The Kingdom of Bahrain

buildings at night
The World Trade Centre - highest in Bahrain - the first wind powered building. Photo by Charles-Adrien Fournier / Unsplash

Following on from my posts on Saudi Arabia, from Riyadh it was a short flight to Damman on the coast of the Persian Gulf, then by road, we crossed the King Fahd Causeway, which opened in 1986, linking mainland Saudi Arabia, the largest country in the Middle East, to the smallest - The Kingdom of Bahrain, an archipelago of 33 islands which are mostly desert. Bahrain translates to two seas - a fitting name since Bahrain has a very long coastline spanning close to 200km.

We stayed in the capital Manama on Bahrain Island for 2 nights, the most densely populated area, with over 60% of Bahrain’s 1.3 million population - around half of whom are non-Bahraini, mainly coming from other Arab nations and Southern Asia.

In fact, we only met 4 Bahraini’s; the hotel staff, waiters, shopkeepers, taxi drivers mainly Indian, but also from Yemen, Philippines and Sudan, to name just a few. Surprisingly no matter where we went English was not widely spoken or understood. Thank goodness for Google Translate!

Heading to Bahrain border, King Fahd Causeway; Al Fateh Grand Mosque The skyline of Manama. Photos: Jane

Bahrain was one of the first states in the Gulf to discover oil and to build a refinery, however the levels of production failed to yield that of Kuwait or Saudi Arabia and as a result diversified its economy, into other areas such as banking, finance and tourism. Healthcare is free, as is education and compulsory for children aged 6-14 with an emphasis on female tuition.

It’s also a Muslim country ruled by the Khalifa Family since 1783. Following over a hundred years as a British Protectorate, Bahrain officially claimed independence in 1971. Hamad bin Isa Al Khalif, the King since 1999, changed his title from emir to king when Bahrain became a kingdom in 2002.

Exploring Manama, our first highlight was the National Museum, a sleek building lined with travertine overlooking the Persian Gulf. We were very impressed with the great selection of art, although there were no details about the artists at all - just their names. The floor of the main hall was intriguing which we discovered was a map of Bahrain - a work of art in itself!

Selection of art works and sculptures - Bahrain Museum. Bottom 2 images show the floor. Photos taken within the Museum by Jane

Bahrain used to be known as Dilmun back in 3,000 BCE, around the time of the Bronze Age. During that era, the country was bustling as one of the most important trading centres in the region, linking the Indus Valley and the Fertile Crescent.

A distinctive characteristic of the Dilmun culture is the prominence of funerary traditions. Located in the north and west of Bahrain, there are vast fields of burials mounds, estimated to be more than 80,000.

Photo of a Dilmun burial field; Example of a mound and the contents - a human skeleton. Bottom Right: This art work reminded me a little of Picasso’s Guernica, although this one is quite small. Photos taken within the Museum by Jane

We then headed to Muharraq to wander through laneways and the coral stone houses. We’d imagined an area similar to Al Balad in Jeddah, however just a few places of interest and a variety of architecture.

This area was the centre of pearl fishing and the former capital of Bahrain. The pearling industry was historically crucial to Bahrain’s economy, with Muharraq as its global centre. Like other places in the world, following the development of cultured pearls in the 1930s, the town went into decline and Manama took over as the capital.

Muharraq area. Photos: Jane

We especially liked The Coffee House - lots of interesting architectural details with some history of coffee houses. Sugar sticks dangled from the ceiling - simple and yet a striking feature.

The first coffee house opened in Austria in 1683, where the habit of adding milk and sugar became the norm.

Although coffee originated in Ethiopia, the Dutch won the race to grow coffee trees in hot houses in Holland during the late 17th century.

After colonising parts of India and Indonesia, the Dutch owned coffee plantations in these countries and became the main supplies of coffee to Europe.

The Coffee House, Muharraq. (Images: Left - Jane. Right - Tripadvisor)

With only half a day left before heading to the airport and home, we visited Al Fateh Grand Mosque - the largest in Bahrain with a capacity of 7,000.

Built on reclaimed land in 1988, the dome is made of fibreglass, an effective solution to reduce the overall weight, while inside the stunning chandelier is from Austria, the hand-blown lamps from France and the carpet from Ireland.

Al Fateh Grand Mosque Photos: Jane

Our final delight, was a browsing at the Bab Al Bahrain Souq located in a historical building known as the Gateway of Bahrain. We walked under the archway and delved into the maze of laneways exploring some of the shops - locals looked for a bargain, while we enjoyed the aromas of the spices, coloured pasta shapes and an array of bric-a-brac.

Bab Al Bahrain Souq - The Gateway of Bahrain and market scenes Photos: Jane

Although we only spent 2 days in Bahrain, we made the most of our time and enjoyed visiting the highlights. It’s very different to Saudi Arabia, yet also has a rich culture, a great arts scene and plenty of potential for tourism.