Zanzibari Door

From the 8th century onwards, a loose confederation of city-states formed along Africa‘s eastern and south-eastern coasts and islands, whose wealth in its golden age from the 13th to 15th century was based on the spice, ivory and slave trades. Here, inspired by the mix of cultures from mainland Africa and Arabia and under the influence of trade relations that reached as far as Persia, India and China, a unique tradition developed – the Swahili culture.

Swahili translates as “people from the coast”, but also means the language (also called Kiswahili). Swahili culture declined in the 16th century on the arrival of Portuguese merchants who destroyed Swahili cities and their finely balanced trade relationships in order to gain influence on the trade.

The term Swahili architecture sums up a broad range of different architectural styles that had developed in this African coastal region; they are partly used to this day.

From the cubic form of Arabian houses, the Swahili culture developed on the background of religious and social traditions and a different climate its own forms, which show influences of different cultures. A typical Swahili house is designed round a central courtyard; a blank wall facing the street protects the owners from outside views.

The central and most noticeable element are the houses’ front doors, the so-called Swahili or Zanzibari doors, whose heyday was in the 19th century. The doors were objects of prestige that enhanced and signified the status of wealthy trade families and landowners. Not only was the size of the entrance important but also the ornaments and patterns which often indicated the trade of the householder.

These houses and doors are still in use in the former Swahili city-states, e.g. in Kenya (Mombasa, Lamu and Malindi) and Tanzania (Kilwa, Stonetown on Zanzibar Island). Swahili doors can be found as well on the shores of Lake Tanganyika along the 19th century caravan trade routes.

Elements of the Zanzibari Door

The classical Zanzibari door is composed of seven elements. Two vertical side posts and a center post are the frame for the two door panels. The heavy lintel on the top and the high threshold made of a thick wooden beam are the top and bottom elements. Swahili doors have different names for the door panels; the right side was called mlango dume (male door), the left door was the mlango jike (female door).

Side posts, center post and lintel are decorated with carved ornaments. The door panels are, depending on their style, studded with metal tiers made of iron or brass that can be as long as 7 centimeters to guard the house from unwanted visitors.

Typical doors were made of the extreme hard and durable African ebony or, in case the owner was wealthy, of imported teak. More recently, doors have been carved from mango and jackfruit wood.

The ornamentation of the doors folded out in several styles, which can be divided into two groups. Doors influenced by Islamic style with rectangular frames and a straight lintel (often decorated with a centered rosette or a passage of the Koran) and geometrical ornaments; in the other group are door shapes influenced by Indo-Persian designs from the 19th century with arched lintels and floral motifs.

The door in our museum is in its basic structure a so-called Bajuni door, an old style that developed during the heyday of Swahili culture (around 11 to 1400). Typical are heavy side and center posts and the external frame around the door. The typical geometrical ornaments are chipped out of the wood.

On the other hand, the door shows significant influences from the Arabic Omani style. The two door panels are fastened with iron hinges and show brass nails; the center post is decorated with Omani style motifs.

The provenance of the museum’s Zanzibari door is unknown; it dates from a period between the late 19th and the early 20th century.

Further detailed information on the different styles of Zanzibari doors can be found on the following facebook page: