What is the House of Wonders? Why Zanzibar landmark is such an important part of regional history

With electricity, an elevator and running water, this Unesco-listed structure was the most modern building in East Africa when it was completed in 1883

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When it was inaugurated in 1883, the House of Wonders, or Beit Al Ajaib, was the most modern building in East Africa. Its grandiose name stemmed from the fact that it was the first in the region to have both electricity and an elevator.

The structure was built as a ceremonial palace and official reception hall by Sultan Barghash bin Said, the second Sultan of Zanzibar, on the site of the 17th-century palace of Zanzibari queen Fatuma.

Located on Mizingani Road in the heart of Zanzibar's Stone Town, the building encapsulated the island's multicultural heritage, conveying a mix of British, Portuguese, Omani and Zanzibari architectural influences, amalgamated over the course of centuries.

The House of Wonders. Courtesy Saleh Al Shaibany
The House of Wonders. Courtesy Saleh Al Shaibany

Among the house's other "wonders" were running water, marble floors, panelled walls, cast-iron columns, elaborate door carvings, open central courtyards and mangrove ceilings that mixed European style elements with traditional Zanzibari motifs.

A series of slender steel pillars and balconies overlooked Stone Town’s waterfront, while enormous carved doors, said to be the largest in East Africa, were flanked by two bronze cannons, carved with Portuguese inscriptions that dated them back to the 16th century.

Covered walkways above street level connected the House of Palace to two adjacent palaces, allowing royal ladies to move about unseen. The sultan is rumoured to have kept wild animals on display in front of the building, while the doors were large enough that he could ride his elephant through them. In 1897, a new clock tower was added to the structure.

The House of Wonders sits adjacent to the Palace Museum, which was built by the second sultan of Zanzibar in 1883, in traditional Omani style. Featuring marble floors, coral stone walls and silver decorative elements, it is an opulent structure that speaks of Zanzibar’s links to the Arab world.

Both were converted into museums in the early 1990s, and quickly became Stone Town’s most popular attractions, with more than 80 per cent of tourists visiting the House of Wonders, according to Zanzibar’s department of tourism and antiquities.

The House of Wonders was dedicated to exhibitions that focused on Swahili culture, while the Palace Museum highlighted Zanzibar and Oman’s intertwined history.

In 2000, the building was added to Unesco’s World Heritage List. But in November 2012, after years of neglect, a large corner of the House of Wonders collapsed, destroying several historic iron pillars and threatening the structural integrity of the building.

By then, the roofs of both buildings were in a precarious state, causing the World Monuments Fund, a private non-profit organisation founded in 1965 to preserve important artistic treasures throughout the world, to add the House of Wonders to its World Monuments Watch in 2014.

In November 2015, heavy rainfall caused the partial collapse of the Palace of Wonders' roof. And disaster struck once again on December 25, 2020, when half of the building collapsed, killing at least two people according to local reports.

The landmark building was in the midst of a $4.3 million, 15-month restoration project funded by the government of Oman, although early reports suggest that works had halted due to the pandemic.

The House of Wonders after the collapse. Courtesy Saleh Al Shaibany
The House of Wonders after the collapse. Courtesy Saleh Al Shaibany

“The ministry of heritage and tourism [of Oman], with regret, has followed up with the partial collapse of the House of Wonders in Zanzibar and hopes that, as the funding body for the comprehensive restoration, maintenance, and rehabilitation project, a team will be formed from all concerned parties to find out the causes and determine the urgent and necessary measures to preserve and protect the building,” an official statement said.

Mechtild Rossler, director of the Unesco World Heritage Centre, commented: "We have confidence that the authorities will carry out the necessary emergency actions and assessments to understand the causes of this damage and propose solutions for the safeguarding of this monument, which is an essential component contributing to the Outstanding Universal Value of the site.

"Unesco stands ready to support the ongoing efforts and we are with the United Republic of Tanzania in facing this disaster."