Wind-Towers and Pearl Fishing: Architectural Signals in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Arabian Gulf

Article excerpt


The United Arab Emirates is a peninsular country located on the south-west side of the Arabian (Persian) Gulf and on the north-west banks of the Gulf of Oman (Figure 1). With an area of 83 600 square kilometres (Al Abed et al. 1996: 269), the United Arab Emirates consists of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qawain, Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah. It was known prior to confederation in 1971 as either the Trucial Coast or Trucial Oman and was dependent on the few resources that the difficult climate and geography offered. Small towns, villages and hamlets were strung along the coastal inlets and off-shore islands, and set into the interior desert oases and mountain wadis. Mountain and beach stone, coral, palm frond, mud brick, and the occasional palm log have served as the main building materials.


The Emirates have long been regarded as having no great architectural tradition of the Islamic period. Indeed, we may reflect on Creswell's biting conclusion that: '... Arabia, at the rise of Islam, does not appear to have possessed anything worthy of the name of architecture. Only a small proportion of the population was settled, and these lived in dwellings which were scarcely more than hovels' (1932: 7). But these words were written in the 1930s, and are of their time, for since then greater appreciation for the inventiveness of the local building traditions has emerged. Through the Gulf generally, examples of late nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture have been preserved and documentary texts about the buildings and their architectural styles have begun to appear. However, this existing evidence generally emphasises functional and decorative description over social context. In recent years, archaeological investigation, with its combination of scientific, imaginative and deductive methods, has pursued a research agenda seeking to determine economic and ecological sequences. In some cases these inquiries have begun a dialogue with those of history and architecture, to the great enrichment of both.

Between 1857 and 1929, the most pervasive and lucrative economic activity in the Gulf was trading in pearls, and this provided a substantial underpinning to the material culture of that period. In this paper an archaeologist, an art historian and an architectural historian explore how the various aspects of the pearl trade were reflected in material culture, using two case studies. The first reviews archaeological evidence for the extraction of the pearls and the impact of the trade in the area of Abu Dhabi, and the second shows how the development of the trade and the consequent movement of merchants left its mark on the architectural corpus in Dubai. In both cases the focus is on the social complexity of the nineteenth-century Arabian Gulf, and the explanatory wealth made possible by a multi-disciplinary, indeed a cross-disciplinary approach.

Pearl extraction in the Abu Dhabi area

Since 1991, the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey has surveyed and recorded over a thousand archaeological sites throughout the region, in which archaeological evidence for the pearl trade has been found in abundance. Although fieldwork has identified extensive evidence for settlement during the Late Islamic period on almost all of the islands in Abu Dhabi waters, as well as much of the coastline, this evidence is ephemeral, and suggests intermittent settlement deriving from patterns of regular nomadic movement (Hellyer 1998; King 1998, 2001). Natural resources are scarce, and permanent water sources few and far between.

The most obvious form of evidence for the extraction of pearls is shell middens, resulting from the opening of oysters in order to remove the pearl within. These shell middens range in quantity from just a few to several million shells (Figure 2), and give us a range of information, including the species of oyster collected, usually Pinctada radiata, but also Pinctada marganitifera, or, for mother-of-pearl, the winged oyster Pteria macroptera. …