Home DestinationsAsiaDubai A blast from Dubai’s past

A blast from Dubai’s past

by Bernard O'Shea

Dubai’s attempts to be flashy and futuristic are all well and good, but Bernard O’Shea is more captivated by its more humble and historic elements.


Dubai likes to show off. It has the world’s tallest building, the world’s most luxurious hotel, the world’s largest indoor ski slope and goodness knows what else. It’s like a giant theme park with shopping malls to match.

Amid all the gleaming new buildings, the skyscrapers, the plush hotels and ritzy shopping malls – and a good many dusty construction sites waiting to be transformed into modern wonders – it comes as a relief to stumble  across something humble, plain and simple: the Al Fahidi Fort, which now houses the Dubai Museum.

The fort was built in 1787-88 to defend what was then a small settlement alongside the Dubai Creek. It’s had many reincarnations since, including spells as a prison and a governor’s residence, but underwent renovations in 1970 and now houses the city museum, some of which is cleverly and comfortably ensconced in the basement. It is here at the fort, and in the historic Bastakiya district nearby, that you can get some inkling of what life must have been like in the lazy hazy days of Dubai before it became the gleaming metropolis that it is today.

The Al Fahidi Fort was built in the late 18th century. Dubai Museum.

The Al Fahidi Fort was built in the late 18th century.

The museum houses important local archaeological finds, showcases typical clothing and pottery, recreates scenes from the souqs and Islamic schools of yore, explains the agriculture and eco-systems of the desert, and has a realistic underground pearl diving exhibit (you really feel like you are walking on the seabed).

Go underwater in the Dubai Museum.

Go underwater in the Dubai Museum.

On display outside in the often blistering heat (you can be forgiven for not lingering here) are typical examples of the simple wooden craft used to ply the waters of the Dubai Creek (below, foreground); a barasti or date palm frond house (below, background) with a wind tower – the old form of air-conditioning; various canons,canon balls and other weaponry; and an impressive traditional Arab dhow (pictured at top of this post).

Relics of a transport hub years and years ago.

Relics of a transport hub from years and years ago.

The larger of the two vessels above is an Al Abra, used to this day to transport people from one side of the Creek to the other. A great way to top off the museum visit is to hop on one and go across to Deira, to take in the sights and smells of the Spice Souq, the Perfume Souq, the Gold Souq and the Covered Souq. TTW

Bernard O’Shea travelled to Dubai at his own expense. More information: Visit DubaiPhotos © Bernard O’Shea.

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