The excellent Dubai Museum makes a logical first stop on any tour of the city and the perfect place to get up to speed with the history and culture of the emirate. The museum occupies the old Al Fahidi Fort, a rough-and-ready little structure whose engagingly lopsided corner turrets – one square and one round – make it look a bit like a giant sandcastle, offering a welcome contrast to the city’s other “old” buildings, most of which have been restored to a state of pristine perfection. Dating from around 1800, the fort is the oldest building in Dubai, having originally been built to defend the town’s landward approaches against raids by rival Bedouin tribes; it also served as the residence and office of the ruling sheikh up until the early twentieth century before being converted into a museum in 1971.
Entering the museum, you step into the fort’s central courtyard, flanked by a few rooms containing exhibits of folklore and weaponry. Assorted wooden boats lie marooned around the courtyard, revealing the different types of vessel used in old Dubai, including an old-fashioned abra, not so very different from those still in service on the Creek today. In one corner stands a traditional barasti (or areesh) hut, topped by a basic burlap wind tower – the sort of building most people in Dubai lived in right up until the 1960s. The hut’s walls are made out of neatly cut palm branches, spaced so that breezes are able to blow right through them and meaning the interior stays surprisingly cool even in the heat of the day. It’s also worth having a look at the rough walls of the courtyard itself, constructed from horizontal layers of coral held together with powdered gypsum – the standard building technique in old Dubai, but one which is usually hidden beneath layers of plaster.
The museum’s real attraction, however, is its sprawling underground section, a buried wonderland which offers as comprehensive an overview of the traditional life, crafts and culture of Dubai as you’ll find anywhere. A sequence of rooms – full of the sound effects and colourfully dressed mannequins without which no self-respecting Dubai museum would be complete – covers every significant aspect of traditional Dubaian life, including Islam, local architecture, traditional dress and games, camels and falconry. Interesting short films on various subjects are shown in many of the rooms, including fascinating historic footage of pearl divers at work, and there’s also a pretty line of replica shops featuring various traditional trades and crafts – carpenters, blacksmiths, potters, tailors, spice merchants and so on.