Historic Cities Programme
by Stephen Battle and Francesco Siravo
A Rich and Diverse Heritage
The Stone Town is the product of at least three centuries of continuous settlement, but it was only from 1830 that Zanzibar took on a wholly urban character and that stone buildings were built in significant numbers. Until that time, the majority of houses were made of mud and wattle, and roofed with palm-leaf thatch. Very few large-scale structures could be distinguished, besides the Fort and a few small mosques.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the town occupied only the north-eastern portion of the peninsula, extending from Shangani Point toward the creek's narrowest crossing at Darajani. After the Omani Sultan's permanent move to the island in 1832, the Stone Town quickly expanded during the middle of the century, filling in the areas of upper Sokomuhogo, Forodhani, Kajificheni, and Kiponda. The Omanis erected palaces and residences along and behind the sea front, tradesmen from the Indian sub-continent built up the bazaar streets with shop-front houses, and sea-faring merchants built houses, sheds, and warehouses near the waterfront. After 1850, stone buildings spread further and began to extend north into Malindi, south into the lower portion of Sokomuhogo, and east to Mkunazini, areas which up to this time had been mostly occupied by mud buildings. As contact with western trading markets increased, particularly once the Suez Canal opened in 1869, and later with the establishment of the British administration in 1890, specialised structures - larger civic buildings in particular - began to appear. The building up of the Stone Town was more or less completed and the present limits defined by the first quarter of the twentieth century: the new port area to the north had been reclaimed, the area south of Shangani built up, the European garden suburb of Vuga laid out, and the programme to fill the creek bordering the peninsula to the east gradually put into effect.
Thus, within the relatively short span of one hundred and fifty years, the confluence of several distinct cultures and the island's intense cosmopolitan development produced the rich and diverse architectural heritage we see today. In some cases, the diversity of the original imports is still evident in different sections of town; in others, the borrowing and adaptation of forms from other contexts produced a cross-fertilisation of different building traditions. In yet other cases, buildings were gradually transformed over time as newcomers adapted existing structures to their tastes and preferences, thus determining a further hybridisation of forms. This variety produced the diverse spaces and surprising contrasts of the Zanzibar townscape, where pedestrians move from the imposing row of sea front structures to the crowded and lively atmosphere of the Indian bazaars, and the quiet, intimate spaces of the narrower residential streets. Thus, although the different forms and building types and their origins - African, Arab, Indian, or European - can be recognised, it is the synthesis of these cultures and influences that creates Zanzibar's unique urban and architectural environment.
Early History of the Old Dispensary
The Old Dispensary gained its name because it long housed a dispensary on the ground floor, with a pharmacy and a resident doctor. An inscription made of large cement letters filled a panel on the front façade, and read: "The Khoja Haji Nasser Nur Mahomed Charitable Dispensary". But this name replaced that of another, because before it celebrated the good works of Nasser Nur Mahomed, before the port was even built, and the building stood square to the sea, it was known as the "Tharia Topan Jubilee Hospital". The foundation stone of the Jubilee Hospital was laid on 8th July 1887, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign.
The man whose munificence gave rise to the building did not attend the ceremony. Tharia Topan, who in his prime had dominated commerce in Zanzibar, was in Bombay, feeble and nearly blind, already at the end of his life. Born in 1823 in a village of the state of Kutch in north-west India, he had come to Zanzibar as a young man, in 1843, with other Indian merchants sent by the ruler of Kutch at the request of the Omani Sultan Sayyid Saïd, who was eager to promote trade on the island. The economy of Zanzibar indeed expanded nearly five-fold in the first half of the nineteenth century, exporting local spices and ivory from the mainland, and importing goods such as cotton from Great Britain and North America, and rice from Karachi. Topan played an important role in this development, and eventually controlled the collection of customs duties - a right he had bought from the Sultan.
After the Sultan’s death in 1856, one of his sons, Majid, acceded to power with British support, while the second son, Barghash, was sent into exile to Bombay, where he became acquainted with the opulence and sophistication of the British Raj. With the death of Majid in 1870, Barghash returned to Zanzibar and, together with Topan (whom he appointed as honorary prime minister), was largely responsible for Zanzibar’s urban and architectural development. Barghash was a lavish patron and builder, and within a few years, he transformed the city by erecting important new buildings on the water- front, constructing roads and new housing, and introducing modern infrastructure. The Sultan completed his masterpiece, “Beit al Ajjab”, or the “House of Wonders”, in 1883, when Tharia Topan started thinking about sponsoring a school or a hospital of his own on the Zanzibar water front.
However, time worked against Topan. The spectacular rise of Zanzibar had whetted the appetite of European powers, and during the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century, they appropriated most of the empire of Zanzibar for themselves, including significant possessions on the mainland. This political decline is reflected in the chequered history of Topan’s hospital building. In 1885, at the age of sixty-two and already ailing, he travelled to Bombay to make the necessary arrangements for the construction, but was never to return to Zanzibar. The foundations of what was to become the Old Dispensary were laid by his nephew, Hashem Virjee Patel, and left to weather and consolidate for two years, following local practise. During this time, the Bombay-based firm of Gostling and Morris completed the design of the building and supervised production of all the joinery, which Patel brought to Zanzibar in 1885. After a dispute between Topan and Patel, a new foreman, Haji Mistry, was appointed, and he travelled to Zanzibar in 1890 with a crew of Indian craftsmen and masons from Kutch to complete the building. In the same year, Topan was knighted by Queen Victoria, in recognition of his political and philanthropic achievements during this crucial period of Zanzibar’s history.
Completion and Further History of the Building
But Sir Tharia Topan was seriously ill, and his death in 1891 resulted in further interruption of the construction. Haji Mistry sent his crew home to India pending the outcome of a dispute over the terms of Topan’s will. Due to the personal initiative of Sir Gerald Portal, the new British Consul who was eager to maintain and enhance Zanzibar’s urban heritage, Topan’s widow, Lady Janbai, decided to resume the works, and in 1892, Haji Mistry was again sent out to Zanzibar with his crew of craftsmen. By then, it appears that Haji Mistry had started adding elaborate ornamental work not contained in the original plans, a fact which may reflect the customary discretion of master craftsmen or perhaps his determination to produce a masterpiece. The budget set aside by Lady Janbai was exhausted in 1893, before completion of the building. Yet, the workmanship was excellent, as acknowledged by Frederick Pordage, the consulting engineer of the British Consul, who eventually saw the building through to completion in early 1894.
After Portal’s death in 1895, it seems that furnishing and staffing of the completed building became a problem, and the hospital could not open. Lady Janbai, living in Bombay, eventually decided to sell the building. It was bought in 1900 by the estate of another rich Zanzibari merchant, Nasser Nur Mahomed, with the intention to use it as a charitable institution. Nur Mohamed’s trustees set up a dispensary on the ground floor of the building, and subdivided the upper two floors into apartments. This mixed use of the building continued until the revolution in 1964, when the occupants fled the island and the dispensary fell into disuse. As with most other structures in Zanzibar, the Old Dispensary passed into government ownership and control.
A change in government policies in 1985 paved the way for a more liberal economic development policy, and at the same time raised questions about the maintenance of state-owned building stock in the Stone Town - much of it of considerable historic value. Since the mid-1980’s, a large number of houses were sold to private individuals, again with the condition that they should be properly restored. 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 in order to restore this major landmark to its former splendour. After an initial phase of research, recording, and design, the construction contract for the restoration of the building was signed in April 1994, exactly one hundred years after its first completion.
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