An Emirates archaeological sampler

By Julie Skurdenis

Malaysia Airlines’ ad sounded almost too good to be true: $999 would take us halfway around the world to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s cosmopolitan capital. To that we could add as many (or as few) as we wanted of the dozens of destinations Malaysia Airlines flies to in the Far East. We’d be using Kuala Lumpur as our hub for the Far Eastern destinations, but it would not cost us a penny more to add to our travel agenda, if we chose, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Yangon, Hanoi, Manila. . .

Ultimately, we selected Hong Kong and Bangkok in addition to Kuala Lumpur. But, as it happened, it was Dubai, Malaysia Airlines’ fuel stop and destination in the United Arab Emirates, that turned out to be our favorite on this trip. In January ’04 we spent five days in Dubai following our 2-week trip in the Far East.

Dubai as our base

Dubai was our base for exploring the United Arab Emirates. There are seven Emirates and we managed to squeeze in visits to five of them. We were in search of sun and souks and found plenty of both — a balmy 70 degrees when New York was mired in a deep freeze, plus shopping in both souks and malls to suit any taste (designer clothes, gold jewelry, Middle Eastern water pipes, Oriental carpets. . .). We were also in search of archaeological sites, as we usually are on our trips, and found plenty of those, too.

The first archaeological site was practically in our backyard. We stayed at the brand-new, extraordinarily lovely Shangri-La Hotel, located among the skyscrapers of one of Dubai’s main thoroughfares, Sheik Zayed Road. Only 10 minutes away by cab was Jumeira Archaeological Site, one of the most significant in the Emirates.

Pre-Islamic Jumeira

Jumeira is located in a residential area of closely packed, large and luxurious villas. For at least 500 years, from the sixth century A.D. to the 10th, Jumeira was a caravan stop in the desert. But what makes this site even more important than its function as a link on the trade route between Mesopotamia and Oman is that it spans both the pre-Islamic and Islamic eras.

The Persian Sassanid Empire dominated this area from the third to the seventh centuries A.D., succumbing eventually to the Umayyads from what is now Syria. Jumeira was in existence at the time power passed from Sassanids to Umayyads in the seventh century A.D.

What remains of Jumeira now are the foundations of buildings that comprised the caravan stop: a rectangular caravanserai offering accommodation for men and camels with its rooms surrounding a large courtyard, a souk or marketplace with seven shops, a 10-room house around a U-shaped courtyard (possibly once the governor’s mansion) and smaller houses scattered nearby. Pottery, glassware, copper and iron items have been found and are on display in the Dubai Museum. The Jumeira Archaeological Site is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. (check with your hotel’s concierge).

Hili’s Tombs

Abu Dhabi, Dubai’s Emirate neighbor to the southwest, possesses a remarkable archaeological site that is more than 4,000 years old. Hili Archaeological Park is located near the oasis of Al Ain in Abu Dhabi. Similar to Umm Al Nar, one of the first archaeological sites to be excavated (1958) in the UAE, Hili dates to between 2500 and 2000 B.C.

In a park-like setting where people come to stroll at the end of the day, there are several round structures that may have been tombs, temples or simply towers. One has two porthole-type entrances with relief carvings above the doorways. You can still make out two human figures embracing, another riding a donkey, standing figures and animals that could be cheetahs or oryx. Nearby is a large subterranean tomb that apparently served as a communal grave for more than 300 individuals.

It’s magical to visit Hili at dusk with the ruins outlined against a purple-blue sky and with the call to prayer broadcast from a nearby mosque, itself outlined in tiny lights. Hili is open daily from 4 to 11 p.m.

Two fortresses

We also visited two much more recent archaeological sites, both fortresses, both about 200 years old. One was Bithnah, located in a small oasis in the Emirate of Fujairah, east of Dubai. Situated on a main trade route from the interior to the Gulf of Oman, this small, mud-brick fortress was probably built to protect the nearby village, reduced nowadays to a small scattering of houses.

Bithnah is a picturesque example of a desert fortress. Quadrangular in shape, it has two towers on the corners of its western facade. Although visitors can go inside at any time, it is a scramble among the rubble both inside and outside.

The second fortress we visited was Al Fahidi in Bur Dubai on the south side of Dubai Creek in what is one of the oldest sections of Dubai. Al Fahidi dates back to about 1787 and is reputed to be one of Dubai’s oldest buildings. In addition to its protective role, the fort once served as the residence of Dubai’s rulers.

Today it houses the superb Dubai Museum with life-size, lifelike recreations of life in Dubai in the past, including pearl diving, dhow (traditional cargo boat) building, traditional Arabic houses and a souk. There’s also an excellent section on archaeology. The museum is open Saturday to Thursday from 8:30 to
8:30; Friday hours are 2:30 to 8:30. It’s best to have your concierge check out these hours.

Ancient mosque

Finally, there’s Al Bidyah, my favorite of the archaeological sites we visited. Located on the Gulf of Oman in the Emirate of Fujairah not far from Oman to the north, the town of Bidyah is one of the oldest in the Gulf area and has a history that can be traced back at least 4,000 years, based on the evidence of graves found there.

It is also the site of a small, whitewashed, multidomed mosque, also called Al Bidyah, which is the oldest in the UAE. The sign in front of the mosque says it dates from about 1446, but the caretaker told us that the original mosque was built around 640, just eight years after the Prophet Mohamed’s death in 632.

Ordinarily, non-Moslems are not permitted inside the mosque, but we begged a quick look inside and got it.

Inside, the mosque is starkly simple. A single pillar supports the whitewashed ceiling. The mihrab indicates the direction of Mecca and there is a minbar, or pulpit. Colorful prayer rugs cover the floor. It’s an intimate mosque conducive to contemplation.

Outside there is a small, enclosed area surrounding the mosque plus a well that looks as if it might have been in use in the Prophet’s lifetime. Ruined watchtowers stand like sentinels on the hills behind the mosque.

If you go. . .

Our base in Dubai was the stunningly beautiful Shangri-La Hotel, completed in 2003. Occupying the topmost 13 floors of a 43-story-tall skyscraper, this is Shangri-La’s first hotel outside the Far East (Shangri-La currently has over 30 properties in its portfolio).

The Dubai Shangri-La is as perfect as it gets. Why? Spacious, modish rooms in sand tones of brown, beige and cream. Elegant bathrooms with huge soaking tubs as well as showers. Views of the desert and the Arabian Gulf. Moroccan, Chinese, Vietnamese and seafood restaurants besides a café offering a spectacular buffet. Twenty-four-hour Executive Center. A spa offering a wide menu of treatments and therapies, besides sauna, Jacuzzi and hot tubs. An outdoor pool beside an umbrella-shaded café. Need I say more?

Shangri-La room rates begin at 1,250 dirhams (about $338 at the time of our visit), but inquire about special “rate breaks” which can bring the price of a double down to 680 dirhams ($184). Call 800/942-5050 or book online at

We flew to Dubai on Malaysia Airlines. Malaysia is a melange of cultures, and I especially enjoyed sampling some of the country’s varied cuisine aloft: Indian food (spicy chicken vindaloo), Chinese food (stir-fried beef in black pepper sauce) and Malaysian (charcoal grilled chicken and beef skewers with spicy peanut sauce). And who can beat that special $999 airfare for the best of the Far East? Call 800/552-9264.

We had three full days of touring outside Dubai with a private car and driver/guide. The concierge at the Shangri-La made all the arrangements for us on the spot.

Julie Skurdenis’ air passage was provided by Malaysia Airlines.