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Zanzibar, Tanzania

Map Of ZanzibarThe whole of the East African coast from the horn to as far south as Mozambique and the East African islands were once all known as Zanzibar. The word itself is believed to be of Persian or Arabic origin which is hints at the history of this region. It is believed that the Persians would have derived the name from “Zangh Bar” (the Negro Coast) whilst if the name is indeed Arabic , it would come from the term “Zayn Z'al Barr”(Fair is this land). Today, the term Zanzibar relates just to the islands off the coast of and now an autonomous part of the East African country of Tanzania.

Evidence shows that traders from the Arab world were trading all along the East African coast since at least the 1st century AD. These traders hailed mainly from the Eastern part of the Arab world namely Yemen and the Shiraz region of Iran. Western Indian traders are also believed to have been trading in this area at the same time as well. This region was most likely the most southern end of the infamous Silk Road or Silk Route, a network of trade routes that connected vast areas of Asia, the Mediterranean and Europe and many parts of North and East Africa and which existed for over 3,000 years from about 206 BC.

Whilst the archipelago now known as Zanzibar was not particularly rich in the resources the traders sought, it was an ideal base from which to trade with the mainland because of its sheltered harbour. The importance of this trade meant that traders began to settle in larger numbers in the late 11th or 12th century and began inter-marrying with the indigenous locals. They established garrisons on the islands and built the first mosque in the Southern hemisphere. Indeed, the Wahadimu (Hadimu), the Watumbatu (Tumbatu) and the Wapemba (Pemba) peoples collectively known as the Washirazi, claim they are descended from settled merchant princes from Shiraz in Iran. The Washirazi are Bantus and certainly when the traders settled in greater numbers, those that inter-married would have done so with the ancestors of these people.

The Silk RouteHowever, there is no certainty as to when Bantu people reached the East African coast and it is generally believed that a different people, more likely Somali or Ethiopian, were assimilated or replaced by them in the 1st century AD. The Arabs certainly had knowledge of East African before that and maybe as far back as 800BC. The unknown, possibly Greek, author of ‘The Periplus Of The Erythrean Sea’ generally accepted to be from about the middle of the first century AD wrote that Coast and its islands were settled by Arabs who recognized the King of Yemen as ruler. The works did not mention any black peoples and they were only mentioned in an assumed later works, Ptolemy's Geography, a compilation of what was known about the world's geography in the 2nd century AD, as living in the southern end of modern Mozambique.

Whilst some scholars are sceptical of the Washirazi’s claim to Persian ancestry, the people of Zanzibar as many of the Swahili peoples on the East African coast are generally accepted as being a predominantly mix of Bantu and Arab peoples. Some people will go so far and accept that Zanzibar is the birthplace of the Swahili language and it is there that its purest form is spoken.

The Arab influence remained in place until in August 1505, after Vasco da Gama's visit in 1499, it became part of the Portuguese Empire when a fleet captured the archipelago. The Portuguese tenure was ended after their expulsion from Oman by rebellious tribes and after a 2 year siege of Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya by the Omanis in 1698.

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