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Khor Dubai (Dubai Creek in English) is a natural seawater inlet of the Arabian Gulf located in the heart of Dubai with 14 kilometres length and between 100-500 meters width that runs South-East and ends at Ras Al-Khor wildlife Sanctuary. The creek divides the city into two parts: Bur Dubai and Deira, and has played a major role in the economic development of the region throughout history.
The first recorded reference to Dubai dates back to 1587, when the Venetian pearl merchant Gaspero Balbi visited the area and wrote of Dubai’s pearling industry. However, the earliest known description of Dubai Creek is found in an 1822 report by a British Royal Navy officer. The creek was likely the actual raison d’être of Dubai’s creation and early development as a trading port; the start point for which could perhaps be taken as 1833, when some 800 members of the Bani Yas tribe, led by Sheikh Maktoum bin Buti Al-Falasi, settled in the Bur Dubai area, at the mouth of the creek.
The creek, a safe, natural harbour with the potential to become a thriving port centred on pearl diving, fishing and trade, was the obvious choice for the early settlers. Indeed, fishing, another main "industry" at the time, also thrived along the creek, whose warm and shallow waters supported a diverse and rich marine life. For about a century, although it didn't allow the entry of large ships due to its limited depth, the creek has remained the only port in the city and the most important element in establishing the commercial position of Dubai.
In the second half of the 20th the importance of the creek as commercial hub imposed a series of improvements to allow larger vessels to transit, as well as to facilitate the loading and unloading of goods. In 1955, a plan was prepared to develop the creek: the plan involved the dredging of shallow areas, the building of breakwater, and the transformation of its beach into a quay suitable for loading and unloading of cargo. The creek was first dredged in 1961 to permit 7 feet (2.1 m) draft vessels to cross through the creek at all times; and dredged again in the 1960s and 1970s to offer anchorage for local and coastal shipping up to 500 tons.
In the early days, crossing from one side of the creek to the other either involved a long journey by land around the end of the waterway, or a ride in an abra, small wooden boat, powered by oar. Abras (today equipped with diesel engines) are still used as a ferry passenger back and forth between Deira, Shindagha and Bur Dubai. Alternative methods of crossing the creek have developed as the city expanded (bridges, tunnel, metro...).
Notwithstanding the impressive growth of Modern Dubai for tens of kilometres along the seashore, the creek has remained the very "heart" of the city. Along the creek and the seashore are still found the traditional boat-building areas where large wooden boats are built, restored and maintained by skilled workers and naval entrepreneurs. As in the past, today there is still plenty of activity ongoing on and along the creek, even though no longer solely focused on commerce, as tourism had taken an important role in the city's continuing development: a variety of vessels weave their way up and down the creek, offering the visitors a sense of how vital an element this small stretch of water has been in the history of Dubai.
Three distinct residential areas emerged as the population of Dubai expanded: Deira, which was the main commercial district, Bur Dubai, and Shindagha, a thin strip of land separating the creek from the sea. The latter became the principal residential area, and the place where the city rulers lived.
In Bur Dubai, the waterfront has mostly preserved its ancient skyline characterized by the distinctive wind-towers of Bastakia neighbourhood, protected thanks to the concerted effort of the government. Besides Bastakia, the historic core of Dubai counts a number of historic buildings along and nearby the creek. Among them, the Faheidi Fort (restored and transformed into a modern museum), schools, and mosques throughout the quarter of Deira, and the reconstructed houses in the neighbourhood of Shindagha. The traditional souqs of Deira and Bur Dubai have also been carefully restored and continue to thrive and play an important role in the city's economic life. In their animated covered alleys might still be found the shops bearing the names of ancient merchants' families from the Emirate and neighbouring countries that contributed to the development of modern Dubai. Gold, silk & spice trade, covered souqs, traditional houses with their unique wind-towers (Barjeels), and wooden boats constitute a unique urban environment further enhanced by the presence of the creek.
The site includes the first 4,5 km of the Creek, from the original mouth to the first bridge built to connect the two banks, including both the quay and the piers of the harbour where hundreds of wooden boats continue to moor and download goods according to a century-old tradition. Within the property limits are the most preserved areas of the three historic districts (Shindagha, Bastakia and Deira) with the main traditional souqs and the Faheidi Fort.
Khor Dubai and its surrounding historic neighbourhoods constitute an outstanding and universally valuable site where natural, architectural and cultural components create a unique urban landscape where influences and human interactions from the entire Gulf rgion mingle into a coherent and alive ensemble preserving both tangible and intangible heritage values.
The Outstanding Universal Value of the site is based on the criteria (ii), (iii) and (v) presented below.
Khor Dubai, with its surrounding neighbourhoods developing on both banks of the creek, exhibits an important interchange of human values and influences, bringing in elements and forms from different architectural styles that produced a specific and intense use of wind-towers and courtyard houses adapted to response to the harsh climate of the Gulf area.
Khor Dubai, with its unique urban landscape formed by the Gulf water inlet and the residential neighbourhood that developed along it at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century, is an exceptional testimony of a cultural tradition based on the development of international commerce and free trade in the Gulf region.
The architectural ensembles formed by residential and commercial quarters opening on, and connected by, the creek — that was the main thoroughfare bringing in goods, wealth and know-how from the neighbouring countries — are characterized by the traditional wind-tower houses, the last remaining example of an entire neighbourhood on the Arabian coast of the Gulf. Wind-towers had a remarkable and long lasting effect on Dubai’s urban form, providing a record of social history of the first half of the twentieth century, the period when the city rose to become the most important commercial centre of the lower gulf, and have kept their symbolic relevance for Dubai up to the present. century, is an exceptional testimony of a cultural tradition based on the development of international commerce and free trade in the Gulf region.
