The Zanzibar Archipelago has a total area of 1,000 square miles distributed over 50 islands, the largest being Unguja and Pemba, and it has a total population of almost one million people. Although small in size, Zanzibar has played a significant role in the history of the East African coast.
From the beginning of the Christian era, populations along the coast developed a farming and fishing civilisation that included commercial exchanges with other Indian Ocean markets and, marriages of traders from the Arabian Peninsula with local women were common. As a result, a cosmopolitan society evolved along the coast and islands over the centuries. In Zanzibar, evidence of these first settlements can be seen at Unguja Ukuu, a site 20 km south from Stone Town, which dates back to the first half of the first millennium A.D.
By the 10th century A.D., Islam had spread along the coast and islands. This process is considered to be the origin of the Swahili Civilisation. ‘Swahili’ was the name given to the coastal peoples by the Muslim traders - a word that means ‘coast shore’ (sahel, in Arabic). Thus, Waswahili are the people of the coast. In the village of Kizimkazi, in the south of Zanzibar, the earliest evidence of Islam on the coast can be seen: the inscription on the mosque is dated 1107 A.D.
The Swahili civilisation prospered until the arrival of the Portuguese at the end of the 15th Century; the Portuguese took political and economical control of the coast by force, the Swahilis fought them for 200 years; the foundations of the Old Fort of Zanzibar, in Stone Town, dates back to this period. It is clear that Zanzibar played a major role in the development of coastal society; and it became the main centre of East African economic and cultural life from the end of the 18th century, when the Omani Arabs joined with the coastal towns to drive the Portuguese from the coast.
The Omanis decided to settle: In 1840 the Al Busaidi ruling dynasty of Oman situated the base of his East African operations in what at that time was just a small fishing village in Unguja island, and which later became Stone Town. they created a vast trading empire, and a large number of Omani families moved to Zanzibar. From Zanzibar the Al Busaidi family gradually created and extended their empire, Zanzibar’s economy at the time was based on growing cloves and coconuts on the islands using slave labour, and also on the East African transit trade for which Zanzibar was virtually the only port. thus the archipelago became the center of a vast trading empire. during the 19th century The empire integrated into the international economic system through trade; the strongest western political influence over the Sultanate coming from Great Britain.
The demand for the total suppression of the slave trade at the end of the 19th century led Great Britain to progressively increase their influence over the sultan. And in 1890 Zanzibar became an official Protectorate of the British empire. The Protectorate lasted until 1963, when Zanzibar gained its Independence as a kingdom, with the sultan as the head of the State.
But only one month later, on January 12th 1964, a revolution transformed Zanzibar into a Republic. three months later, a Union Treaty between the Government of Zanzibar and Tanganyika formed the United Republic of Tanzania. Today, Zanzibar has a semi-autonomous government within the Union, and its main economic activities are agriculture, fishing and the export of cloves. In recent years, tourism has become a significant export and foreign currency earner.