Once the most important country in East Africa, Zanzibar is now part of Tanzania, just across the ocean from the mainland city of Dar-es-Salaam in central Tanzania. It is steeped in history, having been the seat of the Sultans of Oman for more than a millennium, and it was from here that they ruled all of East Africa.
Zanzibar is composed of two major islands, Ujunja (the main “big” island) and Pemba to the north. Most visitors come for the extraordinarily spectacular beaches of the eastern Indian Ocean side, and the number of luxury resorts grows daily. The capital is Stone Town, the only city and ancient metropolis. It is steeped in history.
The relatively small island, strategically located off the coast midway down Africa, provided a natural sanctuary and safe harbor for the earliest sailors. Chinese pottery was traded here in the 13th Century. In 1498 Vasco de Gama landed here and began the Portuguese dominion of Africa that lasted well into the 18th Century. The Omani sultans wrested control over the Portuguese in the middle of the 16th Century and formed a powerful alliance with Arabia. By the 18th Century Zanzibar was one of the richest enclaves in the Indian Ocean as a result of its harbor, spice trade and preeminence in the slave trade. America’s first ambassador to Africa was to the court of the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1856. The Omanis retained power until deposed by the British in the latter half of the 19th Century after the British forced an end to slaving. Colonized by the British as a separate country, Zanzibar federated with mainland Tanganyika in 1964 to form the present day country of Tanzania. But the culture and economy of the mainland and the island of Zanzibar remain very distinct, and the political autonomy that Zanzibar retains in many ways makes it a de facto separate country. Expect to have to show your passport and innoculation certificates when entering Zanzibar, even when coming only from mainland Tanzania.
The big island is excellent for growing all sorts of spices, and is the world’s second largest producer of cloves. It remains a capital offense to smuggle cloves.