Stone Town is as old as the first told stories of its Island. The first Arab sea traders are said to have mentioned the ‘Coast of the black people’ – the land of Zenj – from which the name Zanzibar is believed to have come from. The Island’s strategic and accessible location along the East African coast turned it into cosmopolitan centre where Arab, Indians, Europeans and African traditions and cultures all got merged together.
The first settlement and the oldest today known in Stone Town is the Portuguese fort. Its foundation was laid down in the early 18th century, but probably not finalized until late 1780, by the Omani rulers, thus more correctly being a Omani fort. The most significant part of the Stone Town is made up of the dominant Arab houses. These buildings, often square and with a spacious inner courtyard allowing light and air to circulate in the house, were built closely together not considering the need of any fencing and/or garden around them. The Arab families were used to stay close to each other and many of the buildings were connected via walkways, like bridges, still seen on the first floors This arrangement made it possible for the female members of the family to go and visit relatives and friends without having to enter the streets. By just leaving room for narrow streets in between the often tall houses helped to make sure there would be a shadow for those walking in the streets. Still the wind from the sea was allowed to blow though and give some comfort during hot days.
Stone Town became a flourishing centre of trade in the 19th century. It was a hub for the trade of both spices and human beings. The ruling sultanate had a close relationship with the British; in 1890, Zanzibar became a British protectorate. The Zanzibari Omanis rebelled against British rule in 1896. The resulting Anglo-Zanzibar Water is known as the shortest war in history, lasting just 45 minutes of marine bombardment by the British Royal Navy before the Sultan was forced to surrender.
In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century the town was clearly divided. There were the Arab, Indian and European neighbourhoods. Very few Africans were living in Stone Town during that time, they only came to town for work or business, but lived in the nearby area called ‘Ngambo’. Before the Creek Road was filled out there was a small ferry taking passengers from the town area to the Ngambo side. During this time Zanzibar remained an important trading centre. The slave trade was abolished in 1897.
In 1964, Stone Town was the central point of the Zanzibar Revolution. The Zanzibar revolution marked the beginning of a socialist government and the removal of the sultanate. After the revolution, a majority of the non-Africans left Zanzibar, thus leaving their homes and buildings. The Government confiscated abandoned buildings, and found them useful for government offices, schools and other public needs. Some buildings were let out to tenants for a symbolic monthly rent, and the spacious houses could easily accommodate many families from the poorer population.
The new ruling party, the Afro-Shirazi Party, joined the mainland country of Tanganyika to form a new country, Tanzania. Zanzibar remains a semi-autonomous body in Tanzania, and Stone Town is the capital and hub of political and social life on the island.
In the year 2000, Zanzibar Stone Town was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List due to its globally important heritage and built environment.