The Stone Town is the product of at least three centuries of continuous settlement, but it was only from 1830 that Zanzibar took on a wholly urban character and that stone buildings were built in significant numbers. Until that time, the majority of houses were made of mud and wattle, and roofed with palm leaf thatch. Very few large-scale structures could be distinguished, besides the Fort and a few small mosques.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the town occupied only the north-eastern portion of the peninsula, extending from Shangani Point toward the creek's narrowest crossing at Darajani. After the Omani Sultan's permanent move to the island in 1832, the Stone Town quickly expanded during the middle of the century, filling in the areas of upper Sokomuhogo, Forodhani, Kajificheni, and Kiponda. The Omanis erected palaces and residences along and behind the sea front, and tradesmen from the Indian sub-continent built up the bazaar streets with shop-front houses, and sea-faring merchants built houses, sheds, and warehouses near the waterfront. After 1850, stone buildings spread further and began to extend north into Malindi, south into the lower portion of Sokomuhogo, and east to Mkunazini, areas which up to this time had been mostly occupied by mud buildings. As contact with western trading markets increased, particularly once the Suez Canal opened in 1869, and later with the establishment of the British administration in 1890, specialised structures - larger civic buildings in particular - began to appear. The building up of the Stone Town was more or less completed and the present limits defined by the first quarter of the twentieth century: the new port area to the north had been reclaimed, the area south of Shangani built up, the European garden suburb of Vuga laid out, and the programme to fill the creek bordering the peninsula to the east gradually put into effect.
Thus, within the relatively short span of one hundred and fifty years, the confluence of several distinct cultures and the island's intense cosmopolitan development produced the rich and diverse architectural heritage we see today. In some cases, the diversity of the original imports is still evident in different sections of town; in others, the borrowing and adaptation of forms from other contexts produced a cross-fertilisation of different building traditions. In yet other cases, buildings were gradually transformed over time as newcomers adapted existing structures to their tastes and preferences, thus determining a further hybridisation of forms. This variety produced the diverse spaces and surprising contrasts of the Zanzibar townscape, where pedestrians move from the imposing row of sea front structures to the crowded and lively atmosphere of the Indian bazaars, and the quiet, intimate spaces of the narrower residential streets. Thus, although the different forms and building types and their origins - African, Arab, Indian, or European - can be recognised, it is the synthesis of these cultures and influences that creates Zanzibar's unique urban and architectural environment.
The Kizimkazi mosque on the south tip of the island of Zanzibar may be the oldest Islamic building on the East African coast. This mosque is actually located three kilometers northwest of the town of Kizimkazi, which in the twelfth century was noted regarded as a substantial and walled city, in a small village known as Dimbani. The original mosque was constructed in the early twelfth century by Shirazi settlers on the island, as is attested to by an inscription incorporated into the later mosque incarnations. The kufic inscription dates it to 500 AH, or 1107 AD, predating any other inscription on the coast, though inscribed dates are rare in this region. This and the trefoil mihrab are the signature features of this mosque.
The floriated kufic inscriptions to the left of the mihrab proclaim that Sheikh Said bin Abi Amran Mfaume al Hassan bin Muhammad ordered the mosque to be built in the month of Dhul Kaadi in the year 500 (AH). However, another inscription to the right of the mihrab relays a major rebuilding in 1184 AH or 1772-1773 AD. Thus, most of the fabric of the mosque dates from the eighteenth century, though certain elements from the twelfth century and subsequent additions were woven into the reconstruction.
The trefoil mihrab, dating from the eighteenth century, is said to have influenced the design of many of the nineteenth century mosques built in Zanzibar's Stone Town. The graceful arch, which culminates in a fitted groove as opposed to a keystone, is used elsewhere in the mosque to support the heavy stone ceiling. The polylobed and cusped trefoil motif also forms a plaster arcade along the north wall on either side of the mihrab, where the arches interlock atop elongated shafts. The two aforementioned inscriptions rest above the cornice lines of these arcades. A simplified extension of the arcade, consisting of circular coral shafts, continues into the recess of the mihrab apse where it is separated from an upper arcade by another inscription band wrapping around the inside of the mihrab.
The niches of this upper order contain finely worked coral carvings, likely dating from the twelfth century and serving as the inspiration of the later use of the trefoil. Each foliated niche is carved from a single thin coral panel about two centimeters thick. The carving of the upper order is interspersed by cable-patterned mouldings. The fine quality of the coral carving suggests that these elements are from the twelfth century mosque.
The arch of the mihrab, with squared cusps, sits upon two recessed squared orders. The arch sits within a rectangular architrave framed with rebated mouldings and its spandrel is decorated with two scalloped coral bosses of concentric circles. This architrave is then flanked by two plain paneled jambs, which interrupt the arcade along the qibla wall. The projecting roof of the mihrab apse is a fluted semi-dome.
Though most of the coral detailing and column shafts date from the twelfth century, the greater part of the mosque dates from the eighteenth century reconstruction. This plan follows a typical East African coastal plan in that a row of three columns runs along the central north-south axis of the prayer hall and obstructs the mihrab. A entry courtyard runs along the eastern face of the mosque and wraps around to a ablution area with a cistern to the south of the mosque. Both the eastern court and the roofed southern ablution room extend approximately one bay from the mosque, maintaining the mosque dimensions in the form of the complex. Recently, the east wall of the mosque has been reconstructed and the roof of the mosque was replaced with one of corrugated iron.
Around the mosque are several seventeenth century tombs decorated with pillars, one of which notes Sheikh Ali bin Omar, a man with one arm and one leg. Today prayer flags are commonly tied to the tombs.
Abdul Sheriff. "Mosques, Merchants and Landowners in Zanzibar Stone Town." in The History and Conservation of Zanzibar Stone Town, 55. Zanzibar: Department of Archives, Museums and Antiquities, 1995.
Garlake, Peter S. The Early Islamic Architecture of the East African Coast, 1, 7, 10-11,44, 46-47,48, 70-71, 81. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.