Dubai is an outstanding example of a traditional settlement representative of a human interaction with a unique maritime environment. Since the mid-19th Dubai creek has permitted the development of an urban settlement that thrived on maritime commerce, pearling and fishing. The origin of human presence in Dubai is intimately connected to the Creek that provided a safe harbour for the wooden boats that crossed the Gulf, and rich fishing waters.
Along this 14 km-long water inlet, the original small settlement was able to develop, thanks to its status as free-trade port and to attract a cosmopolitan community from the neighbouring countries: Persia, India, East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Along the Creek grew a uniquely active and thriving commercial hub specialised in the commerce of pearls, gold, textiles, and spices. The traditional neighbourhoods that developed in the early 20 century on the two banks of the creek are the living proof of the continuous exchange of technical know-how in house building and boat-making among the people of the region. The recent development of modern Dubai has not erased the original nucleus of the city that remains the very core of the entire urban area. The evolution of the city from a small harbour and pearl diving town into a major commercial hub for the entire region - a place where people of different cultures and traditions settle and inter-mix - has brought about the unique cosmopolitan community characterizing modern Dubai.
Khor Dubai authenticity concerns primarily the actual waterway. The creek has preserved both its physical appearance and its economic and social function as main commercial axis linking Dubai with the rest of the Gulf. The development of the city along the creek has transformed the original sandy beaches were the boats used to rest into stone quays, but wooden boats (dhows) continue to load and download goods and to sell them in the city souqs, the only evident innovation being the replacement of the traditional sails with modern engines.
The actual "spirit" of the place is still fully present and authentic, with the creek being the heart of the urban ensemble formed by the historic fort, specialized souqs, elegant mosques, lively residential quarters (Shindagha, Bastakia, Al-Ras) connected, functionally and symbolically, by the continuous cruising of traditional wooden boats (abras and dhows) carrying people and goods.
At the architectural level, the authenticity is reflected in the efforts of the Architectural Heritage Department of Dubai Municipality, actively protecting the physical fabric of the city, respecting the urban form, traditional building techniques and materials, and keeping wind-towers as symbolic elements of the cityscape. The remaining historic buildings and urban sectors have been preserved, and carefully restored; when houses have been rebuilt, the reconstruction has been done on the basis of both material and intangible evidence (historic documents, oral history and interviews with original residents), and according to internationally recognized technical standards. Khor Dubai historic urban landscape constitutes an authentic, alive, and vibrant environment, where the multiple elements composing Dubai identity are still found.
The integrity of the site and its elements are guaranteed by the existing legal measures for the protection of monuments, and is overseen by the Architectural Heritage Department of the Municipality of Dubai.
Khor Dubai can be compared with a number of sites that are similar as far as their natural features (the creek) or their commercial and urban function are concerned. However, Khor Dubai's specificity as an historic urban landscape resides in its continuity as commercial axis at the regional scale, notwithstanding the incredibly rapid transformations brought about by the discovery and exploitation of oil in the region. While Dubai developed from a tiny commercial settlement into a major global metropolis, its original core on the banks of the creek, and the very water inlet that favoured its creation, have managed to preserve their overall appearance, their primary commercial function, and their larger regional significance.
At the physical and natural level, most of the cities in the area were coastal settlements originated on or near similar creeks providing safe anchorage to ships and boats. A survey of the Shore and Islands of the Persian Gulf 1820-1829 shows that many cities in the Gulf Area were originated either along creeks, like Ajman, Sharjah and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and in Bushire and Bahrain in the Gulf Region, or adjacent to them, like the cities of Jazeerat Al-Hamra and Um Al-Quwain. However, only Dubai has been able to preserve its original core as the incredibly rapid growth of the modern metropolis has taken place mostly along the sea front. At the global scale, seawater inlets created by glacial phenomena (fjords) have similarly favoured the growth of major human settlements in Northern Europe (especially in Norway) thanks to their safe harbours and their rich fish resources. Nevertheless the geographic, climatic and cultural environment of the Gulf is completely different.
At the functional level, both the region and the World Heritage List count a number of sites that played a major economic, symbolic and historic role as "market" places and cities. In the Gulf area, other cities like Abu Dhabi or Doha possess traditional souqs sharing common elements with Dubai. At the international scale, it can be compared to cities as distant and different as Tabriz in Iran, Hoi Ahn in Vietnam, Malacca & Georgetown in Malaysia, Aleppo in Syria, Samarkand in Uzbekistan which have already been inscribed on the World Heritage List as traditional commercial poles (on the sea or inland) of major international significance. Dubai's importance as commercial pole in the late 19th and 20th centuries is related to two specific aspects not necessarily found elsewhere: being a free trade zone and an international pole for the sale of rare and precious goods, like pearls and gold. Its commercial significance at the regional scale is still well established notwithstanding the economic, technical and social evolution and transformation the region witnessed in the last 50 years.
At the architectural level, one of the most striking element of the site are its wind-towers, a traditional technical feature answering to the harsh climatic conditions of the region that can be found in most historic settlements of Iran and of the Arabian Peninsula with specificities and differences according to the region and the epoch. The World Heritage Site of Ad-Dir'iyah in Saudi Arabia shows vestiges of very high and partially standing wind catchers; these towers built in mud bricks, however, are substantially different from the ones found in Eastern Gulf region. Closer examples are found in major Persian architectural sites in the central Iranian plateau and notably in the city of Yazd. The traditional neighbourhoods of old Dubai, however, represent the most coherent remain of an urban district with wind-tower on the Arabian side of the Gulf. While this architectural element can be found in isolated, preserved houses also in Manama (Bahrain), in Kuwait City and in Doha (Qatar), only in Dubai this traditional element still characterizes entire urban sectors like Shindagha and Bastakia neighbourhood.