Deira Travel Guide
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North of the Creek lies Deira, the second of the old city’s two principal districts, founded in 1841, when settlers from Bur Dubai crossed the Creek to establish a new village here. Deira rapidly overtook its older neighbour in commercial importance and remains notably more built-up and cosmopolitan, with a heady ethnic mix of Emiratis, Gulf Arabs, Iranians, Indians, Pakistanis and Somalis thronging its packed streets, along with African gold traders and camera-toting Western tourists. Specific attractions are thin on the ground, but this remains the city’s best place for aimless wandering and even a short exploration will uncover a kaleidoscopic jumble of cultures, with Indian curry houses jostling for space with Iranian grocers, Somali shisha-cafés and backstreet mosques – not to mention an endless array of shops selling everything from formal black abbeya to belly-dancing costumes.
For the visitor, Deira’s main attraction is its myriad souks – most obviously the famous Gold Souk and the small but atmospheric Spice Souk – although in many ways the entire quarter is one enormous bazaar through which it’s possible to wander for mile after mile without ever surfacing. The district is also home to the interesting traditional Heritage House and Al Ahmadiya School museums, while along the banks of the Creek itself you’ll find the atmospheric Dhow Wharfage plus a clutch of striking modernist buildings centred on the landmark National Bank of Dubai.
Tucked away directly behind the Heritage House, the Al Ahmadiya School is one of the city’s finest surviving examples of traditional Emirati architecture, and now houses an interesting museum devoted to the educational history of the emirate. Founded in 1912 by pearl merchant Sheikh Mohammed bin Ahmed bin Dalmouk, Al Ahmadiya was the first public school in the UAE, and many of the city’s leaders studied here, including Sheikh Rashid. The school was also notably egalitarian – only the sons of wealthy families were expected to pay, and education for poorer pupils was free. The curriculum initially focused exclusively on the traditional Islamic disciplines of Koranic study, Arabic calligraphy and mathematics, though the syllabus was later expanded to cover practical subjects such as diving and the pearl trade, as well as more modern disciplines including English, geography and science. After the overcrowded school was relocated in 1962, the original building was allowed to fall into ruin, but in 1995 it was meticulously restored by the city authorities – part of a belated attempt to rescue surviving examples of traditional architecture and culture amid the swiftly modernizing city.
The building itself is a simple but attractive two-storey affair arranged around a sandy courtyard and topped by a solitary wind tower; the lower floor is particularly fine, with richly carved arches and a sequence of Koranic inscriptions in recessed panels decorating the rear wall. The upper storey is plainer, although one of the rooms still preserves some of the old-fashioned wooden desks used by former pupils. Touchscreens and displays cover the history of the school, along with an interesting ten-minute film containing interviews with former students, plus some intriguing old footage of the school in its heyday showing neatly robed pupils lined up for inspection in the courtyard. The modest exhibits include old photos and the inevitable mannequins, including three tiny pupils being instructed by a rather irritable-looking teacher brandishing a wooden cane. A photograph in the same room (another copy of which you might have seen in the Sheikh Saeed House in Shindagha) shows Dubai’s present ruler, Sheikh Mohammed, as a young boy in 1954, sitting with his father, Sheikh Rashid, the pair of them hunched over a book about petroleum – a touching snapshot of the two people most responsible for Dubai’s spectacular transformation over the past five decades.
Next to busy Omar bin al Khattab Road on the eastern outskirts of Deira is the little-visited Burj Nahar, built in 1870 to guard the city’s landward approaches and now set in a pretty little garden studded with palm trees. It's one of only two of Dubai’s original watchtowers to survive (the other is Shindagha Tower): a virtually impenetrable round structure completely devoid of doors and windows in its lower half, and with only the narrowest of slits above.
Deira’s sprawling Covered Souk (a misnomer, since it isn’t) comprises a rather indeterminate area of small shops arranged around the maze of narrow, pedestrianized alleyways which run south from Sikkat al Khail Road down towards the Creek. Most of the shops here are Indian-run, selling colourful, low-grade cloth for women’s clothes, along with large quantities of mass-produced plastic toys and cheap household goods. It’s all rather down-at-heel, but makes for an interesting stroll, especially in the area at the back of the Al Sabkha bus station, the densest and busiest part of the bazaar.
The souk continues on the far side of Al Sabkha Road under the name of Al Wasl Souk, before reaching Al Musallah Street. On the north side of Al Wasl it’s also worth ducking into the Naif Souq, a large two-storey orange-coloured building with discreet Arabian touches stuffed full of a colourful medley of shops selling fabrics, abbeya and perfumes.
