The Story of Park Hyatt Zanzibar
The idyllic island of Zanzibar, sitting off the east coast of Africa, is a prime example of a location truly defined by its evocative name. Think Zanzibar and think white sandy beaches, sparkling turquoise waters, aromatic spices, red Colobus monkeys and ornate Arabian architecture. Over the last 2,000 years however, Zanzibar has been in contact with Persia, India, Arabia and the coast of East Africa, which has resulted in nothing short of an ardent history. The story of Zanzibar dates back to the end of the 15th century when the Portuguese arrived on the island. They remained there until the end of the 17th century, before being ousted by the Omani Arabs. In 1840, Sultan Said moved his court from Muscat to Zanzibar, which really marked the beginnings of Park Hyatt Zanzibar.
Sitting majestically on the most westerly point of the Shangani beach front in the heart of UNESCO Heritage Site, Stone Town, Park Hyatt Zanzibar, comprises two buildings; Mambo Msiige, a building rich in cultural and historical significance and the new purpose-built Zamani Residence. Mambo Msiige is a magnificent example of a traditional Zanzibari mansion. The stately main entrance features three Omani style arches with intricately carved wooden doors leading to a cool courtyard, designed to provide escape from the heat. It is believed that the building’s strong and stable structure resulted from the soil used in the construction being mixed with thousands of eggs! Construction and intricate details aside, Mambo Msiige acquired immediate significance due to its inherent uniqueness alone. The name ‘Mambo Msiige’, meaning ‘not to be copied or imitated’ has become a pertinent name for a building that incorporates such a rich variety of architectural styles.
The mansion was constructed between 1847 and 1850 by Sheikh Salim bin Bushir bin Salim al Harthi, a wealthy and prominent Swahili tradesman from a prominent Omani tribe and a dear friend of Seyyid Said, the then ruler of Zanzibar. The story goes that Sheikh Salim built Mambo Msiige to compete with two rich friends, Sheikh Abdalla and Sheikh Suleyman Habib. It remains the only building of the original three still standing. Sadly, Sheikh Salim became embroiled in the failed 1859 coup of Seyyid Bargash and Seyyid Majid confiscated the mansion. He was later executed in December 1889.
From 1864 to 1874, Seyyid Majid gave Mambo Msiige to the Universities Mission of Central Africa (UMCA) to use as a Mission House. In 1873, during Seyyid Bargash’s reign, the UMCA built a new Mission and in 1875, at the time of Consul-General Sir John Kirk, the British Agency acquired Mambo Msiige, after their previous premises was damaged during the 1872 cyclone. In fact, Sir John Kirk played a significant role in the history of Zanzibar and East Africa in general. He first came to Africa in 1858 as a botanist and medical officer in Dr Livingstone’s expedition up the Zambesi. Sir John Kirk, diplomatic to the last, got on well with Livingstone on an expedition notable, to put it mildly, for its frictional relationships. Kirk extensively collected botany samples during the expedition, laying the foundations for his very successful future career as a diplomat and adviser on scientific matters. Kirk eventually settled in Zanzibar as a medical officer for the British Consulate. Whilst a number of British Consulates came to Zanzibar including Christopher Rigby, Lewis Pelly, Robert Playfair and Henry Churchill, many could not deal with the heat and disease they faced. John Kirk, however, happily resided there with his wife, Nelly and his children between the years 1868 and 1886. He even lived at Mambo Msiige during his later years. Kirk built up significant knowledge of the region as well as speaking fluent Arabic and Swahili. His calm manner and excellent relations with Seyid Majid and later Seyid Barghash resulted in helping eradicate the slave market of East Africa. Sir John Kirk also photographed the famous panoramas of Stone Town and Mambo Msiige, providing strong evidence of the use of the Shangani seafront as well as the architecture of that time.
The journalist-adventurer Henry Morton Stanley consulted with Sir John Kirk in 1871 before setting off from Zanzibar on his expedition to find Livingstone. On his return in 1872, the body of Livingstone was placed at Mambo Msiige in preparation for the long journey to London that lay ahead. Henry Morton Stanley also visited Mambo Msiige with his expedition force on return from his mission to rescue Governor Emin Pasha of Equatoria (South Sudan). Perhaps little wonder that one room at the top of the building, Park Hyatt Zanzibar’s Diplomatic Suite, is thought to have been built especially for the use of Stanley.
Extensive remodelling of Mambo Msiige was undertaken between 1885 and 1887, at the end of Sir John Kirk’s reign as British Consul-General and at the time of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1887. After 1903, Mambo Msiige was used as government offices, but post the First World War in 1918, it played host to the European Hospital, dedicated to the care of war casualties. From 1924, Mambo Msiige was again used for offices for the colonial government. The building was enlarged by the Public Works in the 1950’s, introducing a mix of traditional elements and non-traditional structure and materials, reflecting British Public Works architecture prevalent on the island. After the 1964 revolution, Mambo Msiige again served as offices, this time for the Republican government, including the Registrar General and the Ministry of Finance’s Audit department, but also the WAKF and Trust committee and Zanzibar Shipping Corporation. Zanzibari citizens mostly link the building’s significance to this period, with its role as the offices where births and deaths were registered and subsequently revere it as the place where their ancestors dwell.
The site of Park Hyatt Zanzibar continues to have great significance for those who live in Stone Town. Zanzibari’s love to keep fit and every morning, locals are seen exercising on Shangani beach immediately in front of Park Hyatt Zanzibar. Fishermen also use the area for cultural events as do the community at large as an open public space to be enjoyed.