Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Doors of Zanzibar

The island of Zanzibar off Africa's east coast is famous for its doors. The wealthy merchants who traded slaves and spices here lived in walled compounds that turned blank faces to the outside world -- except for their doors. So elaborate doors long ago became a prime means of showing off wealth.

They remains so today, especially in the old quarter known as Stonetown. It's easy to find lots of pictures of these, since every tourist takes at least one door photo. You see some particularly fine doors again again -- they must be some of the most photographed doors in the world.

I was rather startled when I first saw one of these spiky creations, but it turns out that this is a standard design, turned out by the dozens. The spikes are called "elephant protectors" by tour guides, in fine bit of local hoo-ha.

I love these, as I love almost all local decorative traditions that have survived the modernist invasion of smooth surfaces in steel, glass, and vinyl. The speak to me of ancient trade routes -- Mesopotamian jewelry dating back to 2400 BCE has been found on the island -- spice plantations, ships under sail. Also of darkness, of stacks of elephant tusks and gangs of chained slaves. But that is history -- there is no past without crimes, and every place as its own injustices. And its own beauty.

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