The sun dips behind the palm trees hugging the shore, a heron fishes in the shallow waters below, while dhows float out to sea. Even with construction sites and a vibrant modern port nearby, the site of the Qala'at Al Bahrain (Bahrain Fort) is a tranquil spot. While you can just make out the blinking lights of Manama, Bahrain's bustling capital still seems a world away.
But look closely and you'll see the archaeological clues that this quiet corner, and not Manama, was in ancient times the heart beat of the Bahraini archipelago. Once described in Sumerian texts as ‘paradise on earth’ this was the centre of Dilmun, perhaps the most important trading hub of ancient times. A little digging and you’ll discover this world and, on your way, encounter the island’s traditional culture and flavour.
If you look closely at the bay below Bahrain Fort, for example, you’ll see a black stone structure poking through the surface of the water. This is the remains of a tower that once stood in the middle of a deep natural channel that ran over the island’s impenetrable coral reefs, making this one of the few areas accessible to ships plying the trade route between the Indus valley and Mesopotamia. The channel eventually silted up – probably the reason the site was abandoned and forgotten. It was not until the ’50s, when a group of Danish archaeologists decided to investigate an odd-shaped hill that the site was rediscovered.
The low hill proved to be a fort built by local Arabs in the 1400s and expanded by the Portuguese, who, attracted by the country’s flourishing boat-building and pearl trades, invaded in 1521. But far more exciting was the discovery of five distinct cities built on top of one another, testifying to the site’s uninterrupted occupation from the third millennium BC to the 17th century AD. They then found links between the sites and the ancient burial mounds that had originally inspired their expedition. There are thousands of these, so many that you’d be forgiven for thinking they were natural phenomena.In fact, they were found to conceal chambers in which the dead were buried with treasured belongings, such as beads, daggers and pottery vessels dating as far back as 3,000 BC.
Other sites were uncovered, such as Barbar Temple thought to be devoted to Enki, the Mesopotamian ‘God of Sweet Water’, and the 4,000-year-old Sar Settlement. This is the oldest excavation in Bahrain, but you’d never know it: an unassuming information board marks the entrance, along with a lone security guard. He says that few people (‘mostly old foreigners’) come here. This is a pity given the site’s richness but, on the other hand, it’s a rare privilege to wander at leisure in such an ancient place without crowds.
At Qala’at Al Bahrain, things are different. Declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2005, the spot is now marked by a brilliantly designed museum with five galleries, each devoted to a particular period, arranged in ascending order along a wall that reflects the site’s different archaeological layers. You start in the Early Dilmun gallery (2,800-1,800 BC), where red, ridged pottery vessels are displayed alongside intricately engraved seals used by merchants to guarantee their goods. These were the first exciting proof that this was an important centre of commerce with even more conclusive evidence offered in the next layer up by dated cuneiform tablets representing commercial documents drawn up by the Kassites (who were from Babylon and Mesopotamia and settled here in around 1,500 BC).
Intriguingly, there is a collection of lidded bowls found under a temple, each containing a snake’s skeleton and a pearl or bead. They hint at a link to the Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh. In this, the hero goes to Dilmun in search of the ‘flower of eternal youth’ (thought to be a pearl), which he retrieves from the bottom of the ocean, only to have it stolen by a snake, which then eats it and achieves immortality instead.
The history lesson continues as you go out in the field armed with an audio guide, but the best part comes when you switch it off and let the site’s history swirl around as you rebuild walls and reconstruct events in your mind’s eye. When you begin to see cattle tethered at an ancient gate, hear shouts from the port and see billowing sails approach the shore, you’ve finally arrived at your destination. Welcome to Dilmun.
Where to stay
Banyan Tree Desert Resort & Spa
Al Areen (+973 17 845 000; www.banyantree.com), Rates BD225 deluxe pool villa, BD335 desert pool villa (incl. one 90-minute spa treatment per adult), BD525 two-bedroom royal pool villa.
