Zanzibar Doors : A Carved Business Card

Walking through the narrow alleys and streets in Stone Town one cannot help but notice the beautifully carved doors. Some are well kept and lovingly polished or varnished while others are in various states of disrepair.

doors 10

These doors intrigued me and I took many photos to the frustration of my travelling companions who had to stop and wait while I took yet another photo. It was noticeable that certain types of door were to be seen grouped together. Little did I know at the time that the pattern and carving on the door served as a business card proclaiming the status, wealth and trade of the people living and working within.

There are mainly two types of doors in Stone Town Zanzibar.

Indian type doors with square shutters which can easily fold are mostly found along the busy bazaar streets where business men work and live.


Another type of Indian door is the Punjabi door.  These doors are distinguished by the arched top of the frame, and heavy brass studs that jut out from the panelling. Indians protected their houses from war elephants this way and when the merchants moved to Zanzibar, they continued the tradition regardless of the absence of war elephants on the spice islands.

door knobs

Arab doors are richly decorated and carved. They are mostly rectangular in shape and sometimes have an inscription from the Holy Quran on the top frieze.

doors 9

The symbols on the doors are complex and easy to miss, which unfortunately I did, as I was not fully aware of their meaning.

These are the symbols which I encountered.

Flowers symbolized families. Every flower found on the top of a door indicated a family living there, with often many distinct families living in the same building.

doors 12

Geometric squares   Geometric designs indicated that the owner was a proficient mathematician and offered his services as an accountant.

geometric pattren

Fish scales indicates that the owner either traded fish or was a fisherman.

Symbols door

Vines indicated that  owner dealt in the spice trade. Floral vines were appropriate symbols as pepper, vanilla and other spices  grow this way.


Rectangular Arabic doors


Arched frame top

doors 13

For more information read here

These doors seemed to me to be works of art and became even more so when we visited the Door Factory on the way to Paje.

Here the doors are still made with hand tools, a skill that is passed down from generation to generation even today.The patterns are  sketched on the wood and then cut painstakingly by hand as these pictures illustrate. Doors are made mainly from mahogany and blackwood.

doors 1

doors 2

doors 3

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s