The keys to the king­dom

More than a year af­ter the Arab Spring up­ris­ings, Bahrain is again wel­com­ing vis­i­tors

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - DEB­O­RAH HOPE

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.

MAIN PIC­TURE: JENS BUTTNER/COR­BIS; BE­LOW: GETTY

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

GETTY

Bahrain has been fa­mous for cen­turies as a pearling cen­tre

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