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Islam and Zanzibar

Zanzibar on the East African coast was long assumed to have been an 18th century Omani stone town, a major focus of the Indian Ocean dhow trade. The community became rich on an international trade in ivory, ebony wood, and slaves. The city was also famous for its cloves.

In the 19th century, it became the powerful capital of the Omani Empire. The Zanzibar Stone Town's Old Fort was built during the Omani era, becoming the centre of military and political power, as well as an important customs house.

But back in the 1980s, a test pit revealed possible traces of earlier occupation. An excavation in 2017 yielded further promising results, so much so that a major excavation led by Prof. Tim Power of United Arab Emirates University and the Department of Antiquities in Zanzibar followed in 2022.

Two trenches dug into the extensive courtyard of the fort yielded traces of a mosque, as well as rubbish pits, and cooking fires. The walls and foundations of an Augustinian mission church associated with dozens of Christian burials dating to the 16th and 17th centuries lay nearby. Most of important of all, the excavators recovered not only local Swahili pottery, but also imported ceramics, especially from China, which could be dated.

The stratified potsherds carried the excavation back far earlier than the Omani fort, to as early as the 11th century. The period between the 12th and 14th centuries was a brilliant age for Islam, when there were major cultural ties that linked the East African coast with Arabia, the Gulf and India. Power and his Emirati colleagues have provided the first archaeological evidence that integrates not only Zanzibar, but the entire East Africa coast, into a far wider world of Islam – centuries earlier than has often been assumed.

Want more in-depth archaeology? Read Archaeology Worldwide magazine.

Image: Digging inside the Old Fort in Zanzibar.

Credit: Tim Power

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