While I didn’t do any shopping in Dubai, I did manage a quick walk around the Bastakiya District: also known as Old Dubai.
Dubai was originally a small port that made its living from pearl diving, fishing and trade, especially with Iran. Besides the nomadic Bedouins, who lived in tents, the populations who settled here lived in palm-thatched mat huts.
Traditional architecture in Old Dubai
Early in the 20th century, Persian merchants prospered in Dubai, building the neighborhood called Bastakiya or, more recently, the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood. Their more substantial houses generally had two floors, made of adobe and built around inner courtyards. Many also had open balconies or roof spaces that, like the courtyards, allowed the women and their families privacy and a cooling breeze in the heat of summer.
A unique feature of these houses was their barajils, wind towers. Square structures rising well above the roof, they are cleverly designed to channel the breezes down into the living spaces below: early air conditioning. If you’re interested in the details of Dubai’s architectural history, this blog gives a clear explanation.
The Bastakiya neighborhood fell into disrepair. In the 1970s, many traditional homes were torn down to make way for the modern city of today.
Fortunately, the rest of the old houses were saved and bought by the government. Since the turn of the 21st century, renovations are ongoing in the interest of preserving local heritage, as well as to attract tourists.
Art galleries in Old Dubai
The first art gallery in Bastakiya came about due to the efforts of Alison Collins, founder of Majlis Gallery. Collins leased a dilapidated traditional home, renovated it and moved in, inviting artists to display their work at regular “soirees.” Eventually she and her family moved out to turn it into a showcase for local artists. Its tree-shaded courtyard alone is worth the visit.
Wandering the narrow streets of this neighborhood reveals more galleries. One interesting one is Mawaheb from Beautiful People, which provides a safe environment for adults with special needs to express themselves through art. Visitors are welcome to have a cup of coffee in the courtyard and watch the artists at work. The quality of many of the works on display impressed me.
Museums of Old Dubai
I could only spare a couple of hours. For that reason, I didn’t get to see the many small museums housed in Bastakiya and the neighboring Shindagha area of Old Dubai. I spotted many:
- The Dubai Museum is the most visited and well-known, and is housed in the Al Fahidi Fort, which dates from 1787. It covers all aspects of Dubai history, culture, and natural history.
- Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House is the only one I managed to visit, and is a beautiful example of traditional Dubai architecture, but grander in scale than most of the Persian-built homes.
- The Traditional Architecture Museum is right near the Sheikh Al Maktoum House. Originally owned by another Sheikh, it is in another old Dubai home. It displays more detailed information about the local urban architecture.
- The Jumaa and Obaid Bin Thani House is nearby too. Besides being one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood, it now holds an exhibition of Arabic calligraphy.
- The Coin Museum, in another traditional house, is a must, I would think, for any coin collector visiting Dubai.
- The Camel Museum, near the Sheik’s house, is filled with information about camels and their place in Dubai’s history.
- Similarly, the Horse Museum covers horses, particularly Arabians.
- Dubai Coffee Museum sounds to me like a coffee shop with a few rooms of information about coffee.
- The Diving Village covers Dubai’s maritime, pearl-diving and fishing history.
I stopped into the Heritage Village not far away, just long enough to buy a khameer bread from a woman dressed in traditional Bedouin gear. At busier times artisans create traditional crafts for tourists and demonstrate the original way of life of the inhabitants of Dubai.
This list of sites isn’t even complete, and doesn’t include other small museums and historical houses in other areas like Deira, across the Creek. As you can imagine, you could easily spend many days exploring the history of Dubai in depth.
Have you visited any of Dubai’s historical sites or museums? What would you recommend as a “must-see” for the next time I go there?
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