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Pray to the Archive: Abstracting History in Zanzibar

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This article explores the problem of reading architecture as archive, with specific reference to the built environment on the island of Zanzibar. The architecture of Stone Town ‐ Zanzibar's urban centre ‐ is often marshalled by scholars as clear evidence of the island's complex and layered histories. This reading, however, tends to lament an erstwhile Indian Ocean cosmopolitanism at odds with both the Zanzibari past and present. In this article, I trace the contours of the island's divergent political and architectural histories and demonstrate how an archival view of architecture can obscure the very past it seeks to recover. I illustrate this tension through one particular case study: the Khoja Jamatkhana in the heart of Stone Town. I then consider the possible futures of archival readings by exploring the limits of both formal analysis and historical context through the work of contemporary artist Zarina Bhimji. If the Jamatkhana points to the restrictive capacity of archival readings of architecture, Bhimji's work opens up the archive itself as a site of abstraction, bringing into sharp relief the intricate relationship between space and history.
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Keywords: Indian Ocean; Stone Town; Zanzibar; Zarina Bhimji; cosmopolitanism; jamatkhana

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 0000000459040795 University of Cambridge

Publication date: July 1, 2020

More about this publication?
  • The International Journal of Islamic Architecture (IJIA) is intended for those interested in urban design and planning, architecture, and landscape design in the historic Islamic world, encompassing the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia, but also the more recent geographies of Islam in its global dimensions. The main emphasis is on detailed analysis of the practical, historical and theoretical aspects of architecture, with a focus on both design and its reception. The journal is also specifically interested in contemporary architecture and urban design in relation to social and cultural history, geography, politics, aesthetics, technology, and conservation. Spanning across cultures and disciplines, IJIA seeks to analyze and explain issues related to the built environment throughout the regions covered. The cross-cultural and interdisciplinary nature of this journal will significantly contribute to the knowledge in this field.

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