1487

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Zanzibar Calligraphic Wooden Door Lintel

Stone Town, Zanzibar
19th century

length: 87cm, width: 14.5cm

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Provenance

Acquired by the previous English owner around 1990 from an elderly English lady whose husband acquired them from Zanzibar in the 1920s.

This beautifully carved panel is a lintel from over a doorway from a building – perhaps a mosque but not necessarily so – in Stone Town, Zanzibar. It is of African tropical hardwood and is carved in bold, high relief with Arabic lettering with an inscription of the Muslim creed: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God”.

The panel is in good repair on account of it being of hardwood. Some age-related worm damage is evident from the back of the board but not the front. A 19th century dating has been assigned on account of the provenance but the hardness and apparent durability of the wood could mean that an earlier dating is feasible.

Stone Town is famous for its many elaborately carved doorways and lintels, carved by craftsmen of Arab and Indian (possibly Cutch) descent. Stone Town today is World Heritage listed, partly on account of the doorways.

Zanzibar comprises two larger islands and a series of smaller islands 25-50 kilometres off the coast of East Africa. Arab traders visited and traded with the islands for many centuries. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Zanzibar was under Portuguese control. And in 1698, it was sized by the Sultanate of Oman, and a ruling Arab elite with a local sultan was installed which developed the local economy further enhancing its trading links with the Middle East and with India.

Important trading communities of Muscat-descended Arabs and Indian Muslims established themselves in Zanzibar. The Indian Muslims comprised Ismailis – Khojas – and Bohoras particularly. Parsees from India also were another significant community. Another Muslim community, the Wahadimu, evolved too, by intermarriage between Africans and Arabs. Other groups included Ceylonese, Christian Goanese of Portuguese and Indian descent, and Indian Baluchis.

Zanzibar became renown as a source of ivory, spices and slaves. It also became a regional entrepot and was an important source of goods that were traded into Africa. The Sultan of Zanzibar also controlled parts of the East African coast which also facilitated this. By the mid-19th century, Zanzibar was the biggest slave centre in East Africa with around 50,000 slaves passing through its docks each year.

By the late 19th century, Zanzibar was under the control of the British. The islands gained independence from Britain in December 1963. A month later, the Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba was formed in a revolution that saw thousands of Arabs and Indians killed. The following April, the republic was subsumed into the mainland former colony of Tanganyika (later Tanzania). Zanzibar today has semi-autonomous status.: Acquired by the previous English owner around 1990 from an elderly English lady whose husband acquired them from Zanzibar in the 1920s.

A past Zanzibar sultan.

References

Dale, G., The Peoples of Zanzibar: Their Customs and Religious Beliefs, The Universities’ Mission to Central Africa, 1920.

Oonk, G., The Karimjee Jivanjee Family: Merchant Princes of East Africa 1800-2000, Pallas Publications, 2009.

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