At first glance, it may seem that Dubai sprung up out of nowhere merely a decade ago, yet many visitors still don’t realize that the now ultra-modern city stands atop an ancient settlement which dates back nearly 5,000 years. Dubai was the pearl fishing capital of the world for over a millennia, right up until the introduction of the artificial pearl, which saw the city depleted of its main source of income. The astonishing discovery of one of the world’s largest oil fields on this land catapulted Dubai into mega-stardom in the early 70s and has changed its nature, and its future, irrevocably. So no matter how brand spanking new your hotel or resort may be now, trust that the land it was built on would have some rather interesting tales to tell.
Contrary to popular belief, there’s a lot more to Dubai than dune bashing and shopping. No, really, there is! Cast these two (still great) activities aside and you’ll discover a side to the sprawling city which exudes history and tradition. Granted, you may need to dig a bit considering the over-zealous rebuilding so 99% of the old city was razed to the ground, but Dubai’s cultural persona is nevertheless infinitely interesting and ideal for anyone who wants to learn more about the city’s trials and tribulations through the centuries.
Following are a few pit-stops you should really consider adding to your itinerary to make sure you enjoy a well balanced Arabian experience on your next Dubai vacation. You may even find them a priceless distraction from all those shopping centres!
The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU)
This centre may sound like something Borat thought up, but we can attest to the fact that it is, in fact, the most interesting cultural attraction in Dubai. The SMCCU strives to bridge the gap between locals and foreigners, by running educational tours of the historic Bastakiya suburb and cultural meals designed to enlighten visitors as to the ancient art of Arabic cooking. The SMCCU is a non-profit organization which is determined to quash stereotypical preconceptions about the United Arab Emirates. There’s nothing like feasting on an authentic Arabic meal while learning about all aspects of life in the UAE; the tours are brilliant, educational and extremely delicious.
Your local Emirati guide will be approachable and will be more than happy to talk about all aspects of his culture which may be of interest to you including polygamy, the praying rituals and the veiling of women in public.
Dubai’s main museum is a great place to learn all about the rise and rise of this now insanely rich emirate and a great place to spend a few hours exploring. Located in the oldest part of town, and actually within the oldest building in town (the Al Fahidi Fort), the Dubai Museum is a compact and well planned-out gallery showcasing artefacts, archaeological finds like tombs and skeletons, as well as a fantastic display showing how Dubai morphed from Bedouin tent-city to the bustling metropolis we see now. Both the contents of the museum and the building it is housed in are incredibly interesting (as is the whole suburb actually) so although the museum may seem rather small, don’t be surprised if you end up spending half a day here…most people do.
For a cultural attraction par excellence, head to the Jumeirah Mosque, and join an organized tour of its inner most workings. Not only will you gain access to the interior vestibules of the opulently furnished mosque (with more crystal and marble than one could possibly ogle at), but you’ll also get an insightful and informative talk on Islam and its most important aspects. The guides are fun, friendly and extremely approachable so if there are any questions you forgot to ask at the SMCCU…now’s your last chance!
Make sure you dress appropriately (ladies will need a head scarf) and do keep in mind that non-Muslims are only allowed access when part of a tour group. Organized your tour from the SMCCU or head to the mosque before 10am and join a local group at the front door.
Photo 1 ScaredyKat via Flickr
Photo 2 McKay Savage via Flickr
Photo 3 Nelson Ebelt via Flickr