Zanzibar’s House Of Wonders: A Door On The past


The ancient Swahili towns of East Africa’s seaboard and islands are renowned for their elaborately carved doors. Zanzibar (more properly Unguja) has some fine examples, so it’s a pity I have so few photos from our long-ago stay in Stone Town. There is a reason, however. For one thing the streets are so shadowy and narrow it is difficult to take decent shots without causing pedestrian chaos. And anyway, neither photographer, nor my then Olympus trip camera, whose back kept flicking open, were up to job.


Here though, on the steps of Beit-al-Ajaib, the House of Wonders, there was both light and room for manoeuvre. The doors belong to a palace built by Sultan Barghash in 1883 to host ceremonial events. Barghash belonged to the dynasty of Omani Arabs who had ruled over the Swahili city states from the late 17th century, this after the expulsion of the Portuguese who, thanks to explorer Vasco da Gama, had held the territory, thus controlling the Indian Ocean trade, for some two centuries.

So it was that one set of invaders succeeded another, the situation further complicated in the 19th century by competing European interests wherein Britain saw off Germany, and proclaimed the Zanzibari Omanis’ dominion a British protectorate; the stated objective being to put an end to the Arab slave trade, though some might say this was only an excuse, since there appear to have few means to back up the fine words, and slaving on parts of the East African coast anyway continued into the 1920s.

But back to the palace. Barghash was an extravagant man and, before his death in 1888, built six palaces across Unguja island. (The Zanzibari sultans’ wealth derived both from the slave trade and Unguja’s spice plantations). Their rule did not end well. 1964 saw the Zanzibar Revolution. The Omanis, along with many Indian residents, were killed or expelled. Thereafter the House of Wonders was used as government offices. When we visited in 1999 it was abandoned, shrouded in dust and empty  but for one of the last sultan’s  cars (a candy pink saloon) parked inside the atrium just behind those two front doors. One wonders how many men it took to carry it up the palace steps. A friend who visited more recently told me it was still there.



And finally, my only view of a Stone Town door, more gist than detail:


Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: doors and drawers

25 thoughts on “Zanzibar’s House Of Wonders: A Door On The past

  1. Mzuri sana Memsahib. You beat there. Didn’t go to either Zanzibar or Lamu. Both were sort of out of bonds then. My two daughters went. Loved both…
    Boon week-end…

      1. What a story. What a door. But I have a sneaking preference for the characterful doors of Stone Town, even though they probably, if opened, revealed some deprivation within.

      2. Stone Town is a magical place. We were strolling around one evening and came to a street junction where there was more space between the houses and it was filled with people. And there was a TV hitched to an outside wall and everyone was busy watching. Community viewing. We were always greeted hospitably wherever we went, though everyone was a bit subdued because Pres. Nyerere had just died.

  2. We were in Zanzibar in 1999 too! I wonder if our paths ever crossed? Your photos really took me back. I too have too few shots. And I was using 35 mm slide film and my scans of those I did take aren’t great. Yours may be limited in number but they are full of atmosphere.

  3. Yes, that’s absolutely true. Most of Stone Town’s buildings are no earlier than the 18th century, and Omani takeover. Earlier influences are apparently down to Persian invaders who made their mark from around the 12th century.

  4. thank you, Tish – another marvellous chance for us readers to take a look through your African photo album and then be guided along with just enough information to make the whole history of the place resonate in all that carved stone – I’ve always loved the word sound ‘Zanzibar’

    1. Zanzibar – the word definitely does have magical resonance. And thank you for coming on my virtual micro-safari. I’m wishing I could climb into my photo album – feeling sensation-deprivation.

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