Discovering Old Dubai in the Dubai Museum

Inside the Dubai Museum a spiral walkway leads visitors underneath the fort, into a gallery full of old maps of Dubai.

Since 1946, when Islamic monuments from the Umayyad period were discovered in the Jumeria area, archeological excavations in Hatta, Al Qusais and Jumeria have continued to give glimpses of a civilisation dating back over 5,000 years. From 3,000 BC, the highly populated Dubai area was a centre for construction, agriculture, craftsmanship and art.

The Hatta region is south-east of Dubai city, in a wide valley surrounded by mountains on all sides. It was renowned for its beauty, vegetation and sweet water. Archeological evidence reveals that it was inhabited by an ancient civilisation thousands of years ago. Fifty tombs have been found on the left side of Jima Valley, dating from 3,000 BC. The tombs prove that Northern Emirates had an advanced civilisation and were densely populated at that date. Interestingly, archeological findings in the tombs also indicate that the tombs were re-used in the 5th century AD.

The Al Qusais area is 13 kilometres north-east of Dubai. It is thought to have been the largest settlement on the Arabian Gulf coast between 2,000 and 1,000 BC. One hundred and twenty graves were found on four different burial sites that date back to 1,000 BC. Burial gifts, that were found with the bodies, included pottery, stone and bronze utensils, various weapons including daggers, sticks, arrow heads, seashells filled with kohl and implements made from shells.

Jumeirah is a highly important archeological site, which has been almost hidden by modern development. The site, which covers an area of 20 hectares and lies 12 kilometres north-west of Dubai city, was discovered in 1968. It is thought to be one of the most important and largest sites in the Emirates, dating from the first Islamic era (7th – 8th century). There are traces of a complete city, occupied during the Umayyad period, proving that Dubai was an important station for caravans travelling between Iraq and Oman.


Dubai first became an independent political entity in 1833, when 300 men of the Bu Flasa tribe, under the leader Maktoum Bin Butti, settled in the area. Most of the population settled in Bur Dubai, which was surrounded by a defensive wall. Bur Deira was not populated in large numbers until 1841, followed by Al Shindagha.

Dubai’s economy prospered after 1894 when Sheikh Maktoum Bin Hasher Al Maktoum gave tax exemption to foreign traders. The city’s export were pearls, shells and dried fish. Imports included dates (from Basra), rice, sugar, pepper and cereals (from India), wood and cane (from East Africa).

Subsequent rulers followed an open policy, particularly the late Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, who pioneered Dubai’s modern development as a renowned world trade centre.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Dubai was about 3 kilometres long and one kilometre wide. This nucleus of the city was made up of traditional quarters built using various material and methods. In 1908 there were 350 shops in Deira and 50 in Bur Dubai, specialising in selling goods and these led to the establishment of the famous souqs.


The early 1900s saw a boom in the economy, due to the growth of the pearl trade and this had an impact on education as pearl traders financed new schools. Prior to this date children would attend elementary schools, where they would learn the Quran by heart. The growth of the pearl trade induced pearl traders to finance new schools. Al Ahmadiya school opened in 1912, and this had an impact on changing the nature of education. In addition to religious studies, a wider curriculum was introduced which included literature, grammar, reading, writing, arithmetic and Arabic scripts.


Development escalated in the Emirate from the beginning of the 20th century, encouraged by the government and low taxes. Two contracts were signed with the British Government; one to allow planes to land, the other to search for oil.

In the 1940s, the appearance of cultured pearls on the market and the Second World War had a negative effect on the economy and on food supplies. Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum made essential food supplies available at low prices for the locals, who numbered around 20,000.

During the 1950s, Dubai’s prosperity increased with the growth of the gold trade. Dredging the creek was the first step in laying the foundations for a modern, commercial city. The government departments of Dubai, the Municipality, the police, the courts and the airport were formed in addition to the first town planning and road network project. More schools were opened with the aid of the neighbouring Arab countries. These included schools for girls, the first of which opened in 1959.


The 1960s were years of massive growth for Dubai, both politically and economically. Oil was discovered and the city began to reap the benefits for the hard work of the previous decades. By the end of the 1960s most of the infrastructure for the modern city was in place; electricity, water, telecommunications, airports and roads. Al Maktoum Bridge was built to connect Dubai and Deira. Work began on the building of Port Rashid. Plans for the withdrawal of the British were in hand and, in 1968, the rulers of Dubai and Abi Dhabi agreed on unity between their two Emirates. Oil exports began in 1969 and by now the population was 59,000.

The United Arab Emirates was formed in 1971 and Dubai became the commercial capital for the newly established country, putting all its resources at the disposal of the Emirates. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum took advantage of the high price of oil to create modern Dubai. The decade ended with the opening of Jebel Ali Port and the Free Zone, the Dry Dock, the Word Trade Centre and the Aluminum Company in addition to completing the Shindagha Tunnel, the Garhoud Bridge and the water desalination plant. Plans for the beautification of the city were put in hand. The population had jumped to 207,000 by 1977.

During the 1980s and the 1990s Dubai continued to grow and prosper. Service industries expanded to meet the needs of a growing population and thousands of housing projects were initiated. The airport was extended to provide a base for the newly formed Emirates Airline. Recreational and sporting facilities grew to provide the infrastructure for international tourism. Gas and oil were discovered in the desert at Margham and conservation projects began. By the beginning of the 1990s foreign trade had reached $16 billion and the population had risen to 550,000.

As Dubai’s population increased, more water was needed. By the early 1990s consumption was over 70,000 million gallons a day. The demand was met by 56 water wells producing in excess of 5,000 million gallons a day and the seawater desalination plant producing almost 70,000 million gallons daily, under the auspices of the Electricity and Water Authority. Heat generated by the electricity power plants and the Jebel Ali Aluminium Smelting Plants is used by the desalination plant, which convert sea water into vapour at 90 degrees centigrade.

In 1990 Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed died and his son Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al Maktoum became ruler. He instigated his own ambitious plan to make Dubai a modern city, ready for the 21st century.



  • Information provided by the Dubai Museum

Discovering Old Dubai in the Dubai Museum

by Uncover Travel time to read: 5 min
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