Most of the Bedouin architecture of Dubai has not survived the oil boom in the previously tiny port city. An exception is the Al-Fahidi Fort, built in 1800, believed to be Dubai’s oldest building, and now housing the Dubai Museum.
In the past the fort was used to defend the town from warlike neighbouring tribes. It has also served, at various times throughout history as the seat of government, the ruler’s residence, a store for ammunition, and a jail.
The walls of the fort are built from coral and shell rubble from the sea, and are cemented together with lime. Wooden poles called handel support the upper floor, and the ceiling is made of palm fronds, mud and plaster. A massive, iron-studded door stands at the entrance, and its battle-scarred walls and towers bear witness to the conflicts of the past.
When the Museum was opened by the ruler of Dubai in 1971, its main aim was to furnish a record of the Emirate’s traditional life, much of which is fast disappearing. Local antiquities have been collected and stored, along with artifacts from many African and Asian countries, trading partners with the Emirate, throughout its long commercial history.
At the Museum’s entrance, the visitor can browse through a collection of old maps of the Gulf and the Emirates, together with aerial photographs showing Dubai’s considerable urban expansion between 1960 and 1980.
Inside, a treasure trove awaits. A large section is devoted to musical instruments, with displays of drums, flutes, lyres, bagpipes made of goatskin and other locally-made instruments used in performances on festive occasions.
On a less peaceful note, displays of deadly weaponry are enough to curdle the blood. The curved daggers known as hanjars are much in evidence, and the display also includes swords, spears, bows and arrows, shields made of sharkskin, pistols and axes.
A model of a wind-tower room is an interesting feature of the architecture section, with diagrams and photographs showing different types of wind-towers from the older areas of Dubai city.
Narish Khyma, situated close to the Museum, is a typical Arab summer-house, with an interesting collection of local boats. These include a replica of the famous abra, the ferry boats used for transporting passengers across Dubai Creek.
The museum’s realistic lifesize static displays provide an insight into the traditional occupants of Dubai. Those have included dhow building, fishing, pearl diving and trade. Indeed, the export of fine pearls was a major factor in Dubai’s rise to prominence as a trading centre.
The Creek has always been the lifeline of Dubai, providing a safe harbour to mercantile and fishing vessels, as it does even today. Visitors to the museum can view a splendid diorama depicting the old charm and bustle of commercial life along the banks of this fabled waterway.
Souks have been often referred to as the real heart of Arabia, and nowhere is this more true than in Dubai. The city’s famous souks have, since the late 19th century, attracted merchants and traders from as far afield as India, Iran, the eastern coast of Africa and beyond. At the museum, you can experience all the atmosphere of a soul in the 1950s, as you stroll through a labyrinth of spice stores, pottery and carpentry workshops and rows of shops, including tailors, grocers, textile merchants and date-sellers.
Traditional Dubai houses are considered to be among the finest examples of Gulf architecture. The earliest houses were constructed with humble building materials, including the leaves and trunks of palm trees (areesh), rocks and earthen clay. As flourishing pearl trade brought greater prosperity in the latter half of the last century, however, these gave away to houses built of stone and adorned with magnificent wind towers, the world’s earliest form of air conditioning.