Emerson Spice consists of three adjoining World Heritage site buildings in the exotic Kasbah of Zanzibar’s Stonetown. Two of the facades face a quaint square at the end of historic Tharia Street, a principal thoroughfare for walking tours of the city. The third façade looks down Tharia Street toward the Anglican Cathedral and the slave market. Nestled among the rear facades is a squared private courtyard containing an ancient well.
The Spice Inn House
The principal structure which now houses Emerson Spice is actually a melding of two buildings and several distinct styles of architecture. The older L-shaped wing on the Northeast side, built in the Swahili Arab style, was originally owned by the last Swahili ruler of Zanzibar, Muhammad bin Ahmed, known as the Mwenyi Mkuu. Muhammad had built a huge palace complex in Dunga, but used this space for visits to the Omani Sultan in the city. He, as did his ancestors, live a lavish lifestyle, enjoying the best the world could offer; silks, silver, gems and hundreds of slaves. When he died in 1865, his very young son inherited the throne, but he never had a chance to rule for the Omani Sultan forced him to move to town where he could be kept an eye on. This last Mwenyi Mkuu died of the smallpox in this building in 1873.
The building’s actual age cannot be established, as no formal records exist earlier than 1836, when it was registered in the first census of buildings conducted by Seyyid Said, the founder of the Omani Sultanate in Zanzibar. Upon the death of the last Mwenyi Mkuu in 1873, it was purchased by a Hindu businessman, Patel, a well-known trader of spices and local products. Mr. Patel added the western and southern wings, which in design and detail reflect his Indian heritage.
Shortly after Patel acquired the building, ThariaTopan, the Honorary Prime minister to the Sultan Barghash, began to do business from the building. Topan was by far the richest man in East Africa. The merchant classes of the maritime trade in East Africa were historically skeptical about paper currency, given its delicacy in seawater and the curse of paper money; ie, more money might be printed than redeemable in precious metals, gold, silver, copper. Nevertheless, the trend toward paper currency by the 1870’s became irresistible; hence the merchants were often confronted with sopping cash. ThariaTopan’s legendary solution was to cover completely the small plaza between the Spice and the small mosque across the way with rupees laid out to dry. When standing in the entrance of the hotel, it is easy to imagine this carpet of cash, being fervently guarded by a few imposing Swahili and Baluchiaskaris.
After the building was appropriated during the 1964 revolution, it eventually passed into the hands of Mr. Sharbaidi, who owned it at the time Emerson came to Zanzibar in 1989. The two men became friends and often talked about the buildings potential. But at the time, it was still leased to Mr. Sharali Champsi, who had opened the original Spice Inn in 1980.
The Spice Inn was one of the first hotels in Zanzibar after the revolution and one of the few extant when Emerson opened his first hotel, Emerson House, in 1990. After dreaming of restoring this building for years, Emerson and his partners eventually acquired the building in 2006.
Shia Market House
The building, adjoining the old Spice Inn pair of structures, was a commercial and residential structure which, until the revolution, housed small craftsmen workshops and businesses on the ground floor and residences above. Although the exact year of its foundation is not available in the public records, it is rumored to have been built in the 1850’s. This is consistent with the style and methods of construction still visible. It is also apparent the building underwent construction of three additions over a period of about twenty years, ending about 1870. The newest section faces Tharia Square on two sides. Unfortunately, as the building was largely abandoned after the revolution, its condition was appallingly dangerous. This damage was to the extent the interior required complete demolition, although we have been able to save the characteristic exterior walls.
The Inner Court
The inner courtyard, which will contain a fountain and peaceful garden, revealed some of the most interesting artifacts unearthed by our excavations. The most interesting and historically significant is the water well. This well lay hidden under the nearly two meters of rubble which buried most of the courtyard, a result of decades of neglect. On the side of this well was attached a cast iron plaque testifying to its registration in 1836 by the Sultan Seyyid Said, the founder of the Omani Dynasty and Sultanate in Zanzibar. Upon further excavation, we found that the well still provides abundant fresh water which is now used for cleaning and gardening.
We also found two mysterious crypts made of hardened lime. We hoped and half expected to find buried treasure or perhaps tombs. Unfortunately someone had beaten us to it! They were already stripped of their contents.
Among the rubble, we found numerous artifacts confirming the legendary use of the building. Most notable were thousands of abalone and oyster shells. This gives credence to the story that there was a jewelry store specializing in mother-of-pearl. The large number of shards from large, colored chemical bottles testifies to its housing the first photographic studio in Zanzibar.