Like many folks, I have read or have been told stories about potentates such as Sultans or Sheiks and their harems, but it hasn’t been part of my experience to see how these influential people live their lives at close quarters. I’m aware of what polygamous families can be like, but most of the ones I’m aware of are not aristocratic or royal, so it was intriguing to pay a visit to a disused palace in Zanzibar called the Mahurubi, with friends.
There was a revolution on the island over fifty years ago, so the Sultan and his family have been in exile ever since. The family’s main palace is now a museum, after going through a phase of being used by those who prevailed in the revolution as a headquarters for their political party (and possibly as personal lodgings for the leaders). The Palace Museum has been maintained to an extent – many signs of the family’s opulent lifestyle are still in good condition, possibly because they are treated as exhibits nowadays and are not in frequent use. The Mahurubi Palace however, is currently in a state of ruin.
Built between 1880 -82, by Barghash Bin Said, the third Sultan of Zanzibar, there is a notice in front of the palace which says it was for the use of his secondary wives. I was led on a tour through the remains of the building, which was accidentally burnt down in 1899. The baths at the rear of the edifice survived from the fire. A huge aqueduct that supplied water to the palace also remains intact.
A committee has been set up to look into the possibility of rebuilding the palace and presenting it as part of the amazing history of the island. Several members of the team are involved in creative work and it is hoped that the building shall host a series of site specific presentations in the future.
Walking through the corridors and seeing the baths reminded me of the time when I sang the role of Aeneas in a production of Purcell’s opera – Dido and Aeneas, in a production for Battle Festival, which was performed in the grounds of Battle Abbey, which was built in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Will there be opportunities to present more music drama in the grounds of the Mahurubi? Only time will tell.