Strung out along the southern side of the Creek, the district of Bur Dubai is the oldest part of the city, and in many ways still the most interesting. This is where you’ll find virtually all the bits of old Dubai that survived the rapid development of the 1960s and 1970s, and parts of the area’s historic waterfront still retain their engagingly old-fashioned appearance, with a quaint tangle of sand-coloured buildings and a distinctively Arabian skyline, spiked with dozens of wind towers and the occasional minaret. Away from the Creek the district is more modern and mercantile, epitomized by lively Al Fahidi Street, lined with neon-lit stores stacked high with phones and watches. This is also where you’ll get the strongest sense of Bur Dubai’s status as the city’s Little India, with dozens of no-frills curry houses, window displays full of glittery saris, and optimistic touts offering fake watches or a “nice pashmina”.
Much of the charm of Bur Dubai lies in simply wandering along the waterfront and through the busy backstreets, although there are a number of specific attractions worth exploring. At the heart of the district, the absorbing Dubai Museum offers an excellent introduction to the city’s history, culture and customs, while the old Iranian quarter of Bastakiya nearby is home to the city’s most impressive collection of traditional buildings, topped with dozens of wind towers. Heading west along the Creek, the old-fashioned Textile Souk is one of the prettiest in the city, while still further along, the historic old quarter of Shindagha is home to another fine cluster of traditional buildings, many of them now converted into low-key museums, including the engaging Sheikh Saeed al Maktoum House.
Top image © David Steele/Shutterstock
Al Fahidi Street is Bur Dubai’s de facto high street, bisecting the area from east to west and lined with a mix of shops selling Indian clothing, shoes and jewellery along with other places stacked high with mobile phones and fancy watches (not necessarily genuine). This is Dubai at its most intensely Indian, and great fun, particularly after dark, when the crowds come out, the neon comes on and the whole strip gets overrun with shoppers, sightseers and off-duty labourers just shooting the breeze – like a slightly sanitized version of the Subcontinent, minus the cows.
The area around the eastern end of Al Fahidi Street and neighbouring Al Hisn Street is often loosely referred to as Meena Bazaar. The centre of the district’s textile and tailoring industry, it’s home to a dense razzle-dazzle of shopfronts stuffed with colourful dresses and sumptuous saris.
Stretching between the Creek and Al Fahidi Street just east of the Dubai Museum is the beautiful old quarter of Bastakiya (with the stress on the i) – or the "Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood", as it's now been rather pointlessly rechristened – a photogenic huddle of traditional Gulf houses, capped with dozens of wind towers and arranged around a rabbit warren of tiny alleyways, built deliberately narrow in order to provide pedestrians with welcome shade.
The houses here were originally put up in the early 1900s by merchants from Bandar Lengeh and other ports just over the Gulf in southern Iran, who had been lured to Dubai by the promise of low taxes and free land, and who in turn helped transform the commercial fortunes of their host city; they named their new suburb Bastakiya after their ancestral home, the Iranian town of Bastak. At a time when virtually the entire population of Dubai was living in palm-thatch huts, the houses of Bastakiya were notably solid and sophisticated, with the added luxury of primitive air-conditioning provided by the wind towers which rise from virtually every rooftop in the district.
By the 1980s, Bastakiya had become increasingly run-down as the wealthy Iranian families who had previously lived here began to move out to more spacious houses in the new suburbs. Many of the old houses were turned into warehouses and the entire area was threatened with demolition, although in the end around two-thirds of the original quarter was rescued from the developers and meticulously restored to its former splendour.
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.
Cutting a salty swathe through the middle of the old city, the Creek (Al Khor in Arabic) lies physically and historically at the very heart of Dubai – a broad, serene stretch of water which is as essential a part of the city's fabric as the Thames is to London or the Seine to Paris. The Creek was the location of the earliest settlements in the area – first on the Bur Dubai side of the water, and subsequently in Deira – and also played a crucial role in the recent history of the city. One of the first acts of the visionary Sheikh Rashid – the so-called father of modern Dubai – on coming to power in 1958 was to have the Creek dredged and made navigable to larger shipping, thus diverting trade from the then far wealthier neighbouring emirate of Sharjah (whose own creek was allowed to silt up, with disastrous consequences). With its enhanced shipping facilities, Dubai quickly established itself as one of the Gulf’s most important commercial centres. Indeed in hindsight it’s possible to see Sheikh Rashid’s opening up of the Creek, just as much as the later discovery of oil, as the key factor in the city’s subsequent prosperity.
Recent years have seen the Creek once again take centre stage in Dubai’s ever-evolving urban masterplan. In 2008–10 it was extended from Ras al Khor to Business Bay, while the massive new Dubai Canal project will lengthen it further still, eventually taking it all the way back to the sea at Jumeirah and creating an enormous watery loop linking old and new parts of the city.
Although the Creek’s importance to local shipping has dwindled in recent decades following the opening of the enormous new docks at Port Rashid and the free-trade zone at Jebel Ali, it continues to see plenty of small-scale vessels, with innumerable old-fashioned wooden dhows moored up along the Deira side of the water at the Dhow Wharfage.
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.
Southeast of Bastakiya, some 2km of waterfront running alongside Al Seef Road is currently in the throes of redevelopment as part of the Marsa al Seef project, due to open in phases during 2016 and 2017 and without doubt the biggest thing to happen in Bur Dubai in over a century. Inspired by neighbouring Bastakiya and the souks of old Dubai, the development is positioning itself at the “cultural” end of the tourism spectrum with a new museum, amphitheatre and traditional souk, plus marina and abra station. Architectural models displayed by developers Meraas at the project’s unveiling in 2015 showed a mix of traditional-style wind-towered houses in the area closest to Bastakiya alongside more modern and minimalist-looking constructions further south – an attractively low-rise and mainly open-air waterside development which promises to write yet another chapter in the long story of Dubai’s most historic area.
At the heart of Bur Dubai, the Textile Souk (also sometimes referred to as the “Old Souk”) is easily the prettiest in the city, occupying an immaculately restored traditional bazaar, its long line of sand-coloured buildings shaded by a fine arched wooden roof and pleasantly cool even in the heat of the day. This was once the most important bazaar in the city although its commercial importance has long since faded – almost all the shops have now been taken over by Indian traders flogging reams of sari cloth and fluorescent blankets alongside assorted tourist tat (if you’re hankering after an I ♥ DUBAI T-shirt, Burj Khalifa paperweight or spangly camel, now’s your chance).
It’s also worth exploring the lanes off the souk’s main drag, dotted with further examples of traditional (albeit heavily restored) local architecture, complete with long wooden balconies, latticed windows and the occasional wind tower.
The Textile Souk is where you’ll find Bur Dubai’s two main abra stations: Bur Dubai Abra Station, just outside the main entrance to the souk, and Bur Dubai Old Souk Abra Station, inside the souk itself. From these stations, old-fashioned little wooden abras shuttle back and forth across the Creek at all hours of the day and night, operated by boatmen from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Iran. The boats’ basic design has changed little for at least a century, apart from the addition of a diesel engine (abras were formerly rowed) and an awning to provide passengers with shade. Up until the opening of Al Maktoum Bridge in 1963, abras provided the only means of getting from one side of the Creek to the other, and despite the fact that they are now effectively floating antiques, they still play a crucial role in the city’s transport infrastructure, carrying a staggering twenty million passengers per year for a modest 1dh per trip.
For longer trips, you can either charter your own abra or take a tour aboard the sleek new Dubai Ferry, leaving from its berth in Al Ghubaiba opposite Shindagha Tower.