This beautifully carved panel is from Stone Town, Zanzibar. It is a lintel from over a doorway from a building – perhaps a mosque but not necessarily so. Travellers to Stone Town in the 1840s noted that over almost every doorway in the town was a passage from the Quran written on a piece of paper or carved in wood and these served as protective devices for those who resided within (Alpers, 2009, p. 106.)
The lintel is of African tropical hardwood and is carved in bold, high relief with Arabic lettering with an inscription from the Quran (17:81) which translates as: “And say: Truth has come and Falsehood has vanished” (this is a reference to monotheism having triumphed over paganism).
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.
Similar panels were made and used along the Swahili Coast including on Lamu Island and coastal Tanzania. A similar calligraphic panel in the Jerome L. Loss Collection of African Art at UCLA is illustrated in Ross (1994,. p. 151.)
Click here for an example sold at Christie’s in New York in 2003.
Stone Town is famous for its many elaborately carved doorways and lintels, carved by craftsmen of Arab and Indian (possibly Kutch) 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.
Alpers, E., East Africa and the Indian Ocean, Markus Wiener Publishers, 2009.
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.
Ross, D. H., Visions of Africa: The Jerome L. Joss Collection of African Art at UCLA, Regents of the University of California, 1994.