Zanzibar: US restores 900 year Kizimkazi mosque

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Before the restoration, water damage showed on the mihrab of the mosque near Kizimkazi in Zanzibar.

The U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation has provided support for saving three mosques in Tanzania, including the one near Kizimkazi on the island of Zanzibar that is considered one of the oldest Islamic buildings on the coast of east Africa. The 2008 grant allowed for repairs and restoration of the mosque’s roof, ceiling, doors and windows as well as the mihrab, the ornate alcove that indicates the direction of Mecca.

The mosque at Shumba is one of two on the island of Pemba restored with help from the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. The Kizimkazi mosque is old enough to show the roots of Islam in the region. Most of the mosque dates to a reconstruction in the 18th century — as proclaimed in an Arabic inscription from that time — but inscriptions near the mihrab that are in Kufic, an older form of Arabic script, put the date of construction in the 12th century, and some design elements of the mosque reflect the influence of Persia. Islam arrived in southeastern Africa with traders from Arabia and Persia, 3,500 miles (5,633 kilometers) to the north.

In proposing the Kizimkazi mosque for a grant from the Ambassadors Fund, U.S. diplomats said a restored mosque could attract tourists, who also visit the town as the launching point for dolphin tours, and give visitors a greater appreciation for Tanzania’s cultural heritage. “The intended outcome is that this culturally significant site will be something that Zanzibaris can be proud of,” the proposal said.

The mosque, which is still in use as a center of community life, was suffering damage from rain and even from bats and birds that nested inside. Work on the Kizimkazi mosque followed another project, also supported by the Ambassadors Fund, to restore two mosques that date from the mid-17th to early 18th century on the island of Pemba.

Before the restoration, water damage showed on the mihrab of the mosque near Kizimkazi in Zanzibar.The mosques, which contain unique features that combine Swahili and Persian architecture, had fallen into disrepair from the harsh climate and a lack of maintenance. The mosques needed work on their roofs and ceilings, along with replacement of faulty electric wiring. They also got new lighting and ceiling fans, fresh paint and new prayer mats. This area is one of the poorest and most remote of what is already a remote part of Tanzania. … While the community has managed to keep the mosques in working order, they have no way of raising money from the congregations to fund the necessary restorations,” the funding proposal said.

A U.S. official who visited Pemba to discuss plans for the project “heard many complaints about the hardships of life in these villages, including the problem of having no access to fresh water,” the proposal said. “But when asked which was a higher priority for the community — access to fresh water or restoration of their historic mosque — the village elders unanimously stated that restoring the mosques was more important.”

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