The Stone Town is the product of at least three centuries of continuous settlement, but it was only from 1830 that Zanzibar took on a wholly urban character and that stone buildings were built in significant numbers. Until that time, the majority of houses were made of mud and wattle, and roofed with palm leaf thatch. Very few large-scale structures could be distinguished, besides the Fort and a few small mosques.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the town occupied only the north-eastern portion of the peninsula, extending from Shangani Point toward the creek's narrowest crossing at Darajani. After the Omani Sultan's permanent move to the island in 1832, the Stone Town quickly expanded during the middle of the century, filling in the areas of upper Sokomuhogo, Forodhani, Kajificheni, and Kiponda. The Omanis erected palaces and residences along and behind the sea front, and tradesmen from the Indian sub-continent built up the bazaar streets with shop-front houses, and sea-faring merchants built houses, sheds, and warehouses near the waterfront. After 1850, stone buildings spread further and began to extend north into Malindi, south into the lower portion of Sokomuhogo, and east to Mkunazini, areas which up to this time had been mostly occupied by mud buildings. As contact with western trading markets increased, particularly once the Suez Canal opened in 1869, and later with the establishment of the British administration in 1890, specialised structures - larger civic buildings in particular - began to appear. The building up of the Stone Town was more or less completed and the present limits defined by the first quarter of the twentieth century: the new port area to the north had been reclaimed, the area south of Shangani built up, the European garden suburb of Vuga laid out, and the programme to fill the creek bordering the peninsula to the east gradually put into effect.
Thus, within the relatively short span of one hundred and fifty years, the confluence of several distinct cultures and the island's intense cosmopolitan development produced the rich and diverse architectural heritage we see today. In some cases, the diversity of the original imports is still evident in different sections of town; in others, the borrowing and adaptation of forms from other contexts produced a cross-fertilisation of different building traditions. In yet other cases, buildings were gradually transformed over time as newcomers adapted existing structures to their tastes and preferences, thus determining a further hybridisation of forms. This variety produced the diverse spaces and surprising contrasts of the Zanzibar townscape, where pedestrians move from the imposing row of sea front structures to the crowded and lively atmosphere of the Indian bazaars, and the quiet, intimate spaces of the narrower residential streets. Thus, although the different forms and building types and their origins - African, Arab, Indian, or European - can be recognised, it is the synthesis of these cultures and influences that creates Zanzibar's unique urban and architectural environment.
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.