Zanzibar’s House of Wonders

Written by Thomson Safaris

Most people know Zanzibar as an exotic spice island ringed with white-sand beaches (or as the birthplace of Queen’s Freddy Mercury); in fact its reputation as a relaxing paradise is so well-known, its rich cultural history is sometimes overshadowed!

Not at the House of Wonders, a 19th-century Zanzibari palace that now serves as the island’s museum of Swahili and Zanzibari culture.

Built in 1883, the Beit al Ajaib (“House of Wonders” in Arabic) was originally a palace for Barghash bin Said, the second Sultan of Zanzibar. Intended to showcase the wonders of modernity, the building earned its evocative name because it was the first (and at the time only) building in Zanzibar to have electricity and an elevator.

The palace features an interior covered courtyard overlooked by open galleries, pillared balconies circling the outside of the building, and since 1897 (when the palace was partly rebuilt after it received minor damage in the 38-minute war of 1896) a tall clock tower. Marble floors and silver decorations were used throughout the palace, whose extra-large main entrance was reportedly built so that the sultan could ride in on an elephant.

At three (elongated) stories high, it’s still the tallest building in Stonetown, and its third-floor balconies afford visitors fantastic views of the city.

The museum offers visitors a chance to better understand the history of both Zanzibar and the Swahili people. Favorite displays include the full-sized mtepe (a traditional Swahili boat made with coir rope and wooden pegs instead of nails) in the courtyard.

Traditional mtepe boat display in House of WondersTraditional mtepe boats like this one are no longer used on Zanzibar.
Photo: Thomson Safaris staffer, Bryan Rotundo

There are also rooms dedicated to ceremonial kanga, traditional Swahili fishing supplies, and Zanzibar’s historical figures.

Kanga display at Zanzibar's House of Wonders The museum includes displays of kanga. 
Photo: Thomson Safaris staffer, Bryan Rotundo

But as exciting as any of the displays is the building itself, a beautiful, airy space where sultans and their harems once spent their days. For visitors to Zanzibar, the House of Wonders really is can’t-miss…at least if they’re able to tear themselves away from the beach.