In the first of a series profiling distinctive neighbourhoods around the UAE, Sangeetha Swaroop goes on a guided tour into the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, where nostalgia, heritage, architectural marvels and pure charm abound
The temps are dropping, so we’ve got your weekend sorted from now on. Each week, we profile a new neighbourhood for you to explore – this week it’s Bastakiya.
Walking along the quaint and winding alleyways of the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, with wind towers and rustic, sandcoloured homes for company, you could be forgiven for wondering if you really are in Dubai. This overwhelmingly rich canvas of a sepia-toned magnificent city quarter may lack the gleam of the glitzy, towering spires and other iconic landmarks that draw millions to Dubai, year after year. Yet, it is here, in this atmospheric and scenic locale beside the flowing waters of the Creek, that you can unravel an intoxicating mix of heritage and culture.
There’s a whiff of nostalgia, dollops of history and oodles of charm surrounding the air here. Its sand, coral and gypsum homes tell us stories of a flourishing bygone era when dhows from afar laden with goods and spices landed on its sandy shores. The stone walls speak volumes of the lifestyle of a not-too-distant past; the fruit-bearing trees in courtyards stand testimony to a time when young boys and girls, men and women, camel and livestock found shelter under its widespread branches.
Formerly known as Bastakiya, the area was named after wealthy textile and pearl merchants from Bastak in northern Iran who arrived in Dubai more than a century ago to settle by the Creek to evade taxes imposed on them in their native land. Dubai’s welcoming policy ensured that these businessmen could continue with their trading and commercial activities at the Creek. Settling down in the area granted to them, they built the maze of wind-towered homes with narrow sikkas (alleys) meandering through in precisely the same fashion as it was in Bastak, giving rise to the name of Bastakiya.
The narrative of architecture
Currently, 55 renovated homes dot the landscape of the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. Some of the homes have exposed walls that show you clearly the material used in construction. Sea stone and coral from the Dubai Creek with a mixture of mud, sand, gypsum and limestone formed the base for most of these houses (called Bait Morjan). Houses were also built with palm fronds (Bait Areesh) but following a fire that destroyed most of the market and surrounding Areesh homes in the late 19th century, houses began to be constructed solely in sea stone and coral.
Step into any house here – now converted into art galleries, curio stores, restaurants and boutique hotels – and you will notice a central
open courtyard with a fruit-bearing tree in the middle. This is where the children played, women cooked and the family dined. Often, camels or other livestock the family owned were also tied up here.
Three generations of the same family often lived in the same house and each family shared one room. The number of rooms in each house is thus an indicator of the number of families that lived there.
Look out for the wind towers that served as a ventilation system – allowing hot air to escape through the top while letting in cooler air inside the house – and were an important element of traditional architecture throughout the Arabian Gulf. Not all homes have wind towers, but those that do belonged to the more well-off families.
It wasn’t just the wind towers; every design element and construction material was intended to alleviate the heat and humidity. For instance, thick walls provided greater insulation while the porous nature of the coral stone also made it an excellent natural insulating material.
Where privacy is a priority
Step out into the shaded alleyways and observe the exterior walls. The relatively small openings you see at the top not only shielded the interiors from the harsh heat but also accentuated the desire for privacy. Indeed, no two homes have front doors that face each other – attesting to this need for privacy.
Ornately carved and studded wooden doors signify an Indian influence but the doors were often low in height to prevent passersby from catching a glimpse inside. Many have a smaller door within a larger one – the former for general use while the latter is opened to move in furniture and/or camels and livestock.
Don’t miss another interesting feature – low-level windows. These rooms are the majlis for men and if the windows were left open, it signified that the man of the house was inside.
Explore the house of Mohammed Sharif Sultan Al Ulama, a prominent commercial judge of Dubai – it today represents one of the finest examples of wind tower houses in the region. Originally built in 1931, the two-storied house was partially restored in the 1970s and 1990s before undergoing a complete restoration in 2006. The house features a spacious central courtyard, two wind towers that descend into the living rooms of the first floor, traditional columns, arches and decorative gypsum screens that not only throw up an intricate network of light and shade but also create a degree of privacy across the house between different family zones.
Today, this restored home serves as the headquarters of the Architectural Heritage and Antiquities Department.
Look out for Bait Al Shaar or House of Hair, a unique form of tent housing used by the Bedouins, and woven from the hair of domesticated goats, sheep and camels. This
form of housing provided shade from the bright sun as well as relief on cold winter nights. It was both functional and durable; it could be packed up and ready to move in no time, and lasted for around 40 years.
Admire the reconstructed city wall of old Dubai, a prominent architectural feature of the time that once surrounded cities to defend and secure them against external attacks. Constructed in around 1800 CE, it was 50cm thick, approximately 600 metres long and 2.5 metres high.
Let your nose be your guide as the intense fragrance and distinctive aroma of coffee lead you to the Coffee Museum, where you can find a treasure trove of antique implements, including 300-year-old Yemeni clay coffee pots, 600-year-old artefacts from the Ottoman empire, galvanised copper utensils from across the UAE, Turkish foldable roasters, and grinders and sorting machines from across the world. A recreated majlis showcases the coffee tools of the Bedouins in use since mid-15th century onwards.
Observe coffee beans being roasted and brewed; taste Egyptian, Ethiopian and Arabic coffee; and discover how Sri Lankan coffee beans came to be so popular in the UAE – it is said to be the personal favourite of the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan!
Other interesting places to visit here include the Philately House and Coins Museum. The former offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of the postal advances in the UAE and has a rich collection of stamps and postmarks, while the latter exhibits around 500 pieces of rare coins from different historical eras.
Pay a visit to Mawaheb from Beautiful People, a non-profit art studio for the determined ones in the age of 16 years and above.
The Majlis Gallery and XVA Gallery also feature a variety of contemporary art in a traditional Arabic setting.
Quirky little craft shops sell souvenirs – from salt and pepper shakers in traditional clothing to traditional Iranian hand painted wall plates in vibrant blue and white and decorative mosaic Turkish lamps. Spice shops are crammed with baskets of cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, dried lemon, nutmeg and other seasonings popular in Middle Eastern cuisine.
The Majlis Gallery features contemporary art in a traditional Arabic setting. After, head to the craft shops for quirky souvenirs
A maze of wind-towered homes with narrow sikkas (alleys) make up the nostalgia of the area
Ornately carved and studded wooden doors at Bastakiya signify an Indian influence
Left: Majlis gallery. Above and below: The Coffee Museum– taste Egyptian, Ethiopian and Arabic coffee here