Time Traveling To Old Dubai In Al Bastakiya

Dubai is unabashedly new.  Traditionally, buildings were made from palm leaves.  As a result, not many of the old buildings survive.  Dubai’s Bastakiya Quarter (in the Bur Dubai area) is one of the few places to see traditional architecture.  It is the oldest surviving part of the city and a sharp juxtaposition to the skyscrapers in the distance.

Walking through Bastakiya, you can almost imagine life here when it was a small fishing village and ancient trading port for dhows travelling Gulf to India and East Africa.

The Bastakiya neighborhood dates from the early 1900’s.  Wealthy pearl and textile merchants from Iran’s Bastak region settled here.  Even then Dubai’s trade policies attracted immigrants.   These Persian merchants used more durable coral and gypsum to build their houses that were heavily influenced by traditional Arabian architecture.

I loved exploring the chaotic labyrinth of traditional Arabian heritage houses. This maze of narrow alleyways isn’t on a grid pattern.  Instead, the streets orient toward the water to take advantage of its cooling breezes.  The high walls shade the tight lanes and interior courtyards for much of the day.

Virtually every aspect of the buildings was designed to counter the intense heat.  With heat like that, you can’t blame them.  Houses had a central courtyard and were topped with wind-towers. The towers, which are open at the top on all four sides, act as wind-catchers.  Amazingly effective, they funnel breezes into a central shaft, cooling the room below.  Residents would throw water on the floor underneath the tower.  The evaporating water-cooled the interior.  Trust me when  I tell you they needed every means they could find to help cool things.

Traditional Barasti huts made from palm fronds were cool and easy to build.  Unfortunately, they didn’t withstand the elements very well (and were probably hard to retrofit with air-conditioners).

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Fascinating Dubai

Before going to Dubai, I’d heard things like:

  • Dubai is like no other city on earth.
  • It is, or at least prior to 2008, it was the world’s fastest-growing city.
  • Dubai is Las Vegas on steroids.
  • Nobody ever went to Dubai in search of understatement.
  • It is glitzy, glamorous, spectacular and over-the-top, with more flash than class.

While the amount of consumerism there is astounding.  It is much more than that.  It is a city of contrasts with remarkable diversity.  It is futuristic and I found it fascinating.

Some of the things that fascinated me about Dubai are:

  • It is a city full of contrasts, from rich to poor, the religion and the hedonism, the large and small-scale of business, the man-made islands and the ancient trading on dhow boats both on its waters, the Orlando style buildings contrast with the imaginative skyscrapers…

  • Dubai has an incredibly rich cultural make-up.  I don’t know if I’ve been a city where I heard more languages spoken on the streets.  From its visitors to residents to influences, it has incredible ethic diversity.
  • Dubai’s shopping is a metaphor for its incredible cultural and economic diversity.  It has both designer boutiques and old-style souks.
  • A sea of skyscrapers and five-star hotels, are visible from the edge of the old town with it labyrinth-like streets and wind towers.

  • The traditional Emiratis  make up about 12% of the population and guard citizenship closely. They are typically extremely wealthy, but the town was built on the backs of a huge working-class population predominantly from the Indian subcontinent and from less prosperous areas of the Gulf.

Before the discovery of oil in the 1950’s, there was very little development in Dubai it was a fishing and trading outpost.  They didn’t even have an organized educational system.   By the 1960’s, it became a small, traditional, gulf trading center.  Thanks to petroleum money, it modernized.  It’s leader’s vision and ambition caused Dubai to remake itself and modernize differently than other states in the region.

In some ways, Dubai didn’t have a choice.  They were running out of oil.  Realizing this, Sheikh Mohammed, set about planning for the future without oil  He diversified the Dubai economy to create new employment and income streams as soon as possible .

Essentially, Dubai worked to establish itself as the regional economic hub, then a transportation hub, finance hub, tourist hub, property hub, and architectural hub.  To do this they have tackled infrastructure, water, transportation, education, culture and even religion in an incredibly strategic manner.  They spent massive amounts of money, but have accomplished the majority of their goals.  Whether you agree or not with their approach and its consequences for the workers and/or the environment, etc., what they have accomplished is impressive.