An unassuming nation overlooked by most tourists, Bahrain is however a destination that will pop a few surprises. Believed to be the site of the ancient kingdom of Dilmun and somewhat of a treasure chest when it comes to unearthing the world’s finest pearls, the history behind the Middle East’s smallest nation is one not to be ignored.
Taken from the Arabic term of ‘al-bahrayn’, meaning ‘two seas’, this collection of islands is found perfectly poised in the sheltered bay between Saudi Arabia and the Western coastline of Qatar. Cradled within one of the world’s major oil-producing regions, Bahrain was in fact the first state in the Middle East where their ‘Black Gold’ was first discovered (1932), transforming the face of the Arab world forever.
Despite the initial rich presence of oil, Bahrain’s lack of mass has meant that over recent years it has made significant inroads in diversifying its economy in a transition away from its reliance on the processing of crude oil. As now a powerful centre in the financial and commercial sectors, as well as in tourism, we feel it is most certainly worth highlighting a fair few of its main attractions which will struggle to disappoint.
Modern yet unpretentious, Bahrain’s conservative nature is evident from the get-go as the capital city lacks that extreme flamboyance of some of it neighbours. Whilst a number of impressive landmarks do line the waterfront, these modern hallmarks are however still very much interconnected with its ancient past.
Without a doubt it’s most iconic landmark, Manama’s World Trade Center is an impressive structure that quite literally spearheads the financial district. This sleek 50-storey twin tower complex houses a multitude of services from luxury brands and five-star hospitality to high end office space for some of the world’s leading organisations. As the second tallest building in Bahrain and one that towers well above its subtle surroundings, this impressive piece of architectural creativity dominates the skyline and one that is best admired from The Avenues Park.
Note: It is probably wise to give it a miss on a Friday as this is their dedicated day of worship.
Al Fateh Grand Mosque
Grand Mosque by name Grand Mosque by nature, the Al Fateh Grand Mosque is one of pure elegance. Built as a statement to honour the founder of modern day Bahrain, it is without a doubt Bahrain’s prized mosque and one that offers visitors plenty of quiet contemplation and admiration for some of the finest Islamic architecture.
Religious or not, a wonder around the inside is most certainly worth your while. With a group of well-spoken guides on hand throughout the day, joining one of the free guided tours will answer many of your architectural curiosities whilst also offering a very insightful look into their belief. Whilst at times we can be somewhat hesitant in joining guided tours, this one however did surprise us as it was not specifically dedicated towards Islam but rather more of a conversation on faith in general. Having been asked questions we had never really considered, it was a visit that turned out to offer a little more than its aesthetic beauty, leaving with plenty of food for thought.
Qal’at al Bahrain, more commonly known as Bahrain Fort, is a great way to start unearthing Bahrain’s admirable history. Built by the Portuguese in the 16th Century AD, this impressive fortification sits atop of an ancient tell (an artificial mound created by continuous human occupation and ancient rebuilding) which is believed to have been the capital of the Dilmun Empire. As the site of what was once one of the most important ancient civilisations in the region, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has an impressive sequential history dating back to around 2300BC.
Visible through a complete sequence of historical layers which cover the majority of time periods to have rolled through Bahrain, the archaeological tell has forever withheld the evidence to support its significance as an ancient Harbour. A combination between the maritime architecture and the monumental defensive structures is a testament to its importance within maritime trading throughout the Gulf.
With evidence to support the might of Dilmun and the successive Tylos and Islamic periods, such is the nature of the site that it is also able to highlight the fact of a seamless unbroken human presence for near enough 4500 years. You might want to just let that one sink in!
Whilst this ancient civilisation is very much a thing of the past, the incredibly well preserved urban fabric of the Fort which has given the site it’s name, qal’a (fort), does however offer an understanding into the monumental and defensive nature of the site that once was of such great significance.
Across the causeway from Manama, Muharraq offers the opportunity to step back in time and take a look at what Bahrain was like prior to the discovery of its “Black Gold”. Whilst the island has undergone a series of developments since its time as the Kingdom’s capital, it has however retained its charm due to the focus on preserving its ancient pearling history.
Dating back as far as the 2nd century and through to 1930, Bahrain’s economy, cultural identity and social structure was shaped by Pearl Fishing from rich Oyster beds in the Persian Gulf. Between the perilous diving, construction of wooden dhows and the trading as merchants, most families in Bahrain were involved in some way or another up until the arrival of cultured pearls created by the Japanese. With a collapse in the trade and the discovery of its oil, a re-calibration in the economy also meant the relocation of the capital, moving across the waters to Manama.
Testament to its importance and the wealth the old pearling culture once generated, there is today a UNESCO World Heritage “Pearling Path” that zig zags through the heart of Muharraq highlighting the past that shaped a nation. With a blend of modernity instilled into the old arabesque architecture, a labyrinth of traditional narrow alley ways hide you from the heat as they guide you to a number of distinctive commercial and residential buildings which carry the memory /emphasize the significance of such a prosperous pearling past. The connection between the site’s seventeen buildings, three offshore oyster beds and the Qal’at Bu Mahir fortress, does also render “the outstanding example of traditional utilization of the sea’s resources and human interaction with the environment”.
