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 resident doctor. Its construction was originally commissioned by Sir Tharia Topan, who in his prime had dominated commerce in Zanzibar. The foundation stone of the “Tharia Topan Jubilee Hospital” was laid on 8th July 1885, but Sir Tharia died in India in 1891, causing an interruption to the construction. His widow decided to resume the works but her budget was exhausted in 1893 before completion of the building. Yet, the workmanship was excellent, as acknowledged by Fredrick Pordage, the consulting engineer of the British Consul who eventually saw the building through to completion in early 1894.
In 1900, it was bought by the estate of 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 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 strategy for Zanzibar, 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. 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 it’s former splendour. After an initial phase of research, recording and design, the construction contract for the restoration was signed in April 1994, exactly one hundred years after its first completion.
From the Old Dispensary to the Stone Town Cultural Centre
Although work that was undertaken on the Old Dispensary is often referred to as a restoration project, it should more accurately be viewed as one of conservation. The historic fabric of the building had to be respected and materials used in the works had to correspond or be compatible with the original ones.
Since its inauguration over a century ago, the Old Dispensary has been hailed as a symbol of multi-cultural Zanzibari architecture. It’s design, rich decoration and its construction techniques are of exceptional quality. The Stone Town Cultural Centre succeeds in retaining and protecting these characteristics, whilst being a blueprint for the conservation of Stone Town’s rich heritage.
It now plays host to various important cultural events and houses a restaurant and exclusive shops and offices. All visitors to Zanzibar’s Stone Town are urged to visit the Centre – one of Zanzibar’s finest architectural landmarks. It can be found on Zanzibar’s seafront, near the port on Mizingani Road.