Sunday, September 26, 2010

Discovering the Old Dubai

Dubai's reputation is that of a shiny new city full of architectural wonders, gold, luxury hotels and shopping malls. That is only one face though and Dubai actually has a lot of history to offer residents and visitors. History here only takes you back about 100 years though, not the hundreds or even thousands of years of history you will find in Europe, the Levant and much of the rest of the world. We started our delve into Dubai's past in the area of Shindagha which lies at the mouth of the Dubai Creek.

In the 1940s, most Dubai residents lived along the Creek in either Shindagha or Bur Dubai. The world-famous Jumeirah was home to just a few small fishing settlements. At that time Dubai was ruled by the current Sheikh Mohammed's grandfather, Sheikh Saeed. It was Sheikh Saeed's House that we went to visit - at just Dhs 2 (less than 50p) to get in it's certainly not a bank-breaker. The majority of people in the 1940s lived in 'areesh' houses which were made of palm fronds and which of course no longer exist. However, there were some solid houses made of coral and mud and Sheikh Saeed's House and the surrounding buildings were amongst them. All houses in those days (mud and areesh) were cooled by a windtower which was designed to catch the wind from whichever direction it was blowing and channel it down into the house.

Buildings were not made to last (sadly that trend seems to have been followed with all the recent 'freehold' developments too) and what actually stands in the Shindagha area is a replica of the buildings that were once there. The house consists of a central courtyard with numerous small rooms leading off it and upstairs except for a large sitting room ('majlis'), the roof is open with great views onto the Creek. The door to each room is tiny and even I had to duck to go through - a security tactic since it's easier to defend against someone who has to enter the room head first. Each room within the house exhibits different aspects of life in the 1940s and at the entrance to the house there is a room with photos of what the area looked like in the 1990s before it was redeveloped. What was left of the original house had to be knocked down as the photos show clearly that repair would have been impossible since walls had crumbled and collapsed.

Many of the exhibits are old photos that provide a fascinating insight into what Dubai was like. It is hard to imagine how quickly a small settlement of uneducated tribesmen could rise up to be the megacity we see today. Sheikh Saeed looks like a druid or wizard with his long white beard, long white hair and tall, slender frame. Photos also include Sheikh Mohammed's father, Sheikh Rashid who is remembered as the Father of Dubai since it was his vision that laid the foundations for Dubai's current wealth and prosperity, as well as photos of Sheikh Mohammed and his brothers as children. Shindagha now backs onto an 8 lane motorway and Port Rashid but the photos show that previously the area lay along a pure white beach directly on the sea. Other exhibits include old maps of the area, the various currencies and coins used here for the past 100 years and models of dhows and pearl fishing boats.

We had planned to visit the whole area which includes other rebuilt historic houses but unfortunately the 40 degree heat forced our retreat. The rooms in Sheikh Saeed's House, although fitted with AC, aren't linked to each other so it's necessary to come outside into the courtyard each time and after over an hour of that we were just a little drained. Presumably in the past the rooms were linked to a windtower above but having them open to the air now wouldn't do the exhibits any good! A fascinating place to visit, but better in the cooler months. As Arnie would say, "We'll be back".


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