The Kingdom of Bahrain celebrates centuries of heritage while cresting the wave of a modern tide, says Aftab Kola.
Bahrain is a fine example of modernity weaving within a tradition. Known as Dilmun (one of the three great seafaring civilisations of the ancient world) in bygone times, the archipelago of 33 islands in the Arabian Gulf has been a centre for international trade. The oil era took off in 1932 and its economy was preceded by a thriving pearling industry along flourishing maritime trade. With sea views all round, a glitzy skyline adorned with glass buildings and punctuated with heritage elements, Bahrain is an ideal destination for a visit.
The major activities happen in and around Manama, and to a certain extent in Muharraq, Adliya and Juffair. Bahrain’s rich history is illustrated by its raft of archaeological sites, the most prominent of which is the Bahrain Fort site with a museum that is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Bahrain National Museum is the crowning achievement of the Kingdom of Bahrain’s constant endeavours to preserve the nation’s heritage and history. A great reminder of its ancient past are the famous A’ali burial mounds that dominate the landscape north of the island and date to the 3rd century BC.
The restored Sheikh Salman bin Ahmed Al-Fateh Fort, commonly known as Riffa Fort due to its location in Riffa, served as an element in the defences of Bahrain. Like every Arab nation, Bahrain is home to spectacular mosques and the most prominent is the Al Fateh mosque built as a tribute to Shaikh Ahmed Bin Muhammad Bin Khalifa, who was known as ‘Al Fateh’ (the conqueror) and who died in 1795. Opened in 1986, the 25-kilometre King Fahad Causeway, Bahrain’s only terrestrial link, connecting it to the Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia is not to be missed. Concert halls and art galleries, craft centres, cafes and libraries are dotted in the whitewashed alleyways around the Shaikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Center for Culture and Research. A lively yet peaceful place, Bahrain is full of surprises.
My favourite place- The Pearling Trail (Pearling, testimony of Island Economy) relates to the fascinating journey of Bahrain’s pearling era. The rich pearling grounds around Bahrain gave the island its first eminence as long ago as 2000 BC. Transport yourself to the pearling era by setting out on the three-and-a-half kilometre“Pearling Path” journey to view 17 restored historical buildings. These celebrate Muharraq’s heritage, while three offshore oyster beds — part of the seashore and the Bu Maher fort — form part of a string of local sites that were placed on UNESCO’sWorld Heritage List in 2012. One of the largest and most elaborate buildings on the trail, the two-storey Bin Matar House, reflects the importance of that family in the pearl business. Dig into authentic Bahraini cuisine at the Saffron by Jena at Muharraq’s Souq Al Qaysariya.
Highlights- The world-class Beit Al Qur’an museum located a short drive from downtown Manama showcases a priceless and rare collection of Qurans and other manuscripts and artefacts collected, preserved and displayed under the patronage of Dr. Abdul-Latif Jassim Kanoo. A stained-glass dome, bathing the closed central courtyard in light; artistically carved mashrabiyyas, or latticed windows; and panels of tiny, kaleidoscopic tiles decorate this three-storey space. The exhibits range from different periods, starting from the first century AD, on parchments from Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, Damascus, Baghdad, India, Egypt, China, Africa and other countries. There is no entrance fee for the visit.
Souvenirs- Exotic Persian rugs; Bakhoor and high-end perfumes from Asghar Ali and Syed Junaid Alam; dates (especially Bateel); Bahraini pearls, halwa, etc.
Getting there- Gulf Air, the national carrier, flies to all major cities of the world.
Where to stay- The Ritz-Carlton Bahrain with a private beach, or the Al Areen Palace & Spa; plus, there are plenty of medium and budget options in Manama.
1. Racing fans can visit during the March 28-31 Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix.
2. Stroll through Adliya’s elegant art and restaurant hub, Block 338.
3. Watch handsome Arabian oryx and Reem gazelles at the Al Areen Wildlife Park and Reserve.
4. Learn about Bahrain’s indigenous art forms at the Al Jasra Handicraft Centre.
5. Discover fascinating treasures and great bargains at the Manama Souq.