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Exploring the Old Dubai and the Al Fahidi Historical District

by Paola Bertoni
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Imagining the city before the skyscrapers is impossible when driving through Dubai, especially on the vast multi-lane Sheikh Zayed Road. Yet Dubai has a very ancient history. It started with the Bedouins in the desert, and the city’s development was boosted by the discovery of oil. In recent years, the old part of Dubai has been restored to the delight of tourists.

Ancient Dubai: Where Experience Tradition in the Modern City

In recent years, the old Dubai and the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood have been completely renovated. Its traditional Arabian architecture and wind towers are now visitable. Also Dubai’s oldest building, the Al Fahidi Fort, dated 1787, has also been completely renovated.

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Another old part of the city is the Gold and Spice Souks. They look much more airy and modern than other Middle Eastern markets. They are also literally surrounded by the skyscrapers of modern Dubai. You can find traditional Dubai architecture in the Souk Madinat shopping mall and the Al Seef Heritage Hotel Dubai. However, it has to be said they are reconstructions for tourists.

There is little to see of ancient Dubai. Before the advent of oil and skyscrapers, Emirati houses were almost all Bedouin huts built from date palm fronds. Dubai’s traditions are handed down less in the buildings than in the way of life of the Emiratis.

Traditional Arab culture still lives on in the way guests are welcomed in Emirati homes, with coffee and dates in a particular lounge called majlis. Even the way coffee is served, with a special ritual, has its roots in the Bedouin tradition of the United Arab Emirates.

Entrance to the Al Fahidi Historical District, formerly Bastakiya, with restored historic houses and reconstruction of a Bedouin camp
Entrance to the Al Fahidi Historical District, formerly Bastakiya, with restored historic houses and reconstruction of a Bedouin camp

Al Fahidi Historical District

When arriving at the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, you might get confused with the neighbouring neighbourhoods of Shindagha or Al Seef. At first glance, the latter appears to be in the same traditional Arab style. In reality, reconstructed with modern criteria. Shindagha almost merges with the Al Fahidi neighbourhood, the Fort’s district.

In the past, the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood was known as Bastakiya, an Iranian name. The only brick houses present in Dubai were built by Iranian merchants who had settled there in past centuries. The Emiratis, in fact, did not build houses made to last because they were semi-nomadic.

With urban redevelopment, today Bastakiya has rebranded as Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. This beautiful pedestrianised neighbourhood, with narrow alleys between low one-storey houses, and wind towers to cool the air is a true delight to visit.

Al Fahidi Fort

Al Fahidi Fort houses the Dubai Museum, Dubai’s city museum that tells the emirate’s history. The building was constructed for defensive purposes and is the oldest building in Dubai. Built in 1787, Al Fahidi Fortress was a royal residence, defensive fortress, military arsenal and prison. It became a museum in 1971, the year the United Arab Emirates was formed.

Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood

The Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood is almost entirely original. Its 20th-century structures were renovated according to the criteria of the time. You can visit the area on your own, take the Heritage Express bus or participate a tour organised by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.

The most distinctive part, especially if you are new to Arab architecture, are the traditional wind towers. They are built of stone, wood and plaster, functioning as a natural air-conditioning system that allows cooler air to circulate through the rooms and warmer air to escape through the openings at the top.

Walking through the historic Al Fahidi district is the best way to imagine life in ancient Dubai before the birth of the United Arab Emirates. Today, the traditional houses are museums and art galleries, and cultural events are often held in the district.

Museums in the Al Fahidi Historical District

The most curious museums in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood are the Coffee Museum, the Coin Museum and the Dar Al Khatt Calligraphy House. The Coffee Museum is a private museum to visit if you want to learn about traditional Emirati coffee. It is very different from other types of coffee. Coffee, in the United Arab Emirates, is served almost like tea, following rules handed down through generations. In the Dubai Coffee Museum, you can taste freshly brewed coffee and learn everything about its aroma.

In the Coin Museum, you can see the coins used in the Arabian Peninsula before independence. Over 470 rare coins from the British Empire, used in India and other colonies, are on display. The Dar Al Khatt Calligraphy House, on the other hand, offers lessons on Arabic calligraphy and explanations of its artistic use. As you can see, a tour of the historic Al Fahidi district is a real immersion immersion in Emirati culture!

Café with art gallery in Dubai's historic Al Fahidi district
Café with art gallery in Dubai’s historic Al Fahidi district

Shindagha Historic District

The Shindagha historic district is often confused with the neighbouring Al Fahidi historic district, but they are two separate areas. Shindagha is an area in Dubai that overlooks the Creek where Dubai’s ruling family lived until the 1950s.

The two historic districts of Shindagha and Al Fahidi cover a total area of about three kilometres. It is very easy to go from one district to the other in search of a museum or art gallery. The redevelopment of the Shindagha historic district is part of Old Dubai’s candidature programme as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In the Shindagha historic district, you can visit some interesting museums: the House of Perfume, the Crossroads of Civilisation Museum, and the House of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum. The House of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum is the birthplace of the grandfather of the current reigning Sheikh of Dubai. Inside, you can see photographs of the city before the discovery of oil, the Creek, and traditional festivities, as well as family photos.

