After arriving in Zinder from Agadez by bus, it takes some time to find a place to sleep because the president of Niger will be visiting the next day. I take a motorbike to the Sultan's Palace, and admire the adobe building from the outside. The afternoon is a good time to see the outside, because it faces west and the sun shines directly on the impressive facade. But I postpone a visit to the inside for the next day, and first explore the adjacent old quarter of Birni. I am back the next morning, and when I take out my guide to read a little bit under a tree, I am called over by one of the many servants working in the palace, saying someone wants to see me. It turns out to be a man I had seen the previous day, who now suddenly starts a discussion about the fact that I took a picture of the palace the day before. Then, everyone gets a little nervous, and it turns out that the Sultan is about to leave his palace to go to the airport and meet the president.
A small crowd, mostly servants and guards, stands between the enormous gate and an SUV, and the sunglass-wearing Sultan in traditional robe leaves without much fuss. I am not sure whether this is good or bad: it seems that visits to the palace are more restricted when the Sultan is not around. Moreover, some people had told me that morning that a visit would not be possible because of the visit of the president. I politely ask, and am asked to take off my shoes, and directed into a small room just outside the palace walls. There is a group of men sitting in a circle, and they talk to each other in Hausa, completely ignoring me. I take it easy, observing the way the men interact, their traditional robes, and listening to their language which I do not understand. After a while, the most impressive of the group suddenly turns to me, and asks what brings me to the palace. I reply that I would like to know if there exists a possibility to visit, and am assigned one of the many guards. Once outside, he tells me that a visit would cost 20 to 30,000 CFA, some 30 to 45 Euro, which seems very steep to me. I tell him I heard 5,000 would be OK, and he immediately agrees. He turns out to be a friendly guy, who takes time to explain what I am seeing, and tell me a little bit about the history of the building.
According to my guide, the Sultan originally arrived from Yemen in the 18th century, and had this palace built in 1850. The walls are ten metres high and ten metres thick, and the palace has never really been tested for defensiveness, as it was never attacked. The main gate is quite impressive: a whitewashed wall contrasts with the brownish teint of the walls. The emblem of the Sultan is displayed above the actual gate: a sword and two spears crossed behind a shield. We examine the sturdy wooden gate, still the same as in 1850, before we walk into the courtyard. The upper floor on the left is for the women of the Sultan (I forget to ask how many he actually has), and on the right, we see small doors. The guide opens one of them, and explains that these are cells. People would be locked up inside, and scorpions and snakes would be added to make them confess to whatever wrongdoings they were accused of. According to the guide, they are still being used in our time, which I find a little hard to believe: there is little evidence of recent convicts. The courtyard is used for many different occasions. At the end of it, another impressive whitewashed gate with decorations. The guide shows me a big drum-like instrument once used for communication, but since long replaced by mobile phones. Then, there is the corridor of no return where those convicted to death sentence were led. There is a smaller courtyard with a couple of horses, but the Sultan now prefers to travel by car, and what used to be a bigger place with horses, now has turned into his parking. The office of the Sultan is off limits for me in his absence. The guide tells me about the history of the Sultan family; how a Sultan was executed by the French colonizers. The current Sultan is a descendant of the original one. I discreetly pass the money on to the guide when we say goodbye, chat with some of the guards dressed in dazzling red robes, before I leave again, and walk past the palace walls to explore more of the Birni quarter.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Zinder Sultan Palace (Niger). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Zinder Sultan Palace. Read more about this site.