It was named the House of Wonders because it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity, and also the first building in East Africa to have an elevator. Located in the center of Stone Town — the most historic part of Zanzibar City — the 19th-century palace was constructed in 1883 by the second Sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said.
Note that Zanzibar’s ruling government was mostly made up of Arabs. Although Arabs in the region were smaller in number, the group was able to seize rule as a result of Zanzibar being a former territory of Arab country Oman. The sultans of Oman were in power in Zanzibar for over 200 years until a violent revolution overthrew the sultanate in 1964.
Their palatial home, known as Beit al-Ajaib (House of Wonders), remains a historical heritage site. Until recently, the building, with its iconic, winding interior staircases, carved wooden doors and bronze cannons from the 1500s, has been a major tourist attraction. People travel to Stone Town to learn from the House of Wonders Zanzibar’s rich history including the role of its sultans of Oman.
Despite its great Arab cultural heritage and tradition, the building has suffered significant damage over the years. It partially collapsed on Christmas Day last year. Listed as a World Heritage site since 2000, it was being renovated at a cost of $5.932 million funded by Oman’s government when parts of it collapsed on December 25 last year. Parts of the building’s roof had fallen off in 2012; some pillars crumbled. Decades before that, the historical building had been partially damaged in the Anglo-Zanzibar war in the 1890s that ended much sooner.
The shortest in recorded history, the war did not even last for a day or an hour; it lasted only between 38 and 45 minutes. Zanzibar was then in the sphere of influence of the British Empire and was declared a protectorate, according to the treaty signed by Britain and Germany in 1890. The conflict between the British Empire and the Zanzibar Sultanate, however, began when the pro-British Sultan of Zanzibar, Hamad bin Thuwaini, died. Right after his death, his nephew Khalid bin Barghash seized power, proclaimed himself Sultan and moved into the palace (House of Wonders).
Khalid had then been resisting European interference, so his action received support from a section of the population. History says around 3000 Zanzibari people, including 700 soldiers, rallied to support Khalid against European influence in Zanzibar. But the British Empire did not want him as the new Sultan; they preferred Hamoud bin Muhammad. They subsequently gave Khalid an ultimatum to cede the throne by 9 am local time on August 27 or to prepare himself for an attack.
Khalid, who refused to step down, barricaded himself in the palace and gathered his forces around him. The British gathered ships, including the HMS Philomel, the HMS Rush, and the HMS St George, as well as, troops to enforce the demand. Khalid still refused to cede the throne on the morning of August 27. Just as the British had warned, they opened fire when the 9 am ultimatum expired.
Their warships destroyed the palace, killing over 500 people within few minutes. Khalid managed to flee to the German consulate for asylum. About 38 minutes after the war began, the Sultan’s flag was pulled down, bringing an end to the shortest war recorded in history. Hamoud bin Muhammad, who was seen by the British as much more cooperative, was later proclaimed the Sultan of Zanzibar.
Even though the attack damaged the House of Wonders, it is documented that the building’s upper floor was still used as the home of the succeeding Sultan. It was also used as a government facility for years until 1990 when authorities neglected the building and it began to crumble.
The House of Wonders, which is home to a museum, was undergoing restoration works when it collapsed recently. The collapse was greeted with shock and disappointment. “The accident is a huge loss to tourism in the Isles because over 80% of tourists coming to Zanzibar were attracted by the House of Wonders in the Stone Town,” The Tourism and Antiquities Minister Lela Mohamed Mussa said after the incident on December 25, 2020, according to The Citizen.
“The project will continue to re-construct a similar building because sketches and drawings are available,” Musa added.
The Sultan of the Gulf state of Oman also reportedly pledged an additional $600 million toward further repairs of the palace built by his ancestors in Zanzibar.