Considered as one of the finest examples of traditional houses in the Gulf, one particular site that deserves more than a mention is the Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa House. Built for the royal family around 1800, this majestic piece of architectural heritage illustrates the power and prosperity that pearling brought to Muharraq. Whilst I (Max) may be a little biased due to my profession and overall fascination for old architecture, the beauty however is undeniable.
Having been closed for restoration during the time of our visit, we were unfortunately unable to wonder about inside but did get a little peek. Other examples such as Beit Seyadi are equally impressive alternatives which once belonged to local pearl merchants.
With a heritage that once looked destined to disappear, the old architecture has somewhat turned out to be a little like the old forgotten pearls; unearthed and rediscovered, they have been buffed and polished in order to line up on display as one of Bahrain’s national treasures. Stated by UNESCO as “The last remaining complete example of the cultural tradition of pearling”, we would probably say it is quite a big deal and something those local divers and merchants would most certainly be proud of!
Tree of Life
In striking contrast to the developed Northern region, the southern lie of the island consists primarily of a bleak sandy plain. Whilst there is little sign of any life in this brutally harsh environment, there is however one specific resident that defies all odds … Sharajat-al-Hayat, also known as “The Tree of Life”. Isolated and exposed to the baking heat of the Arabian Desert and with no evidence of any water source, many struggle to fathom how this 400 year old mesquite tree has found its way to thrive in the desert.
Whilst scientists simply put it down to the resistant nature of its species and the likelihood of its vast root network having tapped into some deep water source, there are the sceptics who do turn to mythology and religion. Christened as “The Tree of Life”, many locals either believe this to be the historical site of the Garden of Eden or one that is protected by the ancient Sumerian god Enki (an ancient god of water in Babylonian and Sumerian mythology).
Whatever the answer may be for the tree’s biological success, one thing for certain is that it is an impressive sight and a remarkable example of the strength and power of nature.
Royal Camel Farm
Founded by the Late Shaikh Mohamed Bin Salman Al Khalifa, uncle to the current ruler of Bahrain, the Royal Camel Farm was a way of preserving Bahrain’s camel population. Despite the name, camels here are neither bred for meat nor reared for racing, but simply a means of conservation.
Once the primary means of transport in the hot and humid climate, Bahrainis have since had a deep cultural connection to these resilient animals. Believed to have been a sacred symbol of life, like most nations across the Middle East, camels here are today considered a symbol of power, wealth and fertility.
Whilst it may not be advertised as an attraction as such, visitors are however welcome to roam the grounds among near enough 400 camels. Remember, don’t forget your camera!
Bahrain International Circuit - Formula 1 Track
Petrol head or not, if you have any interest in sport and do venture down South, we would say the F1 track is worth a visit. As an F1 fan I may be slightly obsessed, but being able to roam around the circuit which I have so often seen on TV was all pretty exciting.
Where to Eat?
Thanks to the large expat community which has continuously risen over recent years, Manama's dining experience is one not to be dismissed. From authentic traditional Middle Eastern Mezza to a range of International delights, the choices are endless.
Whilst trip advisor will give you an impressive directory of places, there are two in particular that will simply leave you with that nodding head of approval.
Haji Gahwa, well it does not get more Bahraini than this! Simple but incredibly effective, we are pretty confident you will struggle to find anything better if you are after all things local. From its delicious, flavourful evening grill to its alluring blue wooden tables and benches that line the narrow alleyway, there is no better way to enjoy the warm evenings.
Situated right in the heart of Manama, three streets down from Bab Al Bahrain Avenue, you will take little convincing when you finally see it.
Coco’s, a slightly more cosmopolitan alternative, is really not a bad alternative to have. Built within an old local property, its beautiful setting complements its quality and generosity in the food and their dreamy mocktails.
Sat along the periphery of downtown Manama, it is within touching distance for those staying in the popular Al Fateh neighbourhood, however the extensive menu and unquestionable quality would have drawn us from wherever we were staying.
How to Get Around?
Exploring the Manama and the surrounding areas can primarily be done on foot but there is also a good bus network which is a great way to avoid getting too hot and sweaty. Catching a bus from the central terminal will get you to the likes of the Bahrain Fort and Muharraq. Taxis are also readily available but they are not cheap and hardly have the friendliest of drivers.
When it comes to visiting the South, organised trips are very common for those wanting a quick whistle stop tour of the main hotspots, however for us, renting a car was most certainly the more relaxing and enjoyable way to really explore the Island. And yes, it is also the cheaper option when you consider fuel prices in the Middle East. I’m sure the organised trips are fine but we like to move at our own pace, not be rushed about and have the option to stop along the way if we want to add a little something extra to our Itinerary.
Are roads chaotic? To be honest as soon as you leave Manama, the roads gradually quieten the further South you go.
Is it easy to get Lost? I think you will struggle to get lost even if you tried. Bahrain is tiny and has very few road options in the South. Load your google maps using the hotel Wi-Fi before you leave and you should have no problems at all.
How to rent a car? Most hotels have a car rental company which they use so if you are not picky about what you are given just ask at reception.
When is Best to Visit?
Like the majority of the central Middle Eastern countries, Summer in Bahrain is simply quite unpleasant. With temperatures between May to October often reaching highs in excess of 40°C, sightseeing will generally be off the cards as the accompanying humidity is a real killer. Essentially any time between late October through to April is a great time to visit!