Although now effectively swallowed up by Bur Dubai, the historic creekside district of Shindagha was, until fifty years ago, a quite separate and self-contained area occupying its own spit of land, and frequently cut off from Bur Dubai proper during high tides. This was once the most exclusive address in town, home to the ruling family and other local elites, who occupied a series of imposing coral-walled and wind-towered houses lined up along the waterfront. Many of these old houses, now sprucely restored, have survived, making this part of town – along with Bastakiya – the only place in the city where you can still get a real idea of what old Dubai looked like. A growing number have also been converted into low-key museums, including the absorbing Sheikh Saeed al Maktoum House and the outstanding new Crossroads of Civilizations Museum, along with a number of other places which are hardly worth bothering with, despite being free.
The edge of the district is guarded by the distinctive waterfront Shindagha Tower, one of only two of the city’s original defensive watchtowers to survive (the other is the Burj Nahar) and instantly recognizable thanks to the slit windows and protruding buttresses on each side, arranged to resemble a human face.
The walk along the Bur Dubai waterfront is far and away the nicest in the city, pedestrianized throughout, and with cooling breezes and wonderful views of the city down the Creek – particularly beautiful towards sunset. For the best views, begin in Shindagha and head south; it takes about 20–25 minutes to reach Bastakiya. Starting outside the Diving Village, a spacious promenade stretches all the way down the Shindagha waterfront as far as Shindagha Tower, from where a narrow walkway extends to Bur Dubai Abra Station and the Textile Souk. Walk through the souk, exiting it via Hindi Lane to emerge by the Grand Mosque. Head left from here to regain the waterfront by the high black railings of the Diwan, from where the creekside promenade continues to the edge of Bastakiya and beyond, past the old Bur Dubai cemetery flanking Al Seef Road.
Easily the most interesting of the various Shindagha museums is the Sheikh Saeed al Maktoum House, the principal residence of Dubai’s ruling family from 1896 to 1958. Work on the house was begun in 1896 – making it one of the oldest buildings in Dubai – by Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher al Maktoum, and three further wings were added by subsequent members of the Maktoum family, including Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum al Maktoum, former ruler of Dubai, who lived here until his death in 1958. Dubai’s current ruler, Sheikh Mohammed (grandson of Sheikh Saeed), himself spent the early years of his life in the house, sharing living space with a hundred-odd people and assorted animals, including guards, family slaves, goats, dogs and the occasional camel – basic living conditions for someone who would go on to become one of the world’s richest men.
The house is now home to one of the city’s most interesting museums, featuring assorted exhibits relating to the history of Dubai. Pride of place goes to the superb collection of old photographs, with images of the city from the 1940s through to the late 1960s, showing the first steps in its amazing transformation from a remote Gulf town to global megalopolis. There are also fine shots of fishermen at work and old dhows under their distinctive triangular lateen sails, plus a couple of photos showing the rather biblical-looking swarm of locusts that descended on the town in 1953. (Locusts have played a surprisingly important role in Dubai’s history. One theory holds that the town’s name derives from a type of local locust, the daba, while during the starvation years of World War II, locusts – netted and fried – provided a valuable source of food for impoverished locals.) Another room is devoted to photos of the various craggy-featured Al Maktoum sheikhs – the startling family resemblance makes it surprisingly difficult to tell them apart – including the prescient image of Sheikh Rashid and the young Sheikh Mohammed poring over a petroleum brochure.
Elsewhere you’ll find some interesting wooden models of traditional dhows, colourful colonial-era stamps and an extensive exhibit of local coins, featuring a large selection of the East India Company and Indian colonial coins which were used as common currency in Dubai from the late eighteenth century right through until 1966, when Dubai and Qatar introduced a joint currency to replace them. Upstairs a couple of further rooms are filled with lovely old maps of Dubai and the Arabian peninsula, plus some documents detailing assorted administrative and commercial dealings between the British and Dubaians during the later colonial period, including the agreement allowing Imperial Airways seaplanes to land on the Creek from 1938, the first commercial service to touch down in Dubai.