Zanzibar: The House of Wonders

Zanzibar Stone Town Heritage Society

Tourists with wide-brimmed hats and large cameras meander along the waterfront, taking it all in. Traditional wooden sailboats dot the water, waiting for the afternoon fishing time. Women in brightly coloured kangas and headwraps relax under a leafy tree, fanning themselves and taking a break from the beating sun. Youths congregate by a large, out-of-use fountain in the middle of a public seafront garden. In the background, an imposing, whitewashed building with a prominent clocktower oversees all aspects of this daily tableau.

This magnificent building is known as the House of Wonders, one of the most storied and important buildings in Zanzibar. Also known as Beit-al-Ajaib, the building has witnessed vast upheavals in Zanzibar’s history.

Zanzibar's House of Wonders

Zanzibar’s House of Wonders

The House of Wonders was built by a sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, during the Omani rule of the island. It was built in 1883, as a ceremonial palace and reception hall. The building was a celebration of modernity – it was the first building with electricity in Zanzibar, and the first with an elevator in the entire region of East Africa. A tall clock tower was added in 1897, making it the undisputed centre of the town. Throughout its history, it was home to sultans and harems, caged exotic animals and the kind of magnificent opulence that characterizes this stage of Zanzibari history. When the British took over, the House of Wonders was converted into the main base for British authority. After the bloody revolution of 1964, it became the centre of ideological study and education for the new ruling Afro-Shirazi party.

It is telling that in three eras of leadership, all three ruling authorities chose the House of Wonders as its base. This was due in part to its luxury and elegance, characterized by wide verandas, marble floors and beautiful carved doors and furniture. It is also due to its history and location – as the most important, central building in Zanzibar, use and control of the House of Wonders was a clear demonstration of power.

For the past two decades, the House of Wonders has been functioning as a public museum. Permanent exhibitions highlight the history and culture of Zanzibar and the Swahili coast, and the building is a major tourist attraction in Zanzibar. School children visit the museum to see the exhibits and learn about history, but our programs at the Zanzibar Stone Town Heritage Society are trying to make the youth of Zanzibar see beyond that.

The House of Wonders is a living museum, a witness to centuries of history and change. The building itself, along with the other important heritage buildings that make up the seafront, is as important as the historical artifacts found within it. The ZSTHS is pushing to make 2013 a banner year for our school education and awareness programs, taking it out of the classroom and making it an interactive tour for students. Many youth grow up unaware of the fact that they are being raised in a World Heritage Site, and that lack of knowledge contributes to the lack of political will to preserve these buildings. It has never been more important.

In November 2012 a significant section of the House of Wonders collapsed due to neglect and material decay. It was a stark reminder that these buildings need constant upkeep and preservation, a fact which is not followed through by building authorities. When buildings like the House of Wonders fall, we all lose. The citizens of Zanzibar lose income from tourists, but more than that, they lose the sense of pride in their city they deserve. Stone Town is a World Heritage Site for a reason – it is utterly unique, physically beautiful, and architecturally and historically fascinating. Educating the leaders tomorrow is one way we’re hoping to fight for buildings like the House of Wonders, hoping they can live to see a century more of our island’s history.


One thought on “Zanzibar: The House of Wonders

  1. Will be going to Zanzibar in October to do permacullture. Am a National trust member and know Oli Both
    Looking for house to rent for 20 students.
    Bill Turner vice chair into can confirm

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