Zanzibar's cultural wonder collapsing

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Damp seeps through rotting beams and mildew-blackened walls. Roofs sag, balconies crack and shutters dangle from corroded hinges.

Bit by bit, Zanzibar's fabled Stone Town is crumbling. Every year, a few more buildings collapse, leaving yawning gaps in the narrow, winding alleys lined with Arab palaces, Persian baths, British colonial offices, Indian shops and one-time slave chambers.

Relentless sun, rain, wind and neglect have taken a toll on one of the world's cultural treasures – the former capital of a trading empire stretching from Africa to the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the United States.

About 85 percent of the more than 1,000 buildings show signs of structural decline, says Abdu Sheriff, a historian and former curator of national museums. Conservationists estimate at least 200 have fallen in recent decades, including three so far this year.

Salim Mbarak moved to Stone Town from Yemen 54 years ago when the ancient heart of Zanzibar town was a prosperous commercial center. His fortunes faded with the neighborhood.

He now makes a paltry living selling bread in the street and pays the government $6 a month for a room off a courtyard crowded with drying laundry and water drums.

There are holes in his walls, wooden window frames and shutters have rotted away, and a sudden shower sends water streaming through the tin roof. Earlier this year, the house next door collapsed, leaving rubble piled two stories high.

"Before the revolution, these buildings were properly maintained," Mr. Mbarak, 65, says as the Muslim call to prayer mixes with church bells. "Now, they don't repair anything – but they increase the rent every year."

Zanzibar, a semiautonomous archipelago off the coast of Tanzania, was once the center of a vast empire of Swahili city states stretching from Somalia to Mozambique.

Through the centuries, the islands were colonized by the Portuguese, Omani Arabs made their capital here, and the British established a protectorate. They built fortunes on the slave trade and spices, making Zanzibar the leading exporter of cloves during the 19th century.

Stone Town remains Zanzibar's commercial and cultural center, the seat of government, its main port and a major tourist attraction drawing more than 100,000 visitors annually.

Its varied cultural heritage is preserved in coral stone walls and imposing wooden doors, whose intricate carvings reveal their owner's religion, wealth and status. It has been home to Arab sultans, Indian and Chinese merchants, European explorers and the late rock star Freddie Mercury.

"It is a living manifestation of cultural fusion and harmonization," says Mwalim Ali Mwalim, head of the Stone Town Conservation and Development Authority set up to rescue the district.

Without maintenance, the buildings fall apart, he says. Mangrove poles used to support ceilings collapse if they are not replaced about every 15 years. When water seeps into the mud and lime used to plaster walls, trees start to grow out of them.

Stone Town's decline began under British rule, when the slave trade was banned and Zanzibar started to lose its political and economic importance.

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