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Palatial Zanzibar
Many people regard Palaces as extravagances of the past, evidence of the profligate spending and extravagant life styles of the rulers at the expense of the ruled. Others feel that such stately buildings are repositories of the historic identity of a culture, symbolic of those who built them, and as such deserve respect and even veneration. Whatever one's opinion, it seems clear that many cultures reached a stage in their history that resulted in the creation of Palaces, the Zanzibari culture was no exce ption. The following information, about 12 of 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."

For a short time the Mwinyi Mkuu lived in this Palace, located in the interior of the main island, and ruled the Eastern and Southern parts of Unguju. This while the new Omani/Zanzibari Sultans began to build their Palaces along the Isle’s western shore. He died in 1865. His only son was young and ill and did not long survive. With the boy dead the ruling-line died out and the Palace was left to crumble. Excavations have uncovered human skeletons within the palace ruins, leading to rumors that the site was haunted by the spirits of the dead. A magnificent set set of huge ceremonial drums were also discovered within the ruins. Recently the old walls have been restored and Dunga Palace may now be visited as a historic site, but only with a guide and for a small fee.
Mtoni Palace Mtoni 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.
These baths have recently been professionally restorerd.
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.
Beit El-Hukm, Zanzibar. c.1895. From Zanzibar Archives Beit el-Hukm c.1890. Zanzibar Soldiers and Government Officials
Beit el-Sahel
Seyyida Salme, Princess of Zanzibar and Oman, had this to say of life in this Palace: "There is a splendid view of the sea.... The doors on the upper floor, which contained many rooms, open upon a long and wide gallery of such grandness as I have never seen equaled. The ceiling is supported by pillars.... and these pillars are connected by a high parapet, along which chairs are placed. A great many coloured lamps, suspended from the ceiling, throw a magic glow over the whole house after dark. The gallery looks down upon a courtyard, always full of bustle and noise. ... Two large separate flights of stairs lead from this court to the rooms on the first floor. Crowds of people are continually going up and down these stairs, and the crowding is often so 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.
A C Gomes Sultan's Palace
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,..."
Marhubi Palace
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.

Kibweni Palace

Another type of Palace prevalent on Zanzibar were the country-Palaces. These were used to escape the 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. Constructed in 1915 the structure was originally named Beit el-Kassrusaada (Palace of Happiness) but that name fell into disuse and it is now universally referred to by the name of the village near where it is located, just north of the ruins of Beit el-Ras.
Photo by Capital Art Studio

Chukwani Palace

Once located near the village of Fumba, about 15 kilometers south of Stone town. This country-palace displayed a modest beach house facade when approached from the land side. However, behind the 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. The Palace bath-house is said to still exist, but the site cannot be visited because it is now part of a military preserve.
Chuini Palace
Little remains of this ingenious Palace that was designed to have running water in a time before electricity. It was constructed near the shore and next to a stream, in a location in northwest Zanzibar that was referred to as ‘the place of the leopard. "The Palace, which was built in 1872 by Seyyid Barghash stands in a river bed, a costly artificial foundation having been constructed with the object of keeping the building low so that an adequate flow of water should be obtained. The approach was by a covered way carried on tall iron pillars over the adjoining creek, beneath which the sea came into the creek behind. The building was burnt down in 1914 and little of interest remains except the long series of bathrooms through which a stream of 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.
The House of Wonders didn't present such a stately appearance when first built, it looked perhaps a bit squat in those days. However, damage done to the building during the 1896 war required extensive repairs and because the beautiful clock tower/light house in front of the Palace had also been destroyed in the war, it was decided to combine projects and incorporate a new clock-tower into the repaired Palace The result is a truly remarkable building that is now more than 125 years old.
Dunga Palace
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. During his many years, it was simply known as the 'Sultans Palace’. After the 1964 revolution, this structure was used as a government headquarters. Later it was renovated and has reopened as a nice museu m.
Palace Museum