Beit al ajaib (House of Wonders)
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 panelled walls. It was the first building on 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, 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 materialised, 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 centre. 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 customised to run on coconut oil, and the old lighthouse lamp.
As well as the items on show, the House of Wonders building itself is a fascinating exhibit, to which the museum allows public access for the first time in decades. The ground floor offers great views up through the central courtyard to the top of the building. On the next level, the floor is covered with marble tiles. On each floor are four massive carved wooden doors. On the next floor up from the exhibition room you can go out onto the upper balcony and walk all the way around the outside of the House of Wonders. Needless to say, the views over Stone Town and the bay are spectacular. Outside the House of Wonders are two old bronze cannons which have Portuguese inscriptions. It is thought that these cannons were made in Portugal some time in the early 16th century, but the Omanis probably brought them to Zanzibar, after taking them from Persian forces who had originally captured the guns from the Portuguese in 1622.
US$3 entrance; photography permitted.