In the center of Stone Town, the most historic part of Zanzibar City, is a 19th-century palace that was part of the shortest war in history.
The House of Wonders was constructed in 1883 by Barghash bin Said, the second Sultan of Zanzibar, as a ceremonial palace. Barghash made the door extra wide so he could enter the house on the back of an elephant, and the building’s large pillars and two-story clock tower were covered in white paint. From the get-go, the house was adorned with electricity and a working elevator, the first in all of East Africa to do so.
The House of Wonders was thriving until 1896 when Khalid bin Barghash seized the throne after his cousin—the ruling Sultan at the time—passed away. This angered British forces in the area, who launched a naval bombardment of Stone Town for just 38 minutes in what’s known as the shortest war in world history.
Although the attack damaged the House of Wonders, the building’s upper floor was still used as the home of the succeeding Sultan (who was sympathetic to the British). The brilliant white palace was used as a government facility for decades until 1990, when it became abandoned and began to crumble.
Fortunately, due to the building’s fantastic history and cultural significance, large efforts were made to preserve it and turn it into a museum. The House of Wonders is now open to the public, allowing visitors to walk through the corridors and rooms of the house and see a 56-foot mtepe ship, bronze cannons from the 1500s, and track from the now-defunct Zanzibar Railroad.
The museum displays the blend of Portuguese, English, Omani, and Swahili culture that can be found in Zanzibar through its traditional Swahili garments, David Livingstone’s medical chest, and carved wooden doors inscribed with phrases from the Quran. The House of Wonders proves that beyond Zanzibar’s white sand beaches rests a fascinating history and culture.
Update as of January 2021: It appears the building has collapsed.
Know Before You Go
As of August 2018, the House of Wonders is under renovation. You can see the exterior by venturing to the center of Stone Town and finding the corner of Sokoku Street and Mizingani Street, next to the Old Fort, and you can visit the interior once it reopens.