The keys to the kingdom
More than a year after the Arab Spring uprisings, Bahrain is again welcoming visitors
SOME countries fall off the travel map. Bahrain is one of them.
Australians familiar with the old Kangaroo Route to London may recall transiting through the tiny Arab Gulf oil state, perched j ust off the Saudi coastline between Kuwait and Qatar.
Since then, the pocket-handkerchief sized archipelago has come under the international spotlight on just two occasions: when Michael Jackson bolted there with his entourage in 2005 after being acquitted of child molestation charges, and again in the tumult of last year’s Arab Spring, when conflict erupted between the Sunni ruling family and the country’s Shia majority.
Living near the centre of the capital, Manama, at the time, I had a dress-circle seat to observe all the tragic sights and sounds of the still unresolved struggle.
Not surprisingly, the trickle of European tourists to Bahrain immediately dried up; the largest event on its calendar, the Formula One Grand Prix, was cancelled; and expatriate residents packed their bags in large numbers.
As the crisis dragged on, it was hard not to believe that the treasures the desert kingdom has to offer the discerning traveller would be sealed off for the foreseeable future.
Nearly 18 months later, visiting Bahrain is beginning to look possible once again. Despite ongoing clashes between protesters and riot police in certain locations, local intelligence reports a slow return to normality, even a tentative optimism in the desert air.
Bahrain’s reform-minded Crown Prince has renewed his efforts to establish a dialogue with opposition groups, the F1 was staged in April despite loud threats of an international boycott and civil disruption, and Manama is the 2012 Arab Capital of Culture.
Before moving to Bahrain three years ago, I had to dig out an old atlas to check where it was. I knew nothing of its history as an ancient centre of sea trade and pearling, its strategic role as the base of the US Navy’s Gulf fleet or the charm and courtesy of Bahrainis.
I had no clue that every weekend Saudis in their tens of thousands flood across the causeway that connects Bahrain to the mainland, seeking respite from the religious police; that they pack out the malls, cafes and restaurants, shop for fashion, lingerie and perfume, visit bars and brothels, cram into stand-up comedy venues and cinemas, and account for the surprisingly large number of five and four-star hotels in Manama and its vicinity.
Bahrain’s history is its best-kept secret, however. Excavations over the past 60 years have unearthed an ‘‘archeological Eldorado’’ (to quote one German archeologist). In the eponymous epic, Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, travels to Dilmun seeking ‘ ‘ the flower of immortality’’. Dilmun’s location was a mystery until the 1950s, when the capital of a civilisation older than the Egyptian pyramids was uncovered in Bahrain. The discovery explained the multitude of Bronze Age burial mounds spread across its landscape like giant molehills.
Pearling in the waters around Bahrain preceded the founding of the Dilmun civilisation by a couple of thousand years, and for centuries Bahrain’s second- largest island, Muharraq, was the Gulf’s pearling centre. At the industry’s apex in 1911-12, pearls worth more than a million pounds sterling were exported direct from Bahrain to Paris, New York, London and Bombay, and j ewellers such as Jacques Cartier travelled to select the finest at source.
Old Muharraq, formerly the capital and nominated for inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage register, displays its past in its grand pearl- merchants’ houses and dhow yards, ruler’s palace, forts, maze of narrow and winding alleys, traditional coffee shops and souk.
The best of Bahrain
is easily enjoyed in a two-day itinerary in the cooler weather between October and April. Add a third day for a desert outing to watch young sheiks test their Arab steeds in endurance races, or for a scuba diving or snorkelling trip to collect pearl oysters. One of my sons flew home to Sydney after a visit with a pocketful of tiny, lustrous Arabian Gulf pearls, found in two hours of snorkelling during a short boat trip offshore.
Day one: Begin at the Bahrain National Museum. Its Hall of Graves displays the island’s extraordinary array of ancient graves. Don’t miss the intricate Dilmun seals in the next hall, or the bronze bull’s head discovered at the Barbar Temple.
Next stop is the Saar archeological site, where the excavated remains of a Bronze Age Dilmun village offer history buffs an insight into daily life 4000 years ago.
Follow the sandy track around the ruins until you find the temple. Note especially the curious room shaped like a ship’s prow. Every summer solstice the setting sun hits its acute angle, suggesting a link to the formulation of the Dilmun calendar.
Now head to Dilmun’s burial grounds. From Saar Village, return to the highway, then take the next exit towards Riffa. (Here you have the option of a 2km diversion to the charming village of Jasra, to visit the splendid heritage property Jasra House and the excellent al-Jasra Handicrafts Centre.)
Stay on the Wali al-Ahed Highway for 5km, passing the Waqif Central Market. Pull off the road when you see on your right a large, walled area of burial mounds. Enter via a broken section of the perimeter fence to take a walk in an eerie landscape of tombs up to 5m high. They have been robbed, but you can scramble up and peer down into the stone inner sanctum. Pressure to raze the mounds to make way for building development means that only an estimated 10,000 of more than 150,000 remain.
The highlight of the day is the World Heritage-listed Qal’at alBahrain (Bahrain Fort). Return towards Manama on Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Highway. En route, observe the A’ali burial mounds extending to the horizon on both sides. (Avoid A’ali village, still a protest hot spot.)
