For a tiny island nation, admeasuring all of 790 sqkm, barely bigger than Mumbai, Bahrain is surprisingly packed with history and heritage, abutting modern glass and steel towers that have become ubiquitous all over the world.
Perhaps no other place represents the melange of the old and the new as strikingly and yet as succinctly as the traditional houses in Muharraq Island, which used to be the capital of Bahrain and the hub of the pearl industry in the country
An old, traditional house with the archetypal wooden door with ornate carvings and exotic metal work stands in a house whose walls are painted with modern, but elegant graffiti of women. A walk through Muharraq takes you down the path of history and heritage of the country and its most famous and ancient economic activity – pearl collection
Called the Muharraq Pearling Path, it traces thousands of years of tradition of pearl collection in the country. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it comprises of 15 distinct locations or properties, including three large oyster beds located in the northern territorial waters of Bahrain, one site on the southern tip of the Muharraq Island, and nine clusters of historic buildings consisting of 17 structures.
Together, these individual sites are the last remaining example of a cultural tradition that dominated not just Bahrain but the entire region, from Oman to Egypt and extending in the north to Iran and Iraq. Many of the sites along the Pearling Path have now been converted into museums and showcase the history of pearl industry of Bahrain to visitors.
Bahrain National Museum
Almost next door from Muharraq, across the creek, is another famous cultural site, the Bahrain National Museum. The museum is the keeper of practically every aspect of Bahrain’s heritage and traditions and is a perfect guide to the nation’s 5,000-year-old history.
One of the most unique features in the museum, that strikes the visitors instantaneously just like it had struck your correspondent as soon as she walked in, is a reconstruction of a Dilmun burial mound, dating back to 2800 BC.
Designed by French architect Didier Blin, the Hall of Dilmun Graves not only preserves the original reconstitution of the Dilmun Burial Mounds, but also displays latest excavations and explains the burial traditions of the Dilmun period. The adjacent Hall of Dilmun highlights Bahrain’s cultural supremacy and trade hegemony. It shows the evolution of Bahrain from the Neolithic period to the Late Dilmun (5000 BC – 400 BC), and features the most important archaeological sites on the island and their distinguished findings.
The museum was built in 1988 and is spread over two inter-connected buildings, with various exhibits spread throughout, covering about 20,000 sqm of display space. The museum has various sections covering different aspects of Bahraini culture and heritage. The key sections include the Hall of Graves, Hall of Dilmun, Hall of Tylos and Islam as well as halls devoted to customs and traditions, traditional trades and crafts and to documents and manuscripts.
Another interesting place in the museum is Hall of Tylos, which traces the Bahraini society from the 2nd century BC to the 7th century when Bahrain was part of the Hellenistic Empire and before the advent of Islam.
There are numerous displays such as distinguished glass vessels, glazed pottery, alabaster containers and fine jewellery that duly attest the complexity of Tylos’ trade network. The Islamic section highlights the important episodes in the history of Bahrain from the 7th century to the 18th century. The artefacts from Al-Khamis mosque, one of the oldest mosques in Bahrain and the Gulf, take centre stage. The beautiful Kufic inscriptions and timber beams are complemented by ceramics, glass and metal objects.
The museum also has a rich collection of Quranic manuscripts, hailing from different parts of the world. Also on display are important documents of the reign of the Al-Khalifa ruling family that illustrate the progress and development of Bahrain in the 19th and 20th centuries. The hall also displays life in Bahrain before discovery of oil in 1930. These include birth ceremonies, traditional weddings and festivities as well as local medicine and religious practices.
Al Fateh Mosque
Less than three km from the museum is yet another storehouse of Bahraini culture and one with elements of culture from around the world, the Al Fateh Mosque. The first thing that strikes the visitors is a massive teakwood door, with exquisite carvings, that was imported from India. The door is not the only element of the mosque that has been imported. While the floor and walls are lined with fine-quality Italian marble, the interior of the mosque is dominated by a large central chandelier that has been imported from Austria. The chandelier is surrounded by numerous hand-blown round lamps made in France.
Another aspect of the mosque that stands out is its massive dome, made entirely of fibre glass, weighs over 60 tonnes and is said to be the largest dome in the world made of fibreglass. On the walls and roof of the mosque there are calligraphic writings in the ancient Kufic style.
Across the island stands another testimony to Bahrain’s heritage. Locally called Qal’at al-Bahrain, Bahrain Fort is a sandy yellow fortress and by far the oldest intact building on the island. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, comprising an ancient sea tower, a sea channel and palm groves, the area bears proof of continuous human presence from about 2300 BC to the 16th century AD.
About 25 pc of the site has been excavated, revealing structures of different types like residential, public, commercial, religious and military, testifying to the importance of the site, a trading port, over the centuries.
As it is set on a massive expanse of empty, barren land, the Fort offers some of the most amazing sun sets in the country, as fading light mounts a dynamic play of shadows, before the entire site is enveloped by darkness.
While there may not be much to do or see in the Fort after dusk has descended, the Manama Souq takes on a life of its own after sunset. Indeed, as soon as you reach Bab Al Bahrain, where the souq is located, you will be surprised by the change of energy that you will experience. Welcoming the visitors to the souq is a giant collection of beads hanging by the roof which swing in the light evening breeze that greets the visitors, producing a melodious and soothing sound that resembles a group of birds chirping.
Contrary to the modern parts of Manama, Bab Al Bahrain has preserved the typical old-world charm that will entice you and compel you to spend more time and money than you had actually planned to! Built in 1949 by Shaikh Salman bin Ahmed Al Fateh, it once housed the government’s administrative offices and overlooked the sea. Just right behind Bab Al Bahrain is the old Manama Souq, the mecca for traditional shopping. You will find everything here- from spices, perfumes, handicrafts, textile, incense and souvenirs as well as more modern products from all over the world.
At the heart of the Manama Souq is the spice market. A project called ‘Little India in Bahrain’ was launched in December 2015 to recognise and celebrate the contribution of the Indian community to Bahrain’s history and progress. Several buildings were restored and renovated, and a small public space was created to hold regular markets, fashion shows, Indian food stalls, and cultural performances. If you wish to satiate your palate’s desire for some authentic Indian cuisine, head to the numerous restaurants here. Completing Little India is the oldest Hindu temple in the entire region, a 200-year-old Sri Krishna Temple that bears testimony to the presence of a large Indian expatriate population, the largest in the country.
Where to stay?
We stayed at the Swan Executive Suites in Bahrain which is located in the heart of Seef business district. Swan Executive Suites boasts an aesthetic architecture & refined interior and is the ideal destination for business and leisure travellers in Bahrain. The hotel is a 5-minute walk from Bahrain International Exhibition & Convention Center while Dana Mall, City Center Mall, Seef Mall and A’ali Mall are all in the vicinity.
We were staying in the two-bedroom executive suite. It has a spacious living room equipped with an open or closed kitchenette and with separate bathroom.
Spacious Two Bedrooms, Living Room, Dining Area, Kitchen, Two Bathrooms, Large-screen LED TV with 50+ channels and complimentary Movie on Demand in bedroom and living room, Free Parking Area