The Stone town of Zanzibar, a World Heritage Site, is renowned for its rich architecture. A large number of iconic buildings line its narrow, labyrinthine streets. The House of Wonders, once the palace of Sultan Barghash, is one of the most notable of these buildings.
Take Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World in Eighty Days,’ thoroughly mix with H.G. Wells’ ‘Time Machine,’ throw in narrow streets, balmy weather, motorbikes, bicycles, a large number of friendly people, and a World Heritage Site designation, and you will have a fair idea of what the Stone Town of Zanzibar is like. Taking a walk in the town’s labyrinthine streets feels like a journey through time and across cultures. Of the many iconic structures that dot Mji Mkongwe, as the Stone Town is known in Swahili, the House of Wonders is one of the most notable.
The House of Wonders
The House of Wonders is located south of the famous Palace Museum near Mizingani Road. Also known as Beit-al-Ajaib in Arabic, the massive structure was once a palace. It was also the first building in Zanzibar to get electricity. This was used to power, among others, sconce lamps that had been installed on the exterior walls. At night, light from these lamps gave the palace a mystical, Arabian Nights-like cast. This look is what gave the palace its name.
The House of Wonders was built in 1883, and was one of the six palaces that Sultan Barghash made throughout Zanzibar. In 1896, the British damaged the palace as they bombarded Stone Town. The attack was meant to force Sultan Khalid bin Barghash, who had seized the throne after the death of Sultan Hamad, to abdicate. The attack, which lasted for just forty-five minutes, forced him to hand over power to the British nominee, Sultan Hamoud. The House of Wonders was rebuilt, and the newly-crowned king used its upper floor as his home until his death in 1911.
The bombardment destroyed a court building known as Beit al-Hukum, which was next to the palace. The space it once occupied is now a garden. The attack also damaged the adjacent Beit al-Sahel, a palace built by the preceding Omani Sultans from Muscat. It was rebuilt, but pales in comparison to the Beit al-Ajaib. A lighthouse that had stood in front of the House of Wonders was also decimated. To replace it, a clock tower was added to the front of palace in 1987.
The iconic architectural design
The House of Wonders is four stories high, and it dominates the waterfront due to its size and height. The building is said to have been designed by a British marine engineer, who introduced some novel design elements into Zanzibari architecture. Among the most notable are the wide verandahs, which are held up by cast iron columns. This design wraps around the building’s second level. The interior is dominated by a large covered courtyard surrounded by open galleries, while the floors are covered by marble that was imported from Europe. Some of the interior doors are covered with carved inscriptions from the Holy Quran.
The entrance is dominated by huge carved doors. According to legend, Sultan Barghash kept a variety of animals chained at the entrance, and he wanted the doors to be wide enough to allow an elephant through. Two bronze cannons covered with Portuguese inscriptions guard the entrance. These were captured by Persians in a war against the Portuguese in 1622, then given as presents to the Sultans of Oman, who then brought them to Zanzibar. Apart from the usual coral stone and mangrove poles, construction of the House of Wonders also incorporated concrete slabs and steel beams, materials that were considered novel at the time.
The House of Wonders is now a museum, showcasing aspects of traditional Swahili and Zanzibari cultures along with artefacts from the wider East Africa region. The large interior courtyard is dominated by a Mtepe, a traditional Swahili boat. Next to it is a car that belonged to the first president of semi-autonomous Zanzibar, Abeid Karume. Other notable exhibits include a portrait of the notorious slave trader, Tippu Tip, ceremonial Swahili garments known as kangas, and traditional Swahili fishing tools.