To reach the archeological site and its superb museum, take the al-Seef exit and follow the signs to nearby Karbabad village. Refreshment on the terrace of the museum’s cafe, overlooking what in 2000BC was the harbour entrance to one of the world’s great marketplaces, is highly recommended.
The island’s wealth, fertility (from plentiful freshwater springs) and strategic location made it a much fought- over possession through the millennia. Kassite kings from Babylon, princes of Hormuz and the Portuguese all occupied the Dilmun capital, leaving footprints in layers of cities and an enormous fortress standing guard over land and sea.
Free audio guides to the excavations are available from the museum’s front desk.
Finish your prowl on the fort’s ramparts, imagining seagoing vessels from Mesopotamia, Oman and the Indus Valley unloading cargoes of timber and copper, gems, spice and frankincense, or the 600 crossbow archers who held off a siege force in 1520.
Complete your Dilmun tour at the Barbar Temple, dedicated to Enki, the god of the abyss. The information at the site is unhelpful, so read ahead ( Looking for Dilmun by Geoffrey Bibby is the best source) or be prepared to use your imagination, once more, to
conjure up the temple’s function at the spiritual and ceremonial heart of the Dilmun civilisation. (If you plan to return to central Manamaalong the Budaiya Highway, note that this route is also the scene of frequent protests.) Conclude the day with dinner at one of the Adliya neighbourhood’s topnotch restaurants. Most are licensed. The city’s lively cafe culture and vibrant arts scene means you can eat out in Adliya, drop into a nearby gallery to take in the latest exhibition of modern Arab paintings, bargain for rugs on Osama bin Zaid Avenue, and enjoy an Arabic coffee, macchiato or shisha on the way home.
Day two: Begin the day early with a stroll around the photogenic remains of the seventhcentury al-Khamis Mosque. For contrast, head next to the contemporary Grand Mosque in Juffair.
Nearby is Beit al- Quran (House of the Quran), a museum and Islamic cultural centre housing a small but exquisite collection of Quranic calligraphy.
From here, it’s a short journey across the Sheik Hamad Causeway to Old Muharraq. Turn right at the roundabout into Sheik Abdulla Avenue.
Muharraq can be confusing, so return to the roundabout after parking to orient yourself. Bin Matar House, the century-old former majlis of a grand pearl merchant, on the right, has been converted into a modern art gallery and cafe. Upstairs it offers a modest exhibition on pearling.
Afew hundred metres up Sheik Abdulla Avenue you will see a sign pointing left to Sheik Isa bin Ali House. This was the palace of Bahrain’s ruler from 1869 to 1932, the peak years of the pearling era. Though unfurnished, the residence offers classic period architecture and decorative detail: grilles of myriad design, stained-glass fanlights and a functioning wind tower.
Magnificent Siyadi House, the elaborately decorated 19th- century home of another grand pearl merchant, is within easy walking distance. From the square adjacent to the small mosque that forms part of the Siyadi complex, follow the signs to Sheik Ebrahim bin Mohammed al- Khalifa Centre for Culture, one of a number of elegantly renovated properties in the whitewashed alleys that twist back towards Sheik Abdulla Avenue. One of these is Kurar House, where most mornings a group of veiled women gather to spin the gold thread traditionally used to embroider Arab clothing. On the way, stop at the Bu Khalaf coffee shop for a glass of red tea, Arabian style, and a bowl of chickpeas with chilli.
Or, if you would prefer an espresso or a pomegranate juice, visit the nearby House of Coffee. Enter through its simple wooden door to a stunning modern interior.
Next stop is Arad Fort. Follow Khalifa al- Khabeer Highway towards al-Hidd.
En route, look out for a row of rustic fishermen’s huts lining the water’s edge. Three similar fishing huts, reconstructed at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, won for Bahrain the Golden Lion for the best national participation.
Continue along the highway, past shorefront dhow yards. Arad Fort is an imposing 15th-century defence overlooking the strategic sea passage between Muharraq and Bahrain islands.
If the gate is closed, climb over the fence; then climb the steps to one of the corner towers to take in the gorgeous view back across the harbour to Manama.
Manama’s souk, entered through the Bab al-Bahrain gateway, comes alive in the evenings. Nearby you’ll find the gold market, where you can ogle the ornate jewellery. Alternatively, visit alMahmood Pearls, also near Bab al- Bahrain, to test- drive some natural Bahrain pearl jewellery. Arabic sweets, pickles and embroidered abayas abound in the Muharraq souk.
End the day, and your tour, at La Fontaine, an old Arab mansion in the atmospheric Hoora district that’s been converted into an arts centre, spa and eatery, for a glass of champagne and a meal around the giant fountain in its open courtyard. But take a taxi, because you’ll never find it on your own; it’s just one more of Bahrain’s hidden treasures. Now resident back in Sydney, I miss them every day.
The World Heritage-listed Qal’at al-Bahrain, or Bahrain Fort, archeological site, above, dates back to about 2500BC; Manama’s souk, below, comes alive in the evening
Bahrain has been famous for centuries as a pearling centre