The big trip

Trip of the week: exploring the ancient wonders of Bahrain

Fine museums have sprung up recently to preserve the heritage of the tiny island

It can’t vie with the glitz and glamour of neighbouring Dubai and Qatar, but the tiny island nation of Bahrain has a rich history, and in recent years a clutch of fine museums has sprung up to preserve its heritage.

Hidden away in pockets of traditional architecture amid the urban sprawl, they make for a rewarding few days’ exploration, says George Kipouros in Wanderlust – and, for the curious, there are other more active ways to engage with local culture, from concerts of the local traditional music to lessons in pearl diving, once the island’s main industry.

Bahrain means two seas in Arabic, perhaps a reference to the submarine freshwater springs where the world’s best oyster beds are found.

From the fourth to the first millennium BC, Bahrain lay at the heart of a civilisation that experts believe was Dilmun, the trading nation referred to in ancient Mesopotamian texts. Deep in the island’s heart lies a huge desert field of burial mounds, which form the world’s largest ancient necropolis.

Many of the treasures found there are displayed in the new National and Qala’at al-Bahrain museums. These include finely carved soapstone seals, and also votive offerings of pearls, and dead snakes, suggesting a ritual that may have been linked to the myth of Gilgamesh, which was a model for the Biblical story of Eden.

In the myth, Dilmun is as a paradise where Gilgamesh finds the flower of immortality in a freshwater sea, only to have it stolen by a serpent. Experts suggest the “flower” was a pearl: Gilgamesh recovers it like a pearl diver, with stones tied to his feet.

In the old town of Muharraq, a trail called the Pearling Path connects a series of fine 19th-century buildings, including elaborate pearl merchants’ mansions. Among them are a dozen or so charming small museums, galleries and concert halls overseen by the Sheikh Ebrahim Centre for Culture, which celebrate the island’s contemporary arts and traditional culture. 

See pearldiving.bh for information on pearl-diving trips

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