Crystal-clear turquoise water and white, sandy beaches, maybe a cocktail in one hand … This easily describes a Zanzibar experience, but did you know Zanzibar also has an extensive history dating back to the Stone Age? Or that it is home to animals you can’t find anywhere else in the world?
Zanzibar is a treasure chest of interesting facts, tales and attractions. In preparation for your trip to Africa’s “spice island”, here are four facts you may not know about Zanzibar:
1. Zanzibar’s history stretches back to ancient times
It is speculated that Zanzibar has been home to humans for at least 20 000 years. Microliths, small tools generally used as spear points in the Later Stone Age, have been discovered in the area, which suggests the presence of ancient inhabitants.
Fast forwarding to relatively more modern times, Zanzibar has been mentioned in ancient Greco-Roman texts, has acted as trade post for Persian, Arab and Indian traders, and has been a Portuguese colony, a sultanate under the Omani Empire and a British protectorate.
Today, Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, with its main industries being tourism, raffia and spices.
Zanzibar has a chequered and oftentimes difficult and violent past, and it is one of the few places in Africa where this history can still be clearly seen today. All the events and influences that shaped the region are still evident in the architecture and even the languages that the locals speak.
Visiting a few of the island’s museums and palaces is key to start developing an understanding of the legacy and impact of its tumultuous history.
Museums to visit:
Beit al-Sahel palace museum
Emerson on Hurumzi
2. Zanzibar is home to two known endemic animal species (and possibly a third)
Would you like to see a couple of unique furry friends in their natural habitat? The Zanzibar red colobus monkey and Zanzibar servaline genet are two creatures that can’t be found anywhere else on the planet. The Zanzibar leopard may also be part of this group; however, because the animal is so elusive, it may or may not be extinct (we hope it’s the latter).
What makes the Zanzibar red colobus, servaline genet and leopard so interesting is that they have each evolved uniquely and in isolation to their species counterparts since the Ice Age, when Zanzibar split away from mainland Tanzania.
The Zanzibar servaline genet is so shy that it was only photographed for the first time in 2003. Similarly, the Zanzibar leopard was thought to be extinct until a camera trap photographed a similar-looking animal in 2018. With monkeys being social creatures, and data therefore being much more detailed, your chances of spotting a Zanzibar red colobus are much higher.
All three species are endemic to Unguja (the main island of the archipelago) and can be found in the lush tropical forests. Your best chance to see these indigenous creatures is to visit Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park.
3. Zanzibar is not one big island
Zanzibar is actually the informal term used to describe the main island of the Zanzibar archipelago plus its 46 surrounding islands. Unguja, the largest of these islands, is what we commonly refer to as Zanzibar, with the second-largest island being Pemba.
Many of the smaller surrounding islands are uninhabited, but carry no less relevance in the history and story of Zanzibar.
Changuu Island, also known as Prison Island, is located 5.6km north-west of Stone Town on Unguja. It was once used as prison complex for rebellious slaves, functioned as a coral mine and later became a quarantine station for yellow fever cases.
Chumbe Island, another small island a few kilometres from the main island, is privately owned and is a torchbearer for ecological conservation. Chumbe is home to Zanzibar’s first marine reserve, and at least 90% of all the coral species that have been recorded in East Africa can be found in the small area surrounding Chumbe!
Day trips to many of Zanzibar’s islands can be arranged upon arrival.
4. Spices are the name of the game
The Zanzibar archipelago is widely known as the “spice island” of Africa. Spices constitute one of Zanzibar’s main industries, with the island producing mainly cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper. Once the world’s largest clove producer, today Zanzibar supplies only 7% of the world’s cloves.
Zanzibar’s spice heritage has been centuries in the making. Many Western Asian spices found their way to Zanzibar via an ancient seafaring route that included India, mainland East Africa, Malaysia and Portugal. Later, when Zanzibar was a Portuguese colony, and eventually under the Sultanate of Oman, spice plantations were developed and commercialised.
Today, these spices are still harvested and exported, and are ingrained into all the local cultures.
Spice tours on the main island are something of an institution and should definitely not be missed. Explore spice plantations where you will see, smell, touch and taste a myriad of spices. This is a great opportunity to not only learn about Zanzibar’s extended history in relation to spices, but also to actively engage with the island’s tumultuous past and its fragrant legacy today.
Depending on the season, you can experience the flavours of vanilla, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, lemongrass, cloves, ylang-ylang, cumin, garlic, ginger, coriander, pepper, allspice, tamarind, chilli and oregano.
Spice tours can be booked upon arrival or in advance through tour agencies.
How to get to Zanzibar
Mango Airlines offers daily flights from either Lanseria International Airport or OR Tambo International Airport to Zanzibar. Make the most of our travel packages and book your flights, accomodation and transfers with our one-stop travel solution.