Isle of the wild

Isle of the wild

In the fabled shores of Bahrain, Sonia Nazareth is mesmerised by the rich tapestry of trading, history, heritage & culture

If you like coming home from a journey with more than just shopping bags, the island nation of Bahrain, nestled in the Arabian Gulf and also the smallest of all Arab countries, has much in store. Archaeological treasures aplenty, adventure sports galore, a rich history and culture.

I begin my explorations in the modern capital Manama, at the country’s obvious draw — Bahrain Fort. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this ancient construction is so much more than poetry in stone. The archaeological excavations that have been carried out here since 1954 reveal antiquities from an almost unbroken line of occupation that includes the Kassites, Greeks, Portuguese and Persians. Linger over the finds here and you’ll find evidence of the country’s rich trading history.

History revisited

To contextualise this visit, a stop at the National Museum seems next in order. Inside the museum, everywhere the eye looks is an eye-catching detail. I find myself walking on a floor displaying a satellite image of the archipelago. If you have time for just one thing, don’t miss the reconstructed burial mounds dating back to around 2,800 BC.

If you have a bit more time to spend (highly recommended that you do), you’ll go observantly through the exhibits that walk you from the ancient kingdom of Dilmun that flourished here, until you arrive at an area focused on relatively young traditions and local crafts. A stone’s throw away from the museum is Bahrain’s National Theatre that stretches to the edge of the sea, looking as if it’s floating on water.

The country is a beguiling blend of tradition and modernity. In the former capital of Muharraq are traditional houses that pave narrow lanes, a prime illustration of Bahrain’s past. As Gulf Islamic architecture goes, Shaikh Isa Bin