There’s a risk involved in a Banyan Tree stay: you might find yourself held hostage by your royally appointed villa with its exquisite Arabian-meets-Asian detailing, private majlis and mosaic pool. But do try to escape to the spa for a massage or a restorative session in the hydrothermal garden (a kind of a car wash for humans, where your body is rinsed, buffed and polished in a series of showers, steam rooms and such). Even if you don’t check in, it’s worth driving out to this desert oasis for some serious pampering.
Ritz Carlton Bahrain Hotel & Spa
Seef (+973 17 580 000; www.ritzcarlton.com) Rates BD155 deluxe room, BD230 club room, BD286 club suite, BD650 villa.
For an island, Bahrain is distinctly lacking in beaches, but the Ritz Carlton is here to save the day with a crescent of white sand sprinkled with loungers and water sports aplenty. There’s a choice of luxurious rooms and super-luxe pool villas; the serene spa and hammam are on standby to help you unwind. Top tip: book ahead for a sunset or dolphin-watching trip on the resort’s private speedboat (from BD45 for the boat, it is also open to non-residents).
Adliya (17 713 000; www.gulfhotelbahrain.com) Rates BD 140 standard room, BD425 deluxe suite, BD550 two-bedroom suite.
Once you’ve stopped gawking at the magnificent giant chandelier in the lobby, you’ll find one of Bahrain’s oldest and most elegant hotels here, boasting well-equipped, stylish rooms and some of the country’s most popular restaurants, including Japanese Sato and Lebanese Zahle with belly dancers and live music nightly.
WHERE TO GO
Qala’at Al Bahrain
Karbabad Village Open Sat-Thu 8am-8pm. Cost Free (+973 17 564 654; you’re required to hand in an identity document to use the audio guide)
West of Sar Village. Open Daily.
Bahrain National Museum. At the intersection of Muharraq Causeway and King Faisal Highway (+973 17 298 777) Open Daily 8am-8pm. Cost 500 fils for adults, free for children under 13
The BD13 million National Museum is impressive both for its dramatic modern design and its large collection of ancient artefacts from various excavations around Bahrain. Particularly interesting is an entire burial mound transferred from the desert, along with its contents.
Beit Sheikh Isa
Muharraq (+973 17 334 945). Open Sat-Tue 8am-2pm; Wed & Thu 9am-6pm, Fri 3pm-6pm. Cost 200 fils.
This early 19th-century mansion was once the residence of ruler Sheikh Isa Bin Al Khalifa and today is an opportunity to view beautifully preserved Gulf Islamic architecture and experience the natural cooling effect of a wind tower. After your visit, take time to explore old Muharraq on foot and visit other restored houses such as the nearby Sheikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa cultural centre.
La Fontaine Centre of Contemporary Art
92 Hoora Avenue (+973 17 230 123; www.lafontaineartcentre.com ). Open Tue-Sun 9am-10.30pm. Cost Varies.
Housed in the updated former home of a wealthy pearl merchant, La Fontaine is a moment of cool and calm amid the ramshackle streets of Hoora. It combines a gallery, international restaurant, bijou spa and inner courtyard, where performances are held under the stars.
Capital Mall for Bahraini Productive Families
Al Seef Area, Karbabad (+973 17 582 169) Open Daily 9am-1pm & 3-9pm.
Established to create jobs and promote traditional handicrafts, this is the place to pick up souvenirs with a social conscience. Top buys include palm baskets, artisanal perfumes, cute abaya-clad dolls, painted pottery and hand-embroidered jelabiyas.
Near Bab Al Bahrain. Open Sat-Thu 8am-12.30pm & 3.30-7pm.
From its dazzling array of fabrics to the piles of spices that fragrance the air and the buzz created by vendors offering the best deal on everything and the kitchen sink, shopping the souk is a multi-sensory delight.
First floor, Seef Mall Extension (+973 17 581 151). Open Daily 10am-10pm.
This modern Persian restaurant serves up authentic dishes adapted to healthy eating styles – perfect for those in search of gym-friendly regional flavour. Enjoy delicious mezze, grills and khoreshes (stews) flavoured with fruit, nuts and spices, finishing off with tea sprinkled with rose petals. Best for lunch.