general info LIFE IN THE PAST
Life In The Past
Updated on 07 August 2019

By: Salamah Ghudayer

The heritage houses of Al-Fahidi, with their wind towers decorating the Bur Dubai skyline and their impressive interior courtyards, are a wonderment to explore. As you walk around the alleyways (sikka), that turn and intertwine, you feel as though you are in a secret maze. Standing within this neighborhood, once called Bastakia by its original inhabitants who built it, you experience a Dubai which you only hear about as you walk in the malls, stare at the skyscrapers or race down the eight and ten lane roads.

‘Dubai is very historical,’ they say. ‘Dubai is a mix of old and new,’ they reason. Yet few take the time to witness the old, protected and beloved historical sections. For those of us working within their gypsum walls, they are an escape from the modern world.

The Al-Fahidi district is named after its fort which was used as a garrison to protect Dubai from invaders. The area was a haven from tribal skirmishes and outside aggression for those deeming the creek a port of call, tucked away from the monsoons and on the terribly long maritime trade route between Asia, Africa and Europe. At the end of the wall of the fort settled a group of people. They were invited by Dubai’s sheikh to build their homes in what was the original financial district of Dubai, just down from the Ruler's House and currently behind the Ruler's Court. They were the merchants, building their houses along the creek, where the cargo came in before our larger ports were built, just a short walk from the Grand Souq - the Dubai Mall of the 1800s. They were perfectly positioned to do business, trade and flourish into the leading merchant, exchange and real estate families we know today.

Yet these houses were unlike any others you find in modern times. They are the far from the mass produced, identical houses that pop up in hundreds at a time. The courtyard houses of Al-Fahidi were built around the family and each house was unique. Through a massive wooden door, you would pass a room or two for greeting visitors. Then there was an interior door or a wall shielding the courtyard. Sun, breeze and sometimes rain would fill the interior of the home. For as much as the sun brings the heat, the rest of nature would bring the cold.

Ringed around the courtyard were rooms for family members; each housing the parents, the children and their spouses and the grandchildren. In one or two of these rooms, the ceiling would open up to a two-storey tower, with the top extending a storey above the roof. There sits a cube, open on four sides and covered on the top, with all four corners connected. The breeze hits from either side and shoots down the shaft into the room. The result: the temperature in the room would be at least 10 degrees cooler. Hang wet fabric to its frame and the room becomes even cooler. Open the doors to the room and the wind-pull can be felt through the home. Unlike the Bedouins of the desert who could lower their tent sides for shade or raise them on one side to capture the breeze or even lift all sides to release the heat, the hadther - settled people - had to rely on these towers to 'catch the breeze' so they could survive the heat. Being businessmen, they didn't have the freedom to move around like the Bedouins. They needed to stay in one place.

The neighborhood itself was designed to 'make breeze' and not just capture it. Based on what we now know about ‘windy cities’, the sikka pathways curve as well. This is not a neighborhood built on a square grid like some modern cities. These sikkas pulled air into the neighborhood as each walkway ended up curving like the shape of a fan blade. Walking around this area you notice, it is windy in the interior; the leaves are always moving and the flags always rippling. When the original houses, prior to air conditioning, opened their windows, they could also capture this breeze.

A walk through the old Bastakia of Al Fahidi District will have you witnessing a lifestyle of shade, wind and community which the wealth of modern life has deemed unnecessary or else is the missing link to interior comfort for some. There is much more to these houses; the art work, the windows, the pillars and beams, aside from cooling the families, provided an element of beauty. They reflect the era gone by. They were not architects of shelter alone but of a culture.  

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