A river runs through it

Khor Dubai gave life to the emirate. The heritage site has seen many changes but the air of a historical trading port remains

The year is 1587, and Gasparo Balbi, a Venetian merchant, is on a mission to supply Europe’s rich and royalty with pearls. From Italy, he heads east. As he sails up the Gulf in search of jewels, he comes across a quiet fishing village. Later, he recounts his travels in a journal. 

Published in 1590, Voyage to the Oriental Indies contains the first written reference of Dubai (‘Dibei’, as he called it). At the heart of his journey would likely have been Khor Dubai, the 14-kilometre creek transformed into a floating trading hub.

My grandfather and most of the elderly people who lived in Al Fahidi district were merchants, dealing a little bit in pearls

Rashad Bukhash, Director, Architectural Heritage Department at Dubai Municipality

The earliest known description of Dubai Creek can be found in an 1822 report by a British Royal Navy officer, when some 800 members of the Bani Yas tribe, led by Sheikh Maktoum bin Buti Al-Falasi, were settled in the Bur Dubai area at the mouth of the inlet.

Today, the two strips surrounding the water are home to Dubai’s oldest monuments. On the western bank is Al Fahidi Historical District, with its twisting streets and old homes and buildings dating to the late 1700s, topped with wind towers.

If walls could speak, those of the Al Fahidi Fort, built in 1787, would have much to say. It is the oldest building in the entire city, and before being used for the Dubai Museum, it was – during various periods – a palace, garrison and a prison. In the area previously known as Bastakiya, there are also galleries, restaurants and a calligraphy house nearby.

“My grandfather and most of the elderly people who lived in Al Fahidi district were merchants, dealing a little bit in pearls,” says Rashad Bukhash, an architect and director of the Architectural Heritage Department at Dubai Municipality.

We are working on registering the Dubai Creek as one of the wonders of the world...It’s a difficult task, but we have to show its international importance

Rashad Bukhash, Director, Architectural Heritage Department at Dubai Municipality

Though his grandfather lived long after Balbi’s time, Bukhash knows that the natural saltwater stretch is of great significance, and he is working to make it a Unesco heritage site. The creek, it could be argued, is the reason for Dubai’s creation and early develop-ment as a trading port.

“We are working on registering the Dubai Creek as one of the wonders of the world,” he says. “It’s a difficult task, but we have to show its international importance.”

For centuries, traders from Asia, Africa and the Middle East convened to trade precious metals, spices and silk, and some settled in the surrounding villages. Today, as you stroll by the water, among the goods being unloaded from crescent-shaped dhows are furniture and electrical items. But while technologies have changed the landscape, the old classics remain. After purchasing a new refrigerator, you could fill shopping bags with the finest Chinese silks and spices, Indian gold, Yemeni honey or Iraqi perfume from local markets.

“Our grandfathers are merchants and our region is desert, so we needed to have a connection with the world,” says Fatima Al Sayegh, Professor of History at the United Arab Emirates University. “From India, East Africa and Iran, we brought almost everything we needed. For these regions, the water of the Gulf was the connection that brought life.”

For these regions, the water of the Gulf was the connection that brought life

Fatima Al Sayegh, Professor of History at the United Arab Emirates University

In the second half of the 20th century a breakwater was constructed, the creek was dredged to allow for larger vessels, the water-taxi system alleviated passengers of long crossing journeys, providing them with oar-ridden abras, later to be equipped with diesel engines, and tunnels were dug and bridges extended to improve transportation between Bur Dubai and Deira.

Ambitious developments have been subtle and have made life easier while preserving the historic urban landscape. Khor Dubai still looks and feels like an unassuming commercial settlement. It is a much-needed constant in a city that witnesses great change.