Cape Town Stories and Tips

Malay Culture of Cape Town

Bo-Kaap Photo, Cape Town, South Africa

The Malays had a significant influence on the Afrikaans tongue, and many of their culinary traditions were absorbed by other cultures. The original Malays were brought to the Cape from 1658 onwards by the Dutch East India Company. Most of them were Muslims from Sri Lanka, Indonesian islands, and India. A large number of them were slaves, while others were political exiles of considerable stature. After slavery was abolished in the early 1830s, the Cape Malays (or Cape Muslims, as they now prefer to be called) settled on the slope of Signal Hill, the traditional home of the Cape Muslim community in an area called Bo-Kapp ("above Cape Town") to be near the mosques that had been built there. One of the mosques on Longmarket Street, Auwal Mosque dates from 1794, and like many of the Bo-Kaap mosques, stands wedged between the homes of residents. Religion is a fundamental part of every devout Muslim’s life. And Muslim tradition dictates that formal attire be worn on festive occasions, and this includes the characteristic chador , or full-length veil or shawl for women and the traditional fez for men; of Turkish origin, the fez is knitted or made of cloth, but caps are more common nowadays. Today, the Muslim community is very much a part of Cape Town; the muezzins’ haunting calls from the minarets to summon the faithful are an integral part of the city

The streets of Bo-Kaap are within easy walking distance of the city centre; here, narrow-fronted houses in pastel colours open onto cobbled streets, though some have been tarred over. Ornate parapets and plasterwork adorn the houses here, most of which date from around 1810. The Bo-Kaap Museum, which dates back to the 1760s, is the oldest house in the area still in its original condition. The characteristic feature is a voorstoep -- front terrace -- with a bench at either end, emphasizing the social aspect of the Cape Muslim culture; the front of the house was an important gathering place. The museum highlights the cultural contributions made by the early Muslims, many of whom were skilled tailors, carpenters, shoemakers, and builders. It contains 19th-century furnishings, including a Cape drop-leaf dining table, Cape Regency-style chairs, and a bridal chamber decorated to match the bride’s dress.

The Bo-Kaap Museum is located on 71 Wale Street. It's open daily from 9:30am to 4:30pm, except Good Friday and Christmas Day. You can inquire about conducted tours of the Bo-Kaap area; there are usually two per day available at 10am or 2pm (Mon to Sat).

Tel: 021/424-3846

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