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Thursday, March 9, 2017

12/11: Dubai Museum, Abra Ride Across the Creek & All Souk'ed Out!

After exploring the so-called 'Downtown Dubai' yesterday, Steven and I wanted to discover the real vibrant parts of Dubai today. We headed off, in the car, for the Dubai Museum only to realize after driving around in circles for a long while trying in vain to find a parking spot, that the closest one was actually in our own hotel's parking garage! Arggh - what a waste of time!
The museum was located in Al-Fahidi Fort, considered the oldest building in Dubai and once the seat of government and residence of Dubai's rulers. Dating from around 1787, the fort was originally built to defend the town against raiders with large towers at three corners and a spacious central courtyard.
Walls of Old Dubai: I read that city walls are one of the most prominent architectural features of old cities as they were built to defend its residents and safeguard them from attack. The oldest walls in Dubai, constructed about 1800 and built using coral stones and gypsum, were about 2,000 feet long and 18 inches thick. They were demolished at the beginning of the 20th century to accommodate the city's expansion. The only remaining evidence of one of the walls was a part that was restored in 2001.
In the museum's courtyard were a variety of old-time fishing boats called dhows and traditional dwellings. The dhows were used for pearling, fishing and transporting people across the Dubai Creek.
On the right side of the photo was a barasti or a palm thatch hut.

I'm glad that we noticed the sign alerting us to the 'sharp metal edges' (I think they meant spikes!) on the doors!
The majority of the museum's exhibits were located in a series of modern underground galleries buried below the fort. One of the exhibits contained a display of traditional weapons favored by Bedouin men who "wears his dagger at all times and keeps his rifle beside him while he sleeps." Sounds so safe!

Dubai is situated on a natural creek Khor Dubai which runs inland for about six miles and was the center around which the city developed. The ancient Greeks used to call Dubai Creek the River Zara. People settled on both sides of the Creek at Dubai and at Deira on the opposite side. The city's prosperity as a port began in the early 1900s when Dubai became the main anchorage for dhows coming from neighboring ports and as far away as India and East Africa.

North winds caused silting in the middle of the Creek which made the passage of large vessels difficult. A large dredging scheme in the late 1950s deepened the channel and reinforced its banks which resulted in a much-needed boost to Dubai's economic development. The two sides of the city were connected by a bridge built in 1962 and a tunnel constructed in 1975. Dubai Creek is now the main trade artery in the Emirate.

Map of Dubai showing the 'Backwater of Dubai' in 1822:
Archaeological excavations have revealed that there was a high degree of civilization around Dubai as early as 3,000 BC. An Italian explorer in 1580 described Dubai as a prosperous community with its people engaged in pearl diving. Dubai first became an independent political entity in 1833, when 800 men of the Bu Flasa tribe mostly settled in Bur Dubai which was surrounded by a defensive wall. Bur Deira, located on the south side of the Creek, was not populated in large numbers until 1841.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Dubai, which grew up around the Creek, was about two miles long and just over a half-mile wide. Most of the houses were made from palm fronds except for those along the edge of the Creek which were constructed using sea stones. The countryside around the old city was flat and surrounded by oases of palm trees and was no more than six feet above sea level.
The 1960s were years of massive growth in Dubai, both politically and economically. Oil was discovered and the city began to reap the benefits of the hard work from the previous decades. By the end of the decade, most of the infrastructure for the modern city were in place: electricity, airports and roads, etc. The British withdrew and, in 1968, the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai agreed on unity between the two Emirates. Oil exports began in 1969 and the population grew to 95,000 people. 
When the UAE was formed in 1971, Dubai became the commercial capital for the newly established country. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum took advantage of the high price of oil to "create the miracle of modern Dubai." The 1970s ended with the opening of a large port, a dry dock, the World Trade Center and some huge infrastructure projects including a water desalination plant. By 1977, Dubai's population rose to 207,000.
Cutesy dioramas recreated Old Dubai complete with a souq, a school, a traditional home and other settings.

The Pottery Shop: Clay pots were used in many aspects of life in the Emirates where clay was available or when imported from Oman and Iran by dhows, the local boats. Specific pots were used for storing food, others for carrying water from wells or for keeping water cool, for making coffee, cooking, for animals and birds to drink from and even to burn incense and scented woods to welcome guests.
Local pottery, made of hard red clay, were arranged according to type in the pottery store so that customers could easily find the one that they wanted.
The proximity of mountains, desert and the sea strongly influenced how the lives of people of Dubai developed. The Bedouin, with no fixed homes, spent their lives traveling in the desert with their herds of camels, sheep and goats. Semi-nomads settled near the oases and water sources where they developed agricultural skills. 
I was interested to learn that the Emirati desert thrives during the winter when grazing and agricultural activities are at their peak. That's the time for hunting and camel racing before the hot summer, when people settle in the oases or take part in coastal offshore activities.

