Symbols that pay homage to the sacred
As the Ground Zero mosque saga in New York demonstrated, certain points on the map become sacred because of their history, but quite how to consecrate them is a prickly question of justice and taste.
The Constitutional Court is built at the site of a notorious jail where thousands of black men were imprisoned and brutalised during apartheid. About 150 000 bricks from the old prison buildings were used for the court and the adjacent Great African Steps: “A walkway between the past and the future.”
In Zanzibar, Tanzania, there is another striking interplay between material structures and the realm of ideas. Stone Town was host to one of the world’s last open slave markets, presided over by Arab traders until it was shut down by the British in 1873.
The slaves were shipped there in dhows from the mainland, crammed so tightly that many fell ill and died or were thrown overboard. Below St Monica’s guesthouse dozens of men, women and children were imprisoned for days in crowded cellars with little air and no food or latrines.
Even after two minutes down there, under the low roof, the atmosphere seemed poisonously oppressive. The guide said the slaves were led outside and lined up in order of size.
They were tied to a tree and whipped with a stinging branch to test their mettle. Those who did not cry or faint fetched a higher price at market. Africa has its share of cruelty and suffering, but such stories bite our conscience as if for the first time. What now stands on the site?
The Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ. The former whipping tree is marked at the altar by a white marble circle surrounded by red to symbolise the blood of the slaves. Legend has it that former slaves in need of work were employed in the cathedral’s construction—and made one mistake.
The supervisor, Bishop Edward Steere, was called away on business and returned to find 12 pillars had been erected upside down. He decided to leave them and so they remain.
Steere, a popular figure who in 1885 wrote A Handbook of the Swahili Language: As Spoken at Zanzibar, eventually died of a heart attack in a nearby building. He is buried behind the altar. There is also a tribute to David Livingstone, who stayed in Zanzibar before his final expedition.
Some wood from the tree in Zambia under which his heart was buried has been fashioned into a cross that hangs in the cathedral. Again, history has imbued a place—a tree—with quasi-religious significance. Outside, sunken in the ground, is an artwork: lifesize statues of slaves bearing original chains.
Stone Town is a labyrinth of alleyways, spice markets and unruly traffic, all sufficiently exotic for a chase sequence in a Bond or Bourne movie. There is a mix of Arab, Indian and African influences, notably elaborately carved wooden doors with brass studs, a style that originated as a defence against charging elephants.
No one could accuse this place of being soulless. The Africa House Hotel, which began as a royal residence and then became the English Club, now boasts Persian carpets, Moroccan lamps, Italian marble, Chinese silk and antique four-poster beds. Here guests sprawled on cushions and smoked hookahs on a luxurious balcony overlooking the turquoise sea.
The colonial-era photographs and wooden telephone call to mind Graham Greene. Over at the Palace Museum, former home of the Omani sultans of Zanzibar, there is an acknowledgement that every good destination and museum needs a human interest story.
Alongside the banqueting tables, beds, portraits, sofas and thrones is a room dedicated to Sayyida Salme, the daughter of Sultan Said and his concubine. Uniquely for a woman in the 19th-century Zanzibari court , Salme taught herself to write by copying calligraphy from the Koran on to a camel shoulder blade.
Scandalously she eloped with a German merchant, converted to Christianity and changed her name to Emily Ruete. Her book, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar, is the first known autobiography by an Arab woman. It provides a glimpse of a lost world.
Salme wrote of the wedding rituals: “Official surrender of the wife does not always figure as an immediate sequel to the tying of the knot, being customarily adjourned until the third day. Beautified and adorned to the utmost, she is taken to her new home, about nine or 10 o’clock at night, by her female relations, where she is met by the husband and his male connections.
“If she bears the higher rank of the two, she remains seated when he comes in. She waits for him to address her, upon which she may speak to him. But she still keeps her face concealed; before she unveils, the husband must signify his devotion in the shape of a gift corresponding to his resources. Poor men bestow a few pence, but the rich hand over large sums.
“On this night the master of the establishment opens it up for universal hospitality, lasting as long as two weeks. Friends, acquaintances, even strangers are welcome and can eat and drink to their hearts’ content.
“True, neither wine nor beer is proffered, and the Abadites (the sect we belong to) are forbidden to smoke tobacco; nevertheless, people enjoy themselves thoroughly. They eat what they please, drink milk of almonds and lemonade, sing, execute war dances and listen to recitations. Eunuchs burn incense and sprinkle rose-water on the guests.”
I went back to the Tanzanian mainland on a ferry, tossed by ocean waves that made at least four passengers seasick. I thought back to the Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ.
I’m not a Christian but couldn’t help feeling the building, where people still worship, was an elegant response to the obligations of memory. Today it stands side by side, in architectural harmony, with a mosque.—