Often described as the world’s oldest form of air-conditioning, the distinctive wind towers (barjeel) that top many old Dubai buildings (as well as numerous modern ones constructed in faux-Arabian style) provided an ingeniously simple way of countering the Gulf’s searing temperatures in the days before electricity. Rising around 6m above the rooftops on which they’re built, wind towers are open on all four sides and channel any available breezes down into the building via triangular flues; the largest and most highly decorated wind tower was traditionally placed over the bedroom, with smaller ones over other rooms. Wind towers might not produce the arctic blasts generated by modern air-conditioning, but stand next to one of the interior flues and you’ll notice a slight but significant drop in temperature – particularly welcome in summer, and doubtless a life-saver back in the city’s pre-air-con days.
Although the wind tower has become one of the iconic architectural symbols of Dubai and the UAE, it was actually introduced to the city by Iranian merchants who settled in the city in the early twentieth century. Many built houses in Bastakiya, whose collection of wind towers is the largest and finest in the city, with subtle variations in design from tower to tower, meaning that no two are ever exactly alike.