The camel was, and in many ways still is, the most important animal in the area. It is known to the Bedouin as a friend providing him with the essentials of life such as meat, milk, and hair (used to make household necessities) and their dung was often used as fuel. It was interesting reading that the camel was also a unit of measurement in financial transactions, for dowry payments, ransom and legal compensation.

The camel carried the Bedouin and his possessions across the desert in the summer heat and the winter cold. Camels can go without water for over two weeks in the summer and up to three months in the cooler winter. They can smell water over a mile away and can walk continuously for 18 hours and follow the direction of lightning and clouds. The Arabian camel is still famous for its speed and endurance. Annual camel races are organized with valuable prizes for winners. A god racing camel can sell for more than one million dirhams, about a quarter of a million dollars!
Falconry is the most valued, traditional sport in the region today, as it was in the past. Skill is needed to train the birds to hunt and to teach them to respond to commands. Some falcons are known to be the fastest flyers while others are good hunters and famous for their endurance. 
Wild rabbits, bustards and other birds are the falcons' natural prey. Simple tools are used to prepare a falcon for hunting. The bird sits on a waker - a piece of round, flat wood attached to an iron rod fixed in the ground and tethered with a thread. The falconer protects his hand with a thick glove that stretches up his arm.

The hunting season is usually during the winter and spring when birds migrate from Iran, Turkey, Russia and Syria to escape from the cold weather.
Survival in the desert: The United Arab Emirates has a desert climate with less than five inches of rain per year. The average summer daytime temperature reaches 104 degrees and about 70 in the winter. Climatic conditions, the nature of the soil and the quantity and quality of the water have shaped the environment. Plants that grow after the winter and the rainy season have a short lifespan. Desert animals have also had to adapt to the harsh and tough environment: they rarely go out during the burning heat of the day and stay in deep holes or under rocks and trees. They forage for food during the cooler nighttime. 

The Museum had been a good choice to explore Dubai's history, culture and traditions. One very interesting feature was the very sandy floor throughout that gave an aura of reality to what life must be like in the desert!

From the museum, we walked for a few minutes until we reached the historic Al Fahidi Neighborhood, formerly known as the Bastakiya quarter, as it was built in the early 1900s by merchants from Bastak in southern Iran. This was the best-preserved traditional quarter in the city with its small but surprisingly disorienting labyrinth of narrow alleyways, flanked with tall coral and limestone houses topped with dozens of wind towers called barjeel. 
Though first introduced to Dubai by Iranian settlers, the wind towers have now become synonymous with the UAE. An early form of air-conditioning, these square towers capture cool air and funnel it down into the houses below, while also allowing hot air to rise and escape. 
At the entrance to the quarter was the Majils Art Gallery, the first fine art gallery in the UAE when it officially opened its doors in 1989. Its origins date back to 1976, however, when the founder came to the UAE to work as an interior decorator. The gallery showcased the work of UAE artists as well as international ones with Emirati ties. Apparently, the neighborhood particularly throbs during the annual SIKKA Art Fair in March.

Most of the neighborhood homes were fairly plain from the outside but are said to be surprisingly ornate within, usually with spacious inner courtyards shaded with trees and surrounded by delicate arches and doorways.

We were lucky enough to be able to peer in some open courtyards and confirm what we had read about them.

Now what ice cream would YOU choose - camel milk, chocolate chip or date?! I so wish I had chosen the latter when we were there.
I think both Steven and I were more intrigued with this art gallery's courtyard than the gallery itself!

I loved the shadows though!

Loved the sign indicating the 'Beautiful People'.
These women and Steven and I were among the very few people wandering through the neighborhood.

As we exited the neighborhood was a display of what was likely a Bedouin's home in the desert.
We needed to have an escort to enter the neighborhood's Dubai Grand Mosque but one was only available two days a week. Dating from 1900 although rebuilt in 1998, this was one of the oldest mosques in Dubai. It boasted the city's highest minaret at 231 ft and had space for 1,200 worshipers. 

Beyond the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood, an alleyway took us to a promenade which continued along the Creek and offered views of high-rises over the water on the Deira side of the Creek.

