People have lived in Zanzibar for 20,000 years. History properly starts when the islands became a base for traders voyaging between the African Great Lakes, the Somalia Peninsula, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, and the Indian Subcontinent.
Unguja offered a protected and defensible harbor, so although the archipelago had few products of value, Oman and Yemenis settled in what became Zanzibar City( Stone Town) as a convenient point from which to trade with towns on the Swahili Coast.
Zanzibar is rich in historical buildings which have beautiful and attractive architecture that portray the composition of its cosmopolitan society.
One of these finely decorated buildings which glitters with wye catching paint is in the Stone Town, a symbol of the multi-cultural architecture and heritage of the city.
Ii is the famous Old Dispensary, built by the Ithnaasheri community at Mizingani, facing the Zanzibar harbor.
The structure of three tall floors has beautiful design of carved balconies of teak wood imported from India and stained glass decorations that show the Indian influence on the islands from many years back.
The main structure of this beautiful complex, now a famous tourist attraction, is of the traditional Zanzibar coral rag and limestone.
This building is mostly covered by stucco adornments of European neo-classical taste and the inside composition is sophisticated because it is a covered courtyard and carved bridges that connect the floors.
The Old Dispensary owes its name to the fact that it served as a famous dispensary for people in and outside Zanzibar in the first half of the 20th century.
Its construction was commissioned in 1887 by Tharia Topan, a wealth Indian businessman who lived in the Stone Town, to celebrate the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.
Topan’s intent was for the building to be a charitable hospital for the poor, but when he passed away in 1891 work on the building was not completed and his widow Lady Janbai took over the project.
According to written and oral records the building faced several setbacks, including a misunderstanding in the family.
As a result, it was sold off to a new owner, who continued with the construction and finally completed in 1894.
In 1900, another prominent Indian merchant who was living in Zanzibar, Haji Nasser Nurmohamed, bought the building and decided that the ground floor be used as a dispensary, while the upper floors were portioned into apartment.
After the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution, when many Indians, including those who lived in the dispensary, left the islands, the building was taken over by the government and later fell into disuse and decay.
A change in government policies in 1985 paved the way for a more liberal economic development strategy for Zanzibar.
The new policy raised questions about the maintenance of the state-owned buildings in the Stone Town which have a very significant historical value.
Due to the harsh climate of Zanzibar and thirty years of neglect, infiltration of water combined with rising damp, lack of maintenance and inappropriate repairs were the main causes of deterioration.
In October 1990,The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, through its local operating entity(Aga Khan Cultural Services-Zanzibar) leased the Old Dispensary from the government and restored this beautiful landmark to its former splendor.
After an initial phase of research, recording and design, the construction contract for the restoration was signed in April 1994,exactly 100 years after the first completion of its construction.
Since its inauguration over a century back, the Old Dispensary has been hailed as a symbol of multi-cultural Zanzibar architecture.
Its design, rich decoration and its construction techniques are of exceptional quality.
Nowadays, the building which houses The Stone Town Cultural Centre succeeds in retaining and protecting these characteristics, whilst being a blueprint for the conservation of Stone Town’s and unique heritage.
Juma Najim Omar, the finance and administrative officer of the Aga Khan Cultural Services in Zanzibar, said before the renovation took place in 1990 the building was great danger, but the maintenance which took place managed to restore its landmark.
“We are proud to have such a wonderful history in Zanzibar and this building is the symbol of this heritage city. We do all that we can make sure that we preserve it so as to continue to be part of our history,” said Juma.
He said they have decided to make free entry into the building for people to enjoy its beauty and history.
At the same time the building hosts various important cultural events and has a restaurant and exclusive shops and offices.
One of the visitors I met at the building, Alex Thomas and his wife Sara, from the United States Of America said they were very much impressed with the design and art of the old building.
“We have not been here before, but have read about the history of Stone-Town on the Internet. We are happy today that we saw this beautiful design with a long and impressive history, he said.
Generally, the name “Stone Town” comes from the ubiquitous use of coral stone as main construction of most of the buildings in the old part of the Zanzibar city.
The Zanzibar Stone Town has a long history of amazing historical buildings like the Old Dispensary.
These include the House of Wonders, the People’s Palace, the Anglican Cathedral of Christ Church, the Old Forte and the High Court.
These historical buildings which are the heart of the Stone Town have several distinctive features as a result of a cocktail of Arab, Persian, Indian, European, and African traditions.