Its most famous building, the Beit Al-Ajaib or House of Wonders, was erected by the sultan Seyyid Barghash bin Said in 1883, with an Omani courtyard layout, a modern cast-iron carrying structure from Britain incorporating neo-classical details, and the largest most elaborately carved wooden doors in Zanzibar, originating in Bombay and inscribed with verses from the Qur’an. The wonder house was illuminated by the first electric light in Sub-Saharan Africa, shining from venetian chandeliers, and had an electric elevator, another of which the sultan installed in the palace where he lived, a bit nearer what is now the container port and where the ferry from Dar-es-Salaam arrives.
The Great Dispensary was erected a few years later by a wealthy Indian trader and, like the House of Wonders and several other buildings, now restored with support from the Aga Khan Foundation and other international donors beginning in the early 1990s. Standing in front of the fine wooden carvings on the facade, which above the entrance form an upwards pointing triangle, I cannot help thinking about the wooden structures I know from growing up in Norway, called “Swiss style”, mixed with traditional patterns. In Zanzibar these elements of carving form part of a tradition imported from India – whereto some elements may have been brought by the British who loved the “Swiss Chalet” style, to merge with the Gujarati and other North Indian carving tradtions to form a distinct style which residents of the Raj could bring to Zanzibar. The carvings are at times mixed with glass window traditions found along the Swahili Coast including Yemen, expressions of a globalized trading system and a city at the height of its powers.
Nothing is really old in Zanzibar, except its name. “Zanguebar” or “Zinjbar” was a way to refer to the whole coast of East Africa during medieval times, and it became associated with exotic and fabulous stories. “For its size, Zanzibar occupies a very large romantic space in world imagination”, Professor Abdul Sheriff, Zanzibar’s leading historian, writes in his introduction to The History & Conservation of Zanzibar Stone Town. Its associated marvels were inherited by the little island along with the name. The Portuguese held Zanzibar for a while with a little fort, the minimal remains of which were incorporated into “The Old Fort” after the Omanis expelled the Portuguese in 1698.
In the book referred to above, another author when discussing the dangers to the preservation of Zanzibar Stone Town, mentions a hotel being restored in an inappropriate way with “Alpine flourishes, which make the windows into Swiss cuckoo-clocks”. Which might be true and not a very architecturally successful alteration – and in this particular case, one which has nothing to do with building tradition in Switzerland either. I am, however, intrigued by the link between Swiss chalets gone oversize in ski resorts today and Zanzibari carvings losing scale and context in the new hotel recreations.
There is an elegant building on the edge of the Stone Town which looks inspired by a Mogul tomb, a beautiful museum now closed due to an advanced state of disrepair. The building was designed by British architect Sinclair who arrived in Zanzibar in 1896, stayed for 27 years and brought other styles from the Raj and from the Arab world, to Zanzibar, to add to the ones the Omani rulers and the Gujerati traders with their artesans had brought with them to add to the existing Swahili traditions. Indianized gothic arches, along with moorish arches and cupolas were also added to the architectonic variety by Sinclair, before experiments with art deco and modernism became more fashionable on the island – which became part of a British Protectorate in 1890.
2. Conserving the fantasy
Today Zanzibar is known for its booming tourism indistry, producing new forms of collages, some of them of more “good taste” than others. Emmerson Spice is one of the new hotels designed by veteran designer and developer Emmerson. I happened to meet Mr Emmerson on one of the upper floors of the new hotel where he was giving the final touches to his latest fantasy.
The hotel consists of two main buildings joined together through a new courtyard surrounded by woodwork in high quality and a fountain laid out in colourful tiles at the bottom of the courtyard. One of the doors leading out to the atrium is originally from the building, though found in a different location to where it is now. The main staircase up to the first floor is also original, preserved with its carvings. Mr Emmerson completes the composition to become an Arab-Indian Zanzibari house the way it “should have been”. With his long experience, he knows how to design the buildings to look more authentic than the real. The result is beautiful, even if we are very far away from any form of building research leading to a form of “scientific” conservation. The exotic fantasy lives on in a pleasant environment. (Oh, and before you leave, would you be interested in going on a “Spice Tour”…?)
Being in Ilha for so long, where so far fabrication of traditions for tourism has yet to reach an advanced stage except for historicist interventions by the Portuguese in the 1960s, I was surprised by the way you could buy “Maasai spices” in checkered cloth packages where cumin and coriander was written in 5 European languages. I observed this in the same new hotel where the pattern of one airconditioner per room was mixed with the wood carvings, greek pilasters and “Zanzibari” style windows to form an incredible facade on a concrete box lined with gypsum ceilings with downlights and uplights in different hollows.
The same hotel, which for some strange reason this year was included in the screeings of the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), sold a tourist video which included the description on the back cover of Zanzibar as a “UNESCO Heritage Sight“. Maybe I should have told the colleagues who came from the World Heritage Centre last week, to change their concept to this one, possibly reflecting the new exploding heritage tourism industry better?
To complete my confusion, the ZIFF cultural programme included “African” dances reminicent of The Lion King and Zulu traditions found much further south on the continent, as well as the everpresent Maasai, as part of a festival of Zanzibar, a decisively proud muslim coastal culture. I always believed that a film festival was a modern, urban phenomenon, but had to rethink the concept a bit in the Zanzibar Stone Town context. Indeed some good African films were shown in the library of the House of Wonders and in the Old Fort Amphitheatre, very atmospheric settings indeed for film screenings. Taka Takata from South Africa, which won the audience award, will come to a cinema near you.
So all in all a wonderful ramshackle chaos of verandas and spices, Zanzibar Stone Town. However, somehow I was glad I was going back to little Ilha to my macuti houses. But first I went looking for the last remaining macuti houses in Zanzibar, which if I could find any, might justify coming back to do comparative research and was my real reason to visit. But on the way I had to see the remains of the socialist revolution… To be continued.
 Sheriff, A. (ed) The History & Conservation of Zanzibar Stone Town, The Department of Archives, Museums & Antiquities, Zanzibar 1995