Occupying a large warehouse on the north side of Al Khaleej Road, away from the hustle and bustle of central Deira, is the extensive Deira Fish, Meat and Vegetable Market. The fruit and vegetable section features a photogenic array of stalls piled high with all the usual fruit alongside more exotic offerings such as rambutans, mangosteens, coconuts, vast watermelons, yams and big bundles of fresh herbs, as well as a bewildering array of dates in huge, sticky piles. The less colourful – and far more malodorous – fish section is stocked with long lines of sharks, tuna and all sorts of other fish right down to sardines; if you’re lucky someone will offer you a prawn. There’s also a small but rather gory meat section tucked away at the back.
Look out over the water from Corniche near the food market and you’ll see a long strip of empty land running parallel with the old shoreline. This was originally intended to form the base of the Palm Deira, the third of Dubai’s trio of palm-shaped islands. An extensive area of land (a quarter of the planned total) had already been reclaimed when work was suspended during the financial crisis of 2008. The project hung in limbo for several years until late 2013, when developers Nakheel announced that the development would resume in somewhat reduced circumstances, now rechristened Deira Islands and comprising a trio of miniature islands formed from land already reclaimed. The new development will add some 23km of coastline including over 8km of new beach, as well as providing land for the usual malls (including a new Night Souk), hotels and apartments, with the first openings due in 2018.
Stretching along the Deira creekside east of the Grand Souk between Deira Old Souk and Al Sabkha abra stations, the Dhow Wharfage offers a fascinating glimpse into the maritime traditions of old Dubai that have survived miraculously intact at the heart of the twenty-first-century city. At any one time, the wharfage is home to dozens of beautiful wooden dhows, some as much as a hundred years old, which berth here to load and unload cargo; hence the great tarpaulin-covered mounds of merchandise – anything from cartons of cigarettes to massive air-conditioning units – that lie stacked up along the waterfront. The dhows themselves range in size from the fairly modest vessels employed for short hops up and down the coast to the large ocean-going craft used to transport goods around the Gulf and over to Iran, and even as far afield as Somalia, Pakistan and India. Virtually all of them fly the UAE flag, although they’re generally manned by foreign crews who live on board, their lines of washing strung out across the decks and piles of cooking pots giving the boats a quaintly domestic air in the middle of Deira’s roaring traffic. Hang around long enough and you might be invited to hop on board for a chat (assuming you can find a shared language) and a cup of tea.
Deira’s famous Gold Souk is usually the first stop for visitors to the district and attracts a cosmopolitan range of customers, from Western tourists to African traders buying up pieces for resale at home. There are over three hundred shops here, most of them lined up along the souk’s wooden-roofed main arcade, their windows packed with a staggering quantity of jewellery. It’s been estimated that there are usually around ten tonnes of gold in the souk at any one time, although even this is just one part of the city's much larger overall gold trade which now contributes some US $70 billion to the city's economy annually, representing no less than 25 percent of the world's entire annual trade in gold.
The souk’s main attraction for shoppers is price: the gold available here is among the cheapest in the world, and massive competition keeps prices keen. The jewellery on offer ranges from ornate Arabian creations to elegantly restrained pieces aimed at European visitors. Particularly appealing are the traditional Emirati bracelets, fashioned from solid gold (and often exquisitely embellished with white-gold decoration) and hung in long lines in shop windows; these were traditionally used for dowries, as were the heavier and more ornate necklaces also on display. There are also plenty of places selling precious stones, including diamonds and a range of other gems.
The gold industry in Dubai is carefully regulated, so there’s no danger of being ripped off with substandard or fake goods, but there are still a few useful basic things to know. First, gold jewellery is sold by weight (the quality and detail of the decoration and workmanship, however elaborate, isn’t usually factored into the price). Second, the price of gold is fixed in all shops citywide (the daily price is displayed on video screens at either end of the souk; the exact figure fluctuates daily depending on the international price of gold). Therefore, if you ask how much a piece of jewellery is, it will first be weighed, and the cost then calculated according to the day’s gold price.
Once you’ve established this basic price, it’s time to start bargaining. A request for the shop's “best price” should yield an immediate discount of around 20–25 percent over the basic price; you may be able to lower the price still further depending on how desperate the shop staff are for a sale. As ever, it pays to shop around and compare prices; tell the shop that you’ve found a better deal elsewhere, if necessary. If you’re buying multiple items, press for further discounts.
If you can’t find what you want in the Gold Souk, try one of the sizeable malls – Gold Land, The Gold Center and Gold House – stuffed full of gold, or the jewellery shops lined up along Al Khaleej Road a short distance to the north.
