Stone Town, Tanzania
The Old Fort of Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar was one of the few great colonial era forts that was not constructed by a European power. Constructed by the rulers of Oman to protect that country’s trading interests in East Africa, the Old Fort achieved fame by helping to re-establish Arabian control over the island and protect it from the return of the Portuguese. The fort, along with the island, achieved an exotic reputation during the colonial era, and it is one of Zanzibar’s most popular attractions. The Old Fort is part of the Stone Town UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The island of Zanzibar is one of the world’s most romanticized places. Located just off the coast of Tanzania, Zanzibar was the most important center of trade between the Arabian and Sub-Saharan African regions for most of recorded history. Trading outposts from Persia and Arabia have existed on the island since before the advent of Islam, making the wealth of East Africa more accessible to the realms of the Middle East.
Other than its use as a base for trade, Zanzibar’s existence was long and peaceful until the arrival of the European powers during the colonial era. Just around the time rulers from southern Arabia began to take a greater interest in the island in the late 15th century, Portuguese trading vessels and warships arrived and seized the island. Zanzibar remained a Portuguese territory for well over a century, though control of the island was contested.
In 1698, the Sultanate of Oman managed to retake possession of the island. In order to protect their interests, they built the Old Fort to defend Stone Town from further encroachments. In the early 18th century the Portuguese attacked the fort in a bid to retake the island, but were unsuccessful. This was one of the very few important military victories of non-Europeans over Europeans during the entire colonial period.
The Omanis held the Old Fort and the island of Zanzibar for nearly two centuries, before both were seized by the British who desired control of the island in order to put an end to the slave trade. During the British era, the Old Fort was used alternatively as a barracks, storage depot and prison. In 1964, after Zamzibar was achieved independence, the Old Fort was renovated and to put to use as a cultural center of sorts. It now houses an amphitheater where performances are offered daily.
The Old Fort is a large but squat fortification of Middle Eastern construction typical of the Colonial era. The brown brick and stone from which the fort was built has long since faded to grey or black in many places, giving it a very rough and tumble feel. Because of its location in the middle of the city, it is difficult to fully appreciate the size and construction from the exterior. However, the palm trees and other foliage that press in on the fort from all sides lends the Stone Fort an exotic feel worthy of its history. Its most impressive exterior features are the large round towers which defend its corners.
The interior construction of the fort is nearly completely intact, with at one major addition. A very large amphitheater built in the late 20th century takes up most of the courtyard. The interior buildings, which once housed the barracks, armory, and so on are now used by local artisans as a workshop. Also inside the fort are the remains of an old Portuguese church.
The Old Fort is located next door to the former sultan’s residence in the heart of Stone Town on the west coast of the island, about fifty miles north of Dar Es Salaam. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.zanzibar.cc/stonetown.htm (official website).
The Old Fort of Stone Town is the only major Arab castle still standing in East Africa. No other major surviving forts, colonial or otherwise, are noted in Tanzania.