Written by Riadh A. AlBusaidi, April, 2018
After the 1964 Zanzibar revolution, the Sultan’s Palace was turned into a museum. I have read articles and I have seen short ‘documentary’ films talking about the origins of this palace. I would like to set the record straight and correct some of the misconceptions regarding the history and status of this modest palace in Zanzibar Town.
This Palace has been referred to as “Beit Sahel”, this is correct. Beit Sahel was completely demolished after it was extensively damaged during the British bombardment of 1896. Apart from the destruction of Beit Sahel, the bombardment also totally destroyed Beit Hukum, damaged the Light House Tower and part of Beit al Ajaib. Some of the comments, in a documentary film, stated that this Palace was built by H.M. Sayyid Said bin Sultan, who ruled from 1806 to 1856, this is also incorrect.
Prior to 1964, it was known as Beit Serkal or Nyumba ya Serkali or simply ‘The Palace’ (see picture 8, the Palace stationary). The palace is basically made up of 3 buildings (as seen in picture 1): the first building which is on the far left, adjacent to the graveyard, is the oldest. Some members of the family and most of the female household staff were accommodated in this building. The top floor of this building was the main kitchen. In mid-1950, the front part of this kitchen area was blocked off and converted into a room with a verandah facing the sea. This building has air bridges that lead to the mosque as well as to the other royal residence which is behind this palace, known as Beit Thani (Nyumba ya Pili). There are also several other air bridges that connect these three buildings. The second building with a verandah was the official residence of Sayyid Ali bin Said bin Sultan. Sayyid Ali became the Sultan after the death of his brother Sayyid Khalifa bin Said who ruled from 1888-1890 (sometimes he is referred to as Khalifa I who ruled after the death of his brother Sultan Barghash bin Said), Sultan Ali ruled from 1890-1893 (Picture 2 shows the residence and Picture No.3 shows Sayyid Ali leaving his residence on a horse carriage).
These two buildings later became the residence of H.M. Sayyid Khalifa bin Harub, who became the Sultan from 1911 to 1960. However, during Sayyid Khalifa’s time, this royal residence underwent extensive renovation both inside and outside. The covered roof was removed and in its place a glass panel was put across the atrium. This provided plenty of natural light, made good use of space and an aura of eastern elegance. Instead of open space, a new grand staircase was built leading to the first floor. This floor was modified to have a Throne Room and the Sultan’s private offices. After the bombardment of 1896 that damaged part of Beit Al Ajaib, some of the furniture, the chandeliers and some other decorative items from Beit Al Ajaib’s Throne Room were moved to this palace. The Sultan’s private living quarters were on the second floor.
The third building was added a few years later, the ground floor, which was next to the guard room, has a wide and tall arch iron gate. One can observe that the arch of this gate was made to match the arches of the center building. The purpose of this wide gate was to allow H.M. Sultan Khalifa’s yacht “Al Malika” (see picture 7) to be kept whenever it was not at sea. The main palace garden and the flag post are accessed through this gate. A western type kitchen was also built, which was mostly used during official banquets. The kitchen had a food lift as well as a staircase to the pantry on the first floor. The first floor of this building, adjacent to the Throne Room and the veranda, was the Baraza hall (reception hall). The Sultan used to hold public reception in this hall during Eid or other official functions. The hall was also used as a banqueting hall. In the middle of the main garden was a quaint garden house. This was later demolished and a new one was built in its place. I have made a sketch of the old one as I could not find a picture of it (Picture 5 and picture 6 the new garden house).