Bahrain Dec 14-16 2015
The country has long been defined by its relationship with water. Meaning ‘Two Seas’ in Arabic, Bahrain’s focus is not the island’s minimal land mass, but the shallow waters that lap its shores. The sweet-water springs that bubble offshore helped bring about 4000 years of settlement, the layers of which are exposed in rich archaeological sites around the island. The springs also encouraged lustrous pearls – the trade that helped to build the island’s early fortunes.
Much of Manama’s modern wealth, illustrated in high-profile building projects, rises proudly from land ‘reclaimed’ from the sea. With the projected effects of global warming, however, the sea may yet have the last laugh.
When to Go
Nov–Mar Bask in the relative cool of a Gulf winter with daily blue skies.
Apr – Formula One Grand Prix and the annual Heritage Festival.
Language. Arabic (English widely spoken)
Official name. Kingdom of Bahrain
Population. 1.3 million
Water. With double the normal levels of fluoride, the abundant natural spring water can lead to fluorosis associated with a staining of the teeth and a fusion of bones, particularly of the spine. Many of the inhabitants of Bahrain’s burial chambers suffered from the disease, but with modern water-treatment techniques, fluorosis is a thing of the past and both tap and mineral water are safe to drink.
Money. Bahraini dinar (BD). 1 BD equals 2.65US$ (Dec. 2015). ATMs widespread; credit cards widely accepted.
Visas. Available on arrival for many nationalities
MANAMA (pop 329,510)
Manama means ‘Sleeping Place’, but with its central atmosphere, its late-night shopping, and its lively bars and nightclubs mean people flock in on weekends for fine dining and an off-duty drink.
Manama’s recent role as Arab City of Culture has led to a much greater emphasis on music, art and heritage events that has been of benefit to all.
On the face of it, Manama appears to be an entirely modern city, built quite literally from land reclaimed from the sea and typified by grand new building complexes such as the Bahrain World Trade Centre with three wind turbines sandwiched between the segmented towers, and the gracefully sloping twin towers of the Financial Harbour. Completed before the global economic downturn of 2008, they have become symbols of the city’s boom years and look spectacular when lit at night.
Manama can trace its roots in Islamic chronicles as far back as AD 1345. In all likelihood, there were settlements on and around the best springs on the island for many centuries before that.
Invaded by the Portuguese in 1521 and then by the Persians in 1602, Manama then passed into the hands of Al-Khalifa, the current ruling family, in 1783. It became a free port in 1958 and the capital of independent Bahrain in 1971.
With a third of Bahrain’s population living in the city, Manama continues to grow at a steady pace.
A 2012 ban on public demonstrations and distinguishable no-go areas around A’Ali and other towns outside the capital, there is an underlying feeling of unease. The slump in tourism will no doubt be exacerbated by the bombings in Manama in November 2012, injuring one and killing two Asian expatriates, and ongoing protests at the start of 2013.
All of Manama’s main sights are located either along Al-Fatih Hwy or near Government Ave within an energetic walking distance of each other.
Bahrain National Museum. This is the best place for an introduction to the sights of the country. It showcases archaeological finds from ancient Dilmun and contemporary Bahraini culture with a reproduction souq, a wildlife hall and contemporary exhibitions of art and sculpture.
A great way to gauge the growth of the country is to trace the myriad building projects across the satellite maps embedded into the floor.
Al-Fatih Mosque. A visitor wanting to learn more about Islam could not do better than to visit this grand mosque, with its informative guides explaining aspects of religious etiquette while pointing out special features of mosque architecture. Built on reclaimed land in 1984, Al-Fatih Mosque is the largest building in the country and is capable of holding up to 7000 worshippers. The mosque was built with marble from Italy, glass from Austria and teak wood from India, carved by Bahraini craftspeople.
Nightclubs. Serious nightclubbers should pick up TimeOut Bahrain (www.timeoutbahrain.com) or consult the English-language newspapers.
Entertainment. To find out what’s going on around Bahrain, see the ‘What’s On’ listings of the Gulf Daily News , the Bahrain this Month magazine or TimeOut Bahrain , all of which are available in bookshops.
