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

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