Laura Collacott sets off in search of prehistoric burial sites, ancient forts and sacred temples around the Bahraini capital
Beit Al Qur’an
Although just over the causeway from Saudi Arabia, liberal Bahrain is a world apart. While distances are not huge, people are accustomed to driving to most places in the Middle East so hop in a cab and have a look around. Your first stop is Beit Al Qur’an (House of the Qur’an) on Exhibition Road in the diplomatic area. The museum accommodates a collection of Islamic religious scripts sourced from places including North Africa, Iran, India, China and Spain.
Whereas European religious iconography left a legacy of spiritual artwork, Islam discourages literal depiction of the prophets so scholars expressed themselves through creative calligraphy. You’ll find many examples here in scripts, books and carvings – some from the seventh century – alongside Islamic artefacts and jewellery. Open Sat-Wed 9am-12pm, 4pm-6pm; Thurs 9am-12.30pm. Entry is free. Tel +97 317 290 101.
On Government Road, a short walk from the Bab Al Bahrain (Gateway to Bahrain), the Heritage Centre was originally a ministry building but has been converted into a museum depicting traditional Bahraini life. Exhibitions on pearl diving, falconry, domestic life and Islamic weddings are displayed in rooms located off a central courtyard. The wedding room is richly decorated with mirrors, ornaments and a draped four-poster bed embellished to show the status of the bride’s father. As most Gulf states have seen rapid development over the past 50 years, the photographic exhibition on Bahrain’s development is also worth a look.
Not far from downtown Manama, on the coast, lies Bahrain Fort, Qal’at Al Bahrain. Excavation has shown that the site held strategic importance for thousands of years – you can find out more in the informative on-site museum. The current structure was built in the 14th century and fortified by the Portuguese in the early 1500s to protect their trade route between India, Africa and Europe. It sits in a picturesque coastal location that shows the contrast between new and old Bahrain – skyscrapers to one side and villages to the other. Open 8am-8pm. Tower is free. Museum costs 500fils (80p); tel +97 317 298 777.
About 20 minutes’ drive from Manama, the Barbar Temples date back to the Dilmun civilisation that called Bahrain home during the second and third millenniums BC. Three successive temples were built on the site, likely dedicated to Enki, the deity associated with wisdom and freshwater. Experts believe they are the best example of ancient architecture in the region. You can get an impression of the site by wandering along the series of walkways, but to gain a real insight, buy a book or hire a guide before you go. Open daily during daylight hours except Friday; donations encouraged.
A’ali Burial Mounds
These are another of Bahrain’s impressive archaeological sites. There are more than 100,000 mounds across the island dating back to prehistoric times, but the largest are next to the village of A’ali, about 15 minutes from Barbar and 25 minutes from Manama. Some reach up to 15 metres high and 45 metres across and are believed to have been the final resting places of royalty. The burial chamber inside the mounds consists of two rooms built of dried adobe and clad with limestone, and although most have been looted or destroyed over the 5,000 years they have been standing, research is being conducted to piece together the ritual and history of the site. You can find out more at the National Museum in Manama (tel +97 317 298 777).
A Swedish firm has proposed the construction of a 1km-high, 200-floor skyscraper in Manama. If built, Murjan Tower would be the world’s tallest structure, surpassing even Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.