Shopping. From markets to malls, central Manama has heaps of shopping opportunities – from characterful souqs to modern complexes, such as Moda Mall, Dana Mall Al-Seef Mall and the giant Bahrain City Centre, all a showcase for designer outlets.
Pearls. A highlight of shopping in Bahrain is looking for pearls – natural pearls are still garnered from the island’s healthy oyster beds in a revival of this heritage industry. Commercial pearling was halted with the pioneering (in Japan) of the cultured pearl in the 1930s. Created through the artificial injection of a bead into the shell of an oyster, cultured pearls are more uniform and created more quickly. Nonetheless, at the heart of the gem is a piece of plastic.
Occasionally, the sea bed renders up the larger, uniquely coloured pearls that once made the area so famous, but more usually, Bahraini pearl jewellery features clusters of tiny, individually threaded, ivory-coloured pearls, set in 21 carat gold.look. Look for the depth and quality of lustre, perfection of shape and the colour, which ranges from peach to iron.
I took the A2 bus in from the airport on Murharraq Island to the Manama Bus station and then a taxi the 10kms west out to the Sar area to my couch surfing hosts. John and Sharon are transplanted Brits and like so many expats here are saving their hard earned money in the tax-free country. The bus system is generally excellent with a 500 fils all-day ticket. I had a great stay with them – they were kind generous hosts. Sharon gave me a ride to the Badaiya Bus Stop twice to get the bus into town.
I watched the Kingdom of Bahrain Police Band play a few marches as they prepared for the big national day festivities on December 16th. Then it was a long walk out to the Al-Fatih Mosque. Built on reclaimed land, the boundaries of Bahrain now extend well past it. The mosque itself is nothing special but I had a very informative one hour tour and learned some interesting detail. The National Museum was OK and I was given incorrect info on how to get to the fort so didn’t make it out there. But I walked a lot of Bahrain streets. Very different from Dubai, it has a much older appearance with fewer big skyscrapers.
After 2 nights, I flew onto Kuwait for a short visit and another country.
Bahrain is small so the main sights make easily accessible day trips from the capital by car, and some can even be visited by bus. It’s hard to get lost, because all road signs point to Saudi!
Bahrain Fort. Overlooking the northern coast, Bahrain Fort was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century as part of a string of defenses along the Gulf. The site was occupied from about 2800 BC and there are seven layers of history represented in the digs surrounding the fort, including the remnants of two earlier forts.
The fort is about 5km west of Manama. There is no public transport directly to the site.
A’Ali Burial Mounds. The 15m-high and 45m-diameter mounds date from the Dilmun period and encase burial chambers used for all members of society, young and old. From Manama, take the Sheikh Sulman Hwy south past Isa Town, then turn west along A’Ali Hwy There are more than 100,000 other burial mounds in Bahrain.
King Fahd Causeway. This 26km four-lane toll causeway with five separate bridges links Saudi Arabia with Bahrain. It is a remarkable piece of engineering, completed in 1986 at a cost of US$1.2 billion. The island in the middle of the causeway is 25km from Manama and it takes 30 minutes to drive there.
Tree of Life. A lone, spreading mesquite tree, famous not because it survives in the barren desert (plenty of trees and thorn bushes do that) but because it has survived so long, is on a patch of Bahrain’s southern desert. Several ancient sources suggest Bahrain may have been the locus of the Garden of Paradise.
40km and 45-minutes from Manama, follow signs to the tree along the Muaskar Hwy. It is just off the sealed road (take a right turn by Khuff Gas Well 371 and turn right again along the power lines).
Oil Museum. Built in 1992, this grand, white-stone building is quite out of keeping with the surrounding nodding donkeys and sprawling pipelines. In the shadow of Jebel ad-Dukhan, Bahrain’s highest point at a very modest 134m, the building marks the point at which ‘Black Gold’ was struck for the first time on the Arabic side of the Gulf in 1932.
Hawar Islands. These 16 virtually uninhabited islands are very close to Qatar. The islands are home to a large number of flamingos and cormorants and about 2000 Bahraini troops.