House of wonders Zanzibar
The House of Wonders or Palace of Wonders was a landmark building in Stone Town, Zanzibar. It is the largest and tallest building of Stone Town and occupies a prominent place facing the Forodhani Gardens on the old town’s seafront, in Mizingani Road. It is located between the Old Fort and the Palace Museum.
This large, white building dominates the waterfront area of Zanzibar Town and is one of its best-known landmarks. A perfect rectangle, it is one of the largest buildings on the island even today, rising over several storeys, surrounded by tiers of pillars and balconies, and topped by a large clock tower. After more than a century of use as a palace and government offices, it opened in 2002 as the Museum of History and Culture and contains some fascinating exhibits and displays. It’s a pity to rush your visit: allow yourself enough time to browse.
Built-in 1883 as a ceremonial palace for Sultan Barghash, Beit al Ajaib was designed by a marine engineer, hence the great use of steel pillars and girders in the construction, and located on the site of an older palace used by Queen Fatuma, the Mwinyi Mkuu (ruler of Zanzibar) in the 17th century.
In its heyday, the interior of the new palace had fine marble floors and paneled walls. It was the first building in Zanzibar to be installed with electric lighting, and one of the first in east Africa to have an electric lift – which is why, not surprisingly, the local people called it ‘Beit el Ajaib’, meaning ‘House of Wonders’.
In 1896, the building was slightly damaged by naval bombardment during an attempted palace coup, which started when Sultan Hamad died suddenly and his cousin Khaled tried to seize the throne. From 1911 it was used as offices by the British colonial government and after the 1964 Revolution, it was used by the ASP, the ruling political party of Zanzibar. In 1977 it became the headquarters of the CCM (Chama Cha Mapinduzi, the Party of the Revolution), the sole political party of Tanzania at the time. In the early 1990s, Beit al Ajaib was virtually abandoned by the government and the party and stood empty for some years, slowly falling into disrepair, despite short-lived plans, which never materialized, to turn it into a hotel.
Four years after it originally opened to the public, the museum is still under development, with about half the planned displays now completed. Those already finished cover a variety of subjects relating to Zanzibari and Swahili culture and history, including dhow-building (one of the amazing traditional ‘stitched dhows’ is there, its timbers literally ‘sewn’ together), the maritime history of the Swahili coast, and the early history of Stone Town and the Swahili trading empire of the 19th century. Further displays covering the Portuguese period and Omani and British colonial times are planned, as is a library and conference center. Among the many items recently transferred here from the now-closed Peace Memorial Museum, although they may not yet be in their final locations, you should be able to find Dr. Livingstone’s medical chest, a section of track from the short-lived Zanzibar Railroad, some old bicycle lamps customized to run on coconut oil, and the old lighthouse lamp.
IMPORTANT TRAVEL INFORMATION
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