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ManypeopleregardPalacesasextravagancesofthepast,evidenceoftheprofligatespendingand extravagant life styles of the rulers at the expense of the ruled. Othersfeelthatsuchstatelybuildingsarerepositoriesofthehistoricidentityofaculture,symbolicof those who built them, and as such deserve respect and even veneration.Whateverone'sopinion,itseemsclearthatmanyculturesreachedastageintheirhistorythatresulted inthecreationofPalaces,theZanzibariculturewasnoexception.Thefollowinginformation,about12of the existing and ruined palaces in Zanzibar, can illustrate that history and culture.
The home of the last King of the Shirazi people. The Mwinyi Mkuu, "The Great Owner."
ForashorttimetheMwinyiMkuulivedinthisPalace,locatedintheinteriorofthemainisland,andruled theEasternandSouthernpartsofUnguju.ThiswhilethenewOmani/ZanzibariSultansbegantobuildtheir PalacesalongtheIsle’swesternshore.Hediedin1865.Hisonlysonwasyoungandillanddidnotlong survive. With the boy dead the ruling-line died out and the Palace was left to crumble. Excavationshaveuncoveredhumanskeletonswithinthepalaceruins,leadingtorumorsthatthesitewas hauntedbythespiritsofthedead.Amagnificentsetsetofhugeceremonialdrumswerealsodiscovered withintheruins.RecentlytheoldwallshavebeenrestoredandDungaPalacemaynowbevisitedasa historic site, but only with a guide and for a small fee.
Mtoni PalaceMtoni Palace was built by the founding Sultan of the Al Busadi dynasty, Seyyid Said bin Sultan.The oldest Palaces on Zanzibar were primarily residential structures. They rambled on into many rooms and at times even connected to neighboring buildings. These family-Palaces could be quite large and would house as many as 1000 people.
Mtoni Palace was described by one visitor as follows:"A door to the main house opened to the entrance porch and then led to the central part of the house which was the audience chamber decorated with long mirrors. The living quarters were on the upper floor. In front of the house was a circular tower.... The upper part of the tower was used as a veranda and had a polygon balcony. The tower was crowned with a conical roof like a tent."
Beit El-Hukm Palace“The "House of Government"Later Palaces began to specialize; some became more office than home. The Beit el-Hukm was one such structure. It was located between Beit el-Sahel on one side, and the House of Wonders on the other. These three buildings were connected with elevated and covered walkways.
Seyyida Salme, Princess of Zanzibar and Oman, had this to say of life in this Palace:"Thereisasplendidviewofthesea....Thedoorsontheupperfloor,whichcontained manyrooms,openuponalongandwidegalleryofsuchgrandnessasIhavenever seenequaled.Theceilingissupportedbypillars....andthesepillarsareconnectedbya highparapet,alongwhichchairsareplaced.Agreatmanycolouredlamps,suspended from the ceiling, throw a magic glow over the whole house after dark. Thegallerylooksdownuponacourtyard,alwaysfullofbustleandnoise....Twolarge separateflightsofstairsleadfromthiscourttotheroomsonthefirstfloor.Crowdsof peoplearecontinuallygoingupanddownthesestairs,andthecrowdingisoftenso great that it takes some minutes before one can get to the staircase at all."This Palace was virtually destroyed in the 1896 war but the remaining walls on the north side were incorporated into a reconstructed Palace which was again modified in 1936.
The House on the Cape.
Beit el-Ras Palace
For years, all that remained of this proto-Palace was the immense elevated north Porch. Imagine the wonderful views of the sea from this Palace that never existed."... begun in 1847 by Seyyid Said, Persian builders being employed." On his death, however, the building was still unfinished .... his successor refused to complete it. The adjourning walls were broken down and the debris used in connection with the building of the Bububu Railway,..."
Another residential Palace, just north of Stone Town. This was the home of Seyyid Barghash.
The cooling pool that the Sultan built in the 1800’s still holds water today.
AnothertypeofPalaceprevalentonZanzibarwerethecountry-Palaces.Thesewereusedtoescapethe hustle and bustle of the city.These were also usually constructed at sites believed to impart health benefits.Kibweni Palace is a wonderful example of this type of Palace.Constructedin1915thestructurewasoriginallynamedBeitel-Kassrusaada(PalaceofHappiness)but thatnamefellintodisuseanditisnowuniversallyreferredtobythenameofthevillagenearwhereitis located, just north of the ruins of Beit el-Ras.
OncelocatednearthevillageofFumba,about15kilometerssouthofStonetown.Thiscountry-palace displayedamodestbeachhousefacadewhenapproachedfromthelandside.However,behindthe house lay an extensive estate, perched on a bluff with walkways that invited visitors toward the sea. This Palace was used as a health spa until it was demolished.ThePalacebath-houseissaidtostillexist,butthesitecannotbevisitedbecauseitisnowpartofa military preserve.
LittleremainsofthisingeniousPalacethatwasdesignedtohaverunningwaterinatimebefore electricity.Itwasconstructedneartheshoreandnexttoastream,inalocationinnorthwestZanzibar that was referred to as ‘the place of the leopard."ThePalace,whichwasbuiltin1872bySeyyidBarghashstandsinariverbed,acostlyartificial foundationhavingbeenconstructedwiththeobjectofkeepingthebuildinglowsothatanadequate flowofwatershouldbeobtained.Theapproachwasbyacoveredwaycarriedontallironpillarsover theadjoiningcreek,beneathwhichtheseacameintothecreekbehind.Thebuildingwasburntdown in1914andlittleofinterestremainsexceptthelongseriesofbathroomsthroughwhichastreamof water ran to the sea."
The Peoples Palace
It was here that Seyyid Barghash built the great boat-cistern to hold the water needed by the many occupants of this house.
Formerly the British Counsel’s Residence, this building is an example of English ‘Saracen’ architecture. Located on the south edge of the city, near the hospital, this Palace today serves as the Presidential Residence for the leader of the Zanzibar government.
Some of the most interesting features are on the back of the building. Access to this site however, is strictly controlled.
Beit el-Ajaib - House of Wonders
Whatever their other functions all Palaces are also built to enhance the status of their owner. The foremost Zanzibar example of this fact is the famous House of Wonders.
TheHouseofWondersdidn'tpresentsuchastatelyappearancewhenfirstbuilt,itlookedperhapsa bitsquatinthosedays.However,damagedonetothebuildingduringthe1896warrequired extensiverepairsandbecausethebeautifulclocktower/lighthouseinfrontofthePalacehadalso beendestroyedinthewar,itwasdecidedtocombineprojectsandincorporateanewclock-towerinto the repaired Palace The result is a truly remarkable building that is now more than 125 years old.
Originally just a large rectangular building, in the 1870's an ornate 'Sultan's Pavilion' was added on the west side. This building housed more women than men and was therefore sometimes referred to as 'the Harem.'
That modified Palace became the modest harbor side town-home of Seyyid Khalifa, until 1960. Duringhismanyyears,itwassimplyknownasthe'SultansPalace’.Afterthe1964revolution,this structurewasusedasagovernmentheadquarters.Lateritwasrenovatedandhasreopenedasa nice museum.