Shopping for precious stones is more complicated, and it pays to do some research before leaving home. Diamonds are a particularly good buy in Dubai, often selling at up to half the price they would retail for in the West. If you’re buying diamonds, it’s also well worth visiting the excellent Gold and Diamond Park in southern Jumeirah. The area around the Gold Souk is also one of the major centres of Dubai’s flourishing trade in designer fakes.
Southwest of the Gold Souk stretches the extensive covered souk formerly known as Al Souk al Kabeer (“The Big Souk”), once the largest and most important market in Deira. It's now been extensively renovated and rechristened the Grand Souk Deira, with the shops given uniform facades in traditional-looking stone, similar to those in Bur Dubai’s Textile Souk. It's all pleasant enough, although the merchandise on offer (mainly household goods and cheap toys) is humdrum and the main drag here is popular with touts attempting to lasso passing tourists with the usual offers of copy bags, nice pashminas and genuine fake watches.
Tucked into the southeast corner of the Grand Souk, the diminutive Spice Souk (now signed “Herbs Market”) is perhaps the most atmospheric – and certainly the most fragrant – of the city’s many bazaars. Run almost exclusively by Iranian traders, the shops here stock a wide variety of culinary, medicinal and cosmetic products, with tubs of merchandise set out in front of each tiny shopfront. All the usual spices can be found – cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, coriander – along with more unusual offerings such as dried cucumbers and lemons (a common ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine), incense and heaps of hibiscus and rose petals, used to make a delicately scented tea. The souk is also famous for its frankincense, sold in various different forms and grades – the most common type looks like a kind of reddish, crumbling crystalline rock; frankincense burners can be bought in the souk for a few dirhams. Most stalls also sell natural cosmetic products such as pumice and alum (a clear rock crystal used to soothe the skin after shaving), while male visitors in search of a pick-me-up will also find plentiful supplies of so-called “natural viagra”.
One of the city’s oldest museums, and still one of its best, the engaging Heritage House offers the most complete picture of everyday life in old Dubai you’ll find anywhere in town. The house was originally built in 1890 and subsequently enlarged at various times over the next fifty years, most notably in 1910 by the pearl merchant Sheikh Mohammed bin Ahmed bin Dalmouk, who was also responsible for establishing Al Ahmadiya School next door.
The building is a classic example of a traditional Gulf mansion, with imposing but largely windowless exterior walls (except at the front) and rooms arranged around a large sandy courtyard with a couple of trees in the middle – a miniature desert at the heart of an urban mansion. Each of the rooms is enlivened with exhibits evoking aspects of traditional Emirati life. Mannequins loll around on cushions drinking coffee in the main majlis, where male guests were traditionally received, business was conducted and news exchanged, while in the ladies’ majlis a child has her hands painted with henna while others spin thread, work on their embroidery or grind spices. Finely carved teak doors with stylized palm and floral motifs lead into the main room (al makhzan), where further mannequins in rich traditional dress and jewellery pose amid incongruous Western imports, including an old gramophone, a wireless and a Seth Thomas clock – the unintentionally comic signs admonishing visitors to “Please keep away from the exhibits” may be taken with the appropriate pinch of salt.
The heritage houses in Dubai (and other places around the Emirates) follow a standard pattern – although it’s worth remembering that these elaborate stone mansions were far from typical of the living arrangements enjoyed by the population at large, most of whom lived in simple and impermanent palm-thatch huts. Virtually all traditional houses are built around a central courtyard (housh) and veranda (liwan). These provided families with their main living area, and a place where they could cook, play and graze a few animals in complete privacy; some also had a well and a couple of trees. Exterior walls are usually plain and largely windowless in order to protect privacy. Rooms are arranged around the courtyard, the most important being the majlis (meeting room), in which the family would receive guests and exchange news (larger houses would have separate majlis for men and women). More elaborate houses would also boast one or more wind towers.
Traditional houses make ingenious use of locally available natural materials. Most coastal houses were constructed using big chunks of coral stone, or fesht (look closely and you can make out the delicate outlines of submarine sponges, corals and suchlike on many of the stones). The stones were cemented together using layers of pounded gypsum, while walls were strengthened by the insertion of mangrove poles bound with rope. Mangrove wood was also used as a roofing material along with (in more elaborate houses) planks of Indian teak. Away from the coast, coral was replaced by bricks made from a mixture of mud and straw, or adobe (a word deriving from the Arabic al tob, meaning “mud”).
