservation of Zanzibar Stone Town and coeditor of Zanzibar under Colonial Rule. He is also the principal curator of Zanzibar Museums.
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