Arriving in Dubai the first thing that you notice are the towering skyscrapers built in the construction boom of the last few decades. The roads look like they have just been finished; cafés, hotels and restaurants appear as if they have just opened. Dubai is almost a dictionary definition for ‘modern city’.
Yet beneath the glitzy veneer there is history to be discovered that dates back far earlier than the foundation of the United Arab Emirates 38 years ago.
On the outskirts of Dubai, evidence has been of civilization more than 5,000 years ago. At Al Qusais 13km north east of the centre, archeologists have discovered what is thought in 3,000-2,000BC to have been the largest settlement on the Arabian Gulf. Graves, skeletons, weapons, pottery and bronze utensils have all been found in recent years.
In Jumeira, 12km north west of downtown Dubai, is thought to be one of the most important sites in the UAE dating from around the 600s, when Islam was still in its infancy. Back then Jumeira was an important stop on the caravan route between Iraq and Oman. Far from being buried by new apartment and office developments these discoveries are being preserved; so far a ruler’s house, shops and a number of individual shops have been found.
This early history of the emirate is wonderfully presented in the Dubai Museum down by the Creek waterway which runs through the heart of the old city. Housed in an old fort dating from the late 1700s, it is a fitting venue to tell the Dubai story. For its here that 100 people guarded what was then a small walled city. From the banks of the Creek grew the expanding emirate that greets visitors today.
Although Dubai was recorded as an important centre for pearl fishing in 1580, it really began to prosper in the late 1800s when dhows (traditional boats) from as far afield as India and East Africa anchored along the Creek.
Things gathered pace in the 1950s when the Creek was dredged so it could accommodate larger boats. It pioneered Dubai’s development as a modern trade centre. Over the next few decades new port facilities were built and other important infrastructure was installed.
With the progress that has been made, the 1950s seems a long time ago. But at Dubai museum some of the traditional, simple shops, workshops and homes have been created from half a century ago. Against this backdrop, skyscrapers look like they are from another planet.
A new, modern souk area has opened down by Creek, providing stalls for tourists and locals alike to buy everything from crafts to gold. Yet some things haven’t changed; the main transport across the waterways are with simple water taxis called Abras. The rickety little boats cost the equivalent of just a few pence to travel on. Blot out the tower blocks in the distance and the modern city seems a long way off.