Thursday, November 25, 2010

Dubai Museum and Bur Dubai Souk

The Dubai Museum has existed for decades but its tiny size meant that it wasn't much of a tourist draw. About 10 years ago a major renovation and extension of the museum was done and it is now really interesting and receives busloads of tourists every day. Located in the Al Fahidi Fort, one of Dubai's original fortifications and one of the few buildings in the UAE that is over 100 years old, it is to be found near to the Dubai Creek and the historic areas of Bastakiya and the Bur Dubai Souk. Bur Dubai is the oldest area of Dubai, located on the opposite bank of the Dubai Creek from Deira. Parking in the area can be a struggle but we managed to find a space in one of the private car parks that charge a rip-off price of Dhs 10 per hour...needs must though.

The Fort was built using the traditional coral and mud materials of its time; it has since been renovated but, as with Sheikh Saeed's House, the renovation has used cement so it is not quite the genuine restoration you would find in Europe. Nevertheless, from a distance the walls and watchtowers look the same as they do in the old photos of the area and if you can ignore the traffic and the neon lights of the buildings around about then you can imagine yourself back in the times where the people of Dubai had to keep a look out for marauding bandits from other Bedouin tribes.

Entrance to the museum is only Dhs 3 and you enter into a sandy courtyard where you will find examples of the various boats used over time (for transport, fishing, pearl-diving and more), numerous cannons as well as a reconstruction of a traditional Areesh house. Most people lived in homes made from palm fronds (areesh), not in solid mud/coral houses and this example allows you to experience what that would have been like. There is a windtower which trapped any breeze to naturally cool the house as well as an outside kitchen (so the heat of cooking didn't heat up the house) and an outside sleeping platform for during the summer months. In the past it was possible to climb up onto the ramparts of the fort, but this is now closed, however 2 of the rooms in the fort walls have been made into exhibit rooms showing the various weapons of the past, traditional musical instruments and other artifacts.

The courtyard used to be the sum total of the museum but the extension takes you underground to a surprisingly large air-conditioned series of rooms. A circular ramp leads you down from the courtyard and past a number of taxidermied birds that have seen better days and could really do to be replaced as they appeared rather moth-eaten and forlorn. The first room shows a video of Dubai from the early years (pre-1950s) through to the 2000s. An excellent introduction that reminds you exactly how far Dubai has come in such a short space of time, it could do with updating though since it only goes up to the early 2000s and a lot has been added to the city in the past 5 years.

Other rooms in the museum include one showing traditional life with life-sized mannequins within the settings of the carpenter's shop, the textile shop, the ironmonger's, the grocer's, the Quran school and more. With clear explanations next to each exhibit of exactly what is being shown and why things were done in that way, it is very informative without being boring. A room dedicated to the desert at night showcases the local animals (taxidermied, not live ones) but, as with the birds at the entrance, they could really do with replacing since they are starting to look a little bit threadbare. The room dedicated to the sea was very interesting as you learned how dhows are constructed and about the dangers of the pearl-diving industry - some divers could hold their breathe for up to 4 minutes and they risked jelly-fish stings and more in their pursuit of the tiny little white pearls. The most exciting exhibit for children would probably be the skeletons unearthed from ancient burial sites; archaeologists found evidence (including these skeletons) in Jumeirah and other areas of the UAE of settlements dating from approximately 3,000 BC. Prior to leaving the museum, there is of course a small shop selling tacky memorabilia as well as the newest extension showcasing archaeological finds including 5,000-year old arrowheads, pots, jewellery and more.

From the museum we walked down to Bur Dubai Souk with the intention of finding a kaftan for my mother-on-law and as we entered a very narrow passage you would have been forgiven for thinking you had been transported to India. The Hindu temple is located in this small back alley and on both sides of the lane were tiny shops selling the traditional offerings of chains of bright orange flowers, milk and sweets. We arrived just as people were leaving the temple so it was thronged and full of life. Free food of rice and vegetables was being offered not only to all the worshippers but to us as well, whilst it smelt very tasty I didn't want to risk an upset stomach and also didn't feel it would be right to take food that I'd not done anything to deserve.

Exiting the busy temple street into the souk was like entering a ghost town. All the shops were closed (perhaps because all the shop staff were at the temple) and there was barely a soul about. Luckily as we continued our walk through the deserted souk we entered a section that was open for business and we then had to withstand every seller calling us into his shop and fake watch and bag sellers following us down the street asking us to go with them to look at their illegal products. At the end of all that, nowhere was selling kaftans but we did manage to buy some pashminas at a third of the price that you can buy one in a shopping mall. All was not lost though and we drove to a street where locals shop (as opposed to tourists) and Kath was able to get her kaftan for just Dhs 50 - if you're looking for the street, it is where Lobo's Tailor is found.

A great afternoon of the ancient, the old and the modern thrust and bustle of market life. Visitors to Dubai who only visit the shiny mega-malls and five-star hotels are sadly missing out on a genuine opportunity to experience the real life of Dubai up close and personal that you really only get by going into the thick of things in Bur Dubai and Deira.


  1. Thanks for this article! I am going to the Bur Dubai Area this evening in the hope to find a traditional painting or a photograph of Dubai which is ot at the overpriced rates of Madinat Jumeirah! Thanks for the insight...
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