A Souk in the Pre-Oil Era of Dubai

In the Dubai Museum, visitors can explore a historical souk from Dubai’s pre-oil era, looking into the different shops with life-size dioramas and watching videos of the craftsmen at work.

In the pre-oil era there were many carpenter’s shops in Dubai, particularly in the Al Boteen area, along the creek in Deira. As the city’s economy depended on diving, fishing and sea trade, carpenters were needed for the flourishing dhow and boat building. They also made doors and windows for houses, often with beautiful carvings inscribed with the names of Allah and phrases from the Quran. Balconies and courtyards were decorated with wooden panels.

A strong smell of spices still pervades the Spice Souk in Dubai, as it has done from the earliest times. Spices were imported from India, Iran, Yemen and East Africa, and then stacked in large jute bags inside and outside the shops to attract passers-by. Among the numerous spices used for culinary purposes were canella, black pepper, sweet pepper, cloves, cumin and cardamom (which is still added to coffee as well as to some local sweets). Some products were sold for medical or domestic use such as henna leaf powder (used for dyeing and decorating hands and feet), Al Murr (for stomach pains) and yellow rock sulphur (for treating burns).


In the polisher and blacksmith’s shop all sorts of brass pots and utensils are piled up and hanging from the ceiling. The discovery of bronze artefacts 4,000 years old proves that blacksmiths practise one of the oldest crafts in the region. By the 1950s there were only five blacksmiths shops on the Creek side in Deira. Although small, each was wide enough for the blacksmith, his hammer, anvil and fire pot – which made the iron soft enough to shape with his hammer on the anvil using an air pump and scissors. The blacksmith made butcher’s cleavers and knives and nails of different sizes, including those used for dhow and boat building. In addition he made agricultural implements such as the plough, small axes, saws and dhow-makers tools. The polisher, known as Al Safarrin, repaired and polished brass utensils such as pots and flat coffee roasters. The polisher used wet sand and cleaned the inside of the pot by standing and moving in it. Later, he lit a fire underneath the pot to clean and polish it for re-use.


Next door is the pottery shop; clay pots were used in many aspects of life. Pottery was made in the areas where clay was available, for example, in the mountain region of Ras Al Khaimah. Additionally other pots were imported into Dubai from Oman and Iran by dhows. Pots were chosen for different purposes – Al Khers were used for storing food, Al Jarrah for carrying water from wells, Al Yalah for keeping water cool, Al Borma for cooking, Al Masaab for making coffee, Al Razem for carrying coffee cups, Al Haalool for animals and birds to drink from and Al Mabkhar for burning incense and scented wood to welcome guests. Local pottery was made of hard red clay and the pottery factory was called Al Mahraqa (meaning the furnace). The furnace consisted of a large hole, inside the walls of which were lined with stones and mud. After shaping the clay the pots were placed in the furnace. They were then fired using timber and leaves for burning. The firing took a day, during which the clay became red and then the pots were left to cool.


In the jeweller’s shop a man is hard at work. Jewellery has been made and sold in the area from the earliest times. Worn by a woman for decorative purposes, jewellery was also part of her dowry and an important component of a family’s wealth. The most famous necklace, Dellal, dates from the 19th century. It was heavy and decorated with old Islamic and European coins. The inclusion of coins in jewellery was an old tradition in the Emirates, the coins were punched with a hole and threaded like beads. By the mid 20th century, gold became more popular and the gold trade flourished in Dubai. Imported gold from the USA was re-exported to India and sold at much higher prices. Dubai jewellers bought gold mixed with silver and brass, which they purified and sold in the form of pure bullion. Indians brought in raw gold from India and made jewellery to sell in the market. Bur Dubai gold souq has been famous since the 1940s and in the 1950s another gold souq was established in Bur Deira.


At the cloth shop a woman is choosing a fabric. Until the 1950s there were about 70 shops built of sea stone and gypsum with wooden doors in Souq Al Boteen and Souq Al Manazer for selling fabrics in Deira. The traders imported fabrics for ladies’ clothes from India, which was famous for its colours and beautiful prints. Fabrics were sold by the Waar, which is equal to 36 inches, or by the bolt, which measures 30 waar. The old market was famous for selling head-dresses (Ghetra for summer and Shaal for winter) that were imported from Syria and India, as were men’s underwear and children’s clothes.


Tailor’s shop were found in the ‘Abra’ area of old Dubai, beside the Creek in the Deira side, where more than ten tailor’s shops were side-by-side. The shops were very small and had no electricity. In the daytime the tailors used their sewing machines in front of their shops for daylight and to keep cool. They had a large, wooden table where they cut their cloth using a piece of wood as a measure. During festivals and the pearl diving season these shops were busy. Customers often brought their own cloth to be tailored into dishdashas or pearl diving suits. The cost of a garment was usually not more than one and a half rupees. Some people specialised in dyeing clothes, especially dishdashas, which were usually dyed each year to keep them looking new. Tailors trained their sons to follow them in the profession and passed on all of their trade secrets.


The last shop is a food shop – there were numerous shops selling foodstuffs, traditional medicines and other consumer products in the Al Sabkha area and Souq Al Boteen where the market stalls were huts made from date palm fronds. Fruit and vegetables were produced in the region; the nomadic areas provided butter and charcoal, and the nothern and eastern parts of the Emirate provided lemons, bananas, mangoes and tobacco. Dhows used to bring in supplies from various countries. From India they brought rice and spices such as cardamom, tumeric and pepper. From Iran and Basrah came dates and beans and cooking oils came from East Africa. People came into Dubai from the countryside to shop at the markets.



  • Information provided by the Dubai Museum

A Souk in the Pre-Oil Era of Dubai

by Uncover Travel time to read: 5 min
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