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Archaeological Zanzibar

The House of Wonders Museum of History & Culture of Zanzibar & the Swahili Coast

The House of Wonders, the most imposing structure on the sea front, was built in the 1880s as a ceremonial palace. During the colonial period it was used as the headquarters of the colonial administration. It was converted into a school and a museum for the ruling party after the Revolution, designed by the North Koreans in their typical ‘Great Leader' tradition.
 In the House of Wonders Museum of History & Culture of Zanzibar & the Swahili Coast, the approach is
deliberately historical, and it is intended to cover not only Zanzibar but also the whole Swahili coast from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique, because that is the cultural region. Over the past decade a considerable amount of archaeological and historical research has been undertaken to reveal a very long and rich history that can now be systematically exhibited. The East African coast is also the western rim of the Indian Ocean, and the museum will therefore highlight the historical and cultural consequences of the convergence along the East African coast between the continental world of Africa and the maritime world of the Indian Ocean.
The permanent exhibitions in the House of Wonders will consist of the following themes:

1. The Dhow Culture of the Indian Ocean
The sea is central to the Swahili and other maritime cultures of the Indian Ocean with which it has been in economic, social and cultural contact over the past two millennia. The centre-piece of the museum will therefore be a major exhibition on The Dhow Culture of the Indian Ocean.

i. The Mtepe
The exhibition will be centred on a life-size model (about 17 metres long) of the now extinct Swahili sewn rather than nailed vessel, the Mtepe. (See the special brochure on the Mtepe.) The Mtepe was built near the seafront where local people and foreign visitors were able to see the whole process, and the whole construction was recorded on video as a historical documentary that will be available for viewing and for sale.

ii. The Maritime Habitat:
The exhibition includes an exposition of the delicate local coastal habitat, including the mangrove swamp and the coral reef, and related industries, including fishing, boat building, and mangrove and coral cutting. The emphasis is on its sustainability, detailing traditional methods of conservation of the marine environment and resources, and the threat posed by modern developments, including dynamite fishing and tourism, with audio-visual programmes.

iii. The Swahili Coastal Economy
Trade and population movements along the East African coast from southern Somalia (Benadir) to northern Mozambique, the Comoros and north-western Madagascar over several millennia have given birth to the Swahili culture, including language, way of life, religion, and an active dhow building tradition. Sailing along the coast was facilitated by land and sea breezes as well as by the monsoons, giving the culture a distinct maritime character.

iv. The Monsoon Economy
Long-distance trade across the western Indian Ocean, between the East African coast, the coast of Arabia and the Persian Gulf, and the west coast of India, was facilitated by the fairly reliable seasonal monsoon winds. It had far-reaching economic, social and cultural consequences over the more than two millennia of interaction.

v. The Educational Corner
The area to the left of the entrance has been allocated as an interactive educational facility, especially for visiting school children, where they will be able to handle elements of the coastal habitat, models of local vessels, get explanations from museum guides, etc.
2. History & Architecture of Zanzibar Stone Town
Zanzibar Stone Town is a striking product of centuries of social and cultural interaction between Africa and the lands across the Indian Ocean with identifiable Swahili, Arab, Indian as well as early colonial architectural elements that have blended together in a unique way. In 2000 it was recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

3. Industrial History
Zanzibar was one of the first places where industrial machinery were installed from the 19th century, including sugar mills, printing presses, the short Bububu Railway, etc. The Museum is in the process of collecting whatever has survived of the industrial history for exhibition to the public after all the other exhibitions have been completed.

4. The Early History of the Swahili Coast
There are four enormous and interconnected halls on the first floor that will be used to provide a panoramic view of the history and culture of Zanzibar and the Swahili coast from the Late Stone Age to the Revolution.
Neolithic tools have recently been discovered on Zanzibar, and in subsequent centuries, the Bantu-speaking people spread from the interior, absorbing pre-existing, probably Cushitic-speaking people. On the other hand, at least from the beginning of the Christian era there is documentary and archaeological evidence for inter-regional maritime trade between the northern rim of the Indian Ocean and the East African coast which expanded with the rise of the Muslim empires from the eighth century.

5. The Swahili Civilization
The exhibition is an attempt to recreate the natural setting for the material culture of the Swahili, placing museum artefacts in their natural surrounding.

6. The Commercial Empire
From the last quarter of the eighteenth century Zanzibar emerged as the capital of an Afro-Arab kingdom and the centre of a vast commercial empire, based on the twin foundation of commerce and slave-based plantation production of spices and other agricultural commodities.

7. Contemporary Swahili Culture
With the Partition of Africa in the 1880s, and with it the partition of its hinterland, Zanzibar was reduced to its present insular confines, and the Revolution of 1964 may well be seen as the latest chapter of that history. However, it continues to be part of the Swahili civilisation that cuts across several inherited colonial boundaries; indeed, during the nineteenth century, and even more during the colonial period, its language and aspects of its culture has spread far and wide over a large part of eastern Africa. The final permanent exhibition will seek to tell the story of the contemporary Swahili culture during the 20th century, focusing on the society and its language, literature, music and dance, etc.

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