At last, after reading so much of the Dubai Creek, we finally had our first glimpse of it!
Since Dubai is split in two by the Creek, it can be crossed at several points by either the air-conditioned water bus above or in one of the city's traditional abras, the open boat below. I had read that the five minute abra ride was one of the most authentic and inexpensive experiences available in all of the United Arab Emirates! No way were we going to miss that experience.

Paralleling the Creek was the Textile Souk or Old Souk where we spent time wandering through before boarding the abra. In the souk were dozens of little shops lined up in old coral and stone buildings under a high wooden roof.

I wondered who could possibly wear this very heavy fur-lined coat in the warm climes of the Emirates.

One of my favorite memories of traveling through so much of the Middle East this trip is having some of the best orange juice anywhere. The man in this little stand in the souk made me a tall glass of OJ - what heaven as I was so thirsty!
Most of the shops sold cheap clothes and textiles but a few offered souvenirs and a few antiques. We weren't interested in looking at any of them, only in the experience of walking through the souk.

I must confess, however, to being drawn to cushion covers on our travels the last few years. It's probably best that Steven hasn't been such an admirer of cushions or else, who knows how many we'd have dragged home?!

Though there were two main abra routes across the Creek, we were only interested in the one that ran between the Bur Dubai Abra Station at the end of the Textile Souk and Deira Old Souk Abra Station. We only had to wait a couple of minutes for the .25 ride across the Creek.

What a blast it was traveling across the Creek at a high rate of speed in the packed abra that was only inches above the water.
I can't think of any other places in the world we've seen where we had such great views from the water at so cheap a price - definitely, the best quarter we spent in a long, long time!
Dubai Grand Mosque with its distinctive minaret:

This abra, returning from Deira to Bur Dubai, gives you a sense of what it was like to be a passenger on the abra:
Once we landed on the Deira side, we entered the Old Souk.  The commercial heart of the old city still largely resolved around the souk. Even though the shops were largely modern and jazzy, neon signs have mostly replaced the traditional hand-painted boards, business in the souk was still conducted more or less as it had been for more than a century. Thousands of minuscule shops, wedged into the district's rambling bazaars, sold everything from cheap toys and textiles to gold and spices.

Seeing this photo again three months later, how I wish I had tasted some date gelato then as it sounds so appealing to me now on this 70 degree March day.
We reveled in the scents of the Spice Souk but didn't buy a thing.

UAE flags were displayed everywhere because it was a national holiday the following day.
It was so much fun wandering through the souk's tiny alleys and wondering what we would see and smell and hear around the next corner. The pressure to buy something from eager merchants selling their wares was thankfully far less than in so many similar places we'd recently been to.
The Dubai City of Gold aka the Gold Souk sounded like an intriguing place to walk around and get out of the sun, don't you think?! 
There were a hundred or so shops in the Gold Souk lined up under a wooden roof.  Their windows just overflowed with vast quantities of gold jewelry ranging from very intricate designs to more understated pieces. 
I read that because gold in Dubai was among the most competitively priced in the world, the souk attracted shoppers from  West Africa, Russia, India and elsewhere. Jewelry was priced according to weight as the quality of workmanship wasn't usually factored into the price. 
Steven and I had never seen so many gold shops before in our lives as we had this trip having stopped in so many gold shops when we'd been in Bahrain, Qatar and Oman earlier in the trip. 
I would never have thought I could possibly ever say that we'd already had our full of gold stores as I love gold jewelry but I had no interest in seeing even more gold in the Dubai souk. Steven generously offered to buy me a gold bauble but all that gold was just too overwhelming!

After spending enough time traipsing through the Deira souks, we were happy to be back on the abra for our .25 ride back to Bur Dubai on the other side.
Our boatman:
Approaching the Bur Dubai Abra Station:
We had all of seemed like five seconds to hop off the abra before people were eager to take our empty spots!
Seeing Dubai's Downtown stunning high-rises yesterday had been exciting and thrilling but totally soulless for us compared to the vibrant sights in Bur Dubai so far today. For us, what we had seen represented the 'real' Dubai as it was chock full with an interesting museum, a fascinating, historical neighborhood, lively souks and it teemed with people going about their normal everyday lives. Our day's activities will continue in the next post - hopefully you won't have to wait too long for it!

Posted on March 9th, 2017, from Littleton, Colorado.


  1. In the "Spice Souk" you could probably get most anything, legal or illegal in our country. No more gold???? What I need is a place to wear it. Lil Red

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