Local architecture is remarkably well adapted to provide shelter from the Gulf’s scorching summer temperatures: walls were built thick and windows small to keep out the heat, while both coral and adode have excellent natural insulating properties. Houses were also built close to one another, partly for security, and also to provide shade in the narrow alleyways between. And although most houses look austere, the overall effect of plainness is relieved by richly carved wooden doors and veranda screens, and by floral and geometrical designs around windows, doorways and arches, fashioned from gypsum and coloured with charcoal powder.
The run-of-the-mill Municipality Museum occupies the quaint old balconied building which originally housed the city’s first municipal offices from 1958 to 1964 – the 1950s municipality had just six employees compared to over twenty thousand today. Exhibits include assorted charts, municipal stamps and other documents including the 1966 decree ordering traffic to drive on the right (vehicles had previously driven, British-style, on the left) and the ground-breaking city plan of 1960 showing the proposed development of Deira and Bur Dubai – extremely small beer compared to more recent developments, but impressively ambitious for its time.
Celebrating Dubai’s formidable reputation for law and order, the modest Naif Museum lies tucked away in a corner of the imposing Naif Fort (originally built in 1939, but restored to death in 1997). The museum was created at the behest of Sheikh Mohammed, who served as Chief of the Dubai Police for three years from 1968 – his first job, aged just 19. It’s actually a lot less tedious than you might fear, with mildly diverting exhibits on the history of law enforcement in Dubai from the foundation of the police force in 1956 up to the present day. Exhibits include assorted old weapons and uniforms, a trio of short films including some interesting historical footage, and various old photos, among them a shot of a youthful-looking Sheikh Mohammed.
The area next to the Creek southeastern Deira is where you’ll find several of Dubai’s original modernist landmarks, whose quirky design provided a blueprint for the ever growing crop of magnificent, maverick and sometimes downright loony high-rises which can now be found across the city. Pride of place goes to the National Bank of Dubai building (1998), designed by Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott, who was also responsible for the nearby Hilton Dubai Creek and the Bastille Opera House in Paris. The bank’s Creek-facing side is covered by an enormous, curved sheet of highly polished glass, modelled on the sail of a traditional dhow, which acts as a kind of huge mirror to the water below and seems positively to catch fire with reflected light towards sunset.
Next to the bank sits the shorter and squatter Dubai Chamber of Commerce (1995), an austerely minimalist glass-clad structure which seems to have been designed using nothing but triangles – a pattern subliminally echoed in the adjacent Sheraton Dubai Creek, whose wedge-shaped facade pokes out above the creekside like the prow of some enormous concrete ship. Opposite the Sheraton on Omar bin al Khattab Road stands the Etisalat Tower (1986), designed by Canadian architect Arthur Erikson and instantly recognizable thanks to the enormous golf ball on its roof. The design proved so catchy it’s since been repeated at further Etisalat buildings across the UAE, including the Etisalat building at the north end of Sheikh Zayed Road.
There’s another large Dhow Wharfage here, just east of the Chamber of Commerce. It’s much less visited than central Deira’s but just as eye-catching, with the old-fashioned boats surreally framed against the sparkling glass facades of the surrounding modernist high-rises.
Immediately east of the Gold Souk lies the so-called Perfume Souk – although there’s no actual souk building, just a collection of streetside shops, mainly along Sikkat al Khail Road but also spilling over into Al Soor and Souk Deira streets. Most places sell a mix of international brands (not necessarily genuine) along with the much heavier and more flowery oil-based attar perfumes favoured by local ladies. Keep an eye out for fragrances made with the highly prized oud, derived from agarwood (or aloes wood, as it’s called in the West). At many shops you can also create your own scents, mixing and matching from the contents of the big bottles lined up behind the counter before taking them away in chintzy little cut-glass containers, many of which are collectibles in their own right.
Dubai’s new Women’s Museum is tricky to find and, sadly, not at all worth the effort, looking suspiciously like an out-of-control vanity project concocted by founder Dr Rafia Ghubash for her personal glorification. The downstairs exhibition space is attractively designed, although the stuff on display – random dresses, bits of jewellery, cosmetics, herbs, cooking utensils and so on – is of virtually zero interest, while signage includes rather too many mentions of the marvellous Dr Ghubash and her various remarkable chums.
Upstairs, fawning displays kiss the metaphorical derrières of sheihks Zayed and Mohammed and eulogize their role in the development of the UAE, although exactly what a pair of blokes are doing taking up so much space in an allegedly women’s museum is anyone’s guess. A few forgettable paintings by female Emirati artists and some irrelevant exhibits of photos and stamps complete the displays.