The Crossroads of Civilisation Museum is a private museum that tells the story of Dubai as a land of connection between the East and the West. It is fascinating to discover the trade that has passed through the Arabian Peninsula since the time of the Greeks, Romans and Babylonians. The Perfume House, on the other hand, is a small perfume museum where you can learn all about traditional Arab perfumes, from the creation of essences to their role in Emirati culture.

Al Seef District: a Crossroad Between Tradition and Modernity

Al Seef is a new neighbourhood that echoes traditional Arab architecture, complete with fake wind towers. Just a stone’s throw from the historical districts of Al Fahidi and Shindagha, it is a nice way to experience the Emirati atmosphere with a stroll along the Creek among craft shops and perfumeries.

The Al Seef district also has a diffuse hotel, the only one in Dubai. It is designed to sleep like in an authentic traditional Emirati house but with all the comforts of five-star hotels, including air conditioning. I recommend a stay at the Al Seef Heritage Hotel Dubai Curio Collection by Hilton for both the experience itself and the unique location next to Dubai’s historic districts.

The diffused hotel is truly stunning, with rooms decorated in an Arabic style and within a pedestrianised setting. From here, you can walk through the museums and alleys of old Dubai in the less hot hours of the day to discover its soul hidden by the skyscrapers.

Al Seef Heritage Hotel Dubai Curio Collection by Hilton
Al Seef Heritage Hotel Dubai Curio Collection by Hilton

Other Places to Discover History and Traditions of Old Dubai

In addition to the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, to fully understand the history of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates, I recommend a visit to the Etihad Museum, a building with spectacular architecture that tells the story of the independence of the Truce States and the birth of the United Arab Emirates. These events are more recent because they took place in the 1970s. Still, they are fundamental to understanding the history of Dubai. In fact, the city was utterly transformed from a fishing village to a city of skyscrapers in just 20 years.

Finally, you cannot understand Dubai and the United Arab Emirates if you do not understand their culture based on Islam. That is why a visit to the Jumeirah Mosque, the only one open to non-Muslims, can give you a different insight into the most touristy emirate, famous for its luxury and excess. Here, you can see how the old and the new traditions and modernities coexist in the same city.

Etihad Museum

The events that transformed the emirates of the Arabian Peninsula from the Truce States into modern, independent states are pretty recent but fundamental for the further development of the Emirates. To discover this part of history and how the United Arab Emirates came into being, don’t miss the Etihad Museum. It is located on the exact spot where Union House stood, the place where the UAE Constitution was signed in 1971.

In the Etihad Museum, you can see a lot of historical material about the discovery of oil and the changes that the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Qaywayn have undergone since independence from the British protectorate.

Etihad Museum in Dubai
Etihad Museum in Dubai

Jumeirah Mosque

Islam is the main religion in the United Arab Emirates and is a true way of life rather than a religion to attend on public holidays as in the West. Its principles stated in the Koran are, in fact, applied in everyday life, starting with the five daily prayers. In fact, the Muslim religion dictates a series of principles to be followed, both with regard to the family and what to eat or how to dress.

For this reason, you cannot think of discovering Dubai’s culture and traditions without giving importance to the Islamic religion. Fortunately, you can learn more by visiting the Jumeirah Mosque, the only mosque in Dubai open to non-Muslims. Every day, except Fridays (equivalent to the Western Sundays) the Jumeirah Mosque is open to tourists with guided tours run by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. The same centre runs tours of the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood.

Guided tours of the Jumeirah Mosque include detailed explanations of the Muslim way of life and religion, with insights into Islamic rituals, traditions, gastronomy and festivities. You can also taste arabic coffee and dates during the tour. Children are always welcome, with guided tours tailor-made for them. If you are interested in visiting the Jumeirah Mosque, remember that sober clothing is required for entry, with head and shoulders covered for women.

Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai
Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai

Where to stay in Dubai

Often considered a luxury destination, Dubai offers hotels and flats for all budgets and is much cheaper than you think. Below are a few value-for-money establishments that have been tried out by me personally or by friends and fellow bloggers.

For a luxury family holiday, the Bluewaters Beach Hotel, with swimming pools, restaurants to suit all tastes and children’s areas, is a great choice. To spend less but still stay in top-notch facilities, the Hilton Dubai Al Habtoor City or the V Hotel Dubai are great choices, both overlooking the Dubai Water Canal with numerous in-house restaurants to choose from.

Finally, to see Dubai from a different perspective, I suggest you stay at the Al Seef Heritage Hotel Dubai, a unique property built in traditional Arabian style and located a short distance from the historic district and Al Fahidi Fort.

As you can see in Dubai, Arab culture is still there and is well established, you just have to know how to look for it behind the glitter of the skyscrapers. Today, you have plenty of opportunities to discover Dubai before oil and independence, either by visiting modern, interactive museums or by walking around the fully restored and renovated historic areas. Let me know in the comments what you think of the ancient Dubai.

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