The Sultan's Palace at Zanzibar (more commonly known as Beit-al-Ajaib or the House of Wonders) was built in 1883 by Sayyid Barghash, the third Sultan of Zanzibar. This palace, located beside the older palace the Beit al-Sahel of the preceding Omani Sultanate of Muscat, was intended as a ceremonial palace celebrating modernity. Sayyid Barghash, who ruled from 1870 to 1888 was also known for ending the trafficking of slaves through Zanzibar, creating a public works department, building an aqueduct creating a public water supply for the Stone Town, electrifying the city with streetlights, and improving roads and street-cleaning.
Beit al-Ajiab is one of six palaces built by Sultan Barghash across the island and served mostly as an official reception hall. It is said to be on the site of the seventeenth century palace of Queen Fatuma. The House of Wonders, the tallest building facing the harbor, dominates the seafront. It once sat alongside the original sultan's palace, the Beit al-Sahel, the court building, Beit al-Hukum, and not far from the fortress-like Omani mansions with their fine woodwork.
The building of Beit al-Ajaib is attributed to a British marine engineer and indeed its form introduced new architectural elements into the Zanzibar repertoire including the wide external verandahs supported by cast iron columns which wrapped around the second storey and which allowed for uniquely high ceilings. The palace was electrified and operated an elevator and many sconce lamps project from the exterior walls along the verandahs. The construction materials of the palace consisted of an original combination of coral rag, concrete slabs, mangrove shoots or boriti, and steel beams.
Though this building served to attest to the modernity of the Sultan, other elements made it a functional palace, such as the covered passages or wikios which connect the palace to the Beit al-Hukum and then on to the Beit al-Sahel above street level allowing the royal ladies to move about unseen. The building is arranged around a large covered courtyard surrounded by open galleries. Some of the inner doors of the palace are beautifully carved with inscriptions from the Quran. The marble floors and the most of the silver decoration inside were imported from Europe.
The Sultan ostensibly kept wild animals chained up for display in front of the palace and had the main door made wide enough so that he could ride an elephant through. Before the bombardment by the British in 1896, a navigation tower used to stand in front of the Beit al-Ajaib.
The bombardment destroyed the Beit al-Hukum and most of the Beit al-Sahel palace, with less severe damage done to the Beit al-Ajaib. The lighthouse in front was destroyed, however, and in its stead the addition of a clock tower was made to the front of the Beit al-Ajaib in 1987. The space where the Beit al-Hukum has stood was transformed into a garden and the older palace beside it greatly reduced, increasing the dominance of the Beit al-Ajaib.
The Beit al-Ajaib was only fully occupied by the Sultan and his harem after the bombardment. In 1911 it was transformed into government offices and today it serves as the Palace Museum.
Sheriff, Abdul. 1995. Historical Zanzibar: Romance of the Ages. London: HSP Publications, 5, 52-53, 62
Abdul Sheriff. 1995. The History and Conservation of Zanzibar Stone Town. Zanzibar: Department of Archives, Museums and Antiquities, 2, 8, 21, 41, 94
Siravo, Francesco. 1996. History and Architecture. In Zanzibar: A Plan for the Historic Stone Town. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, 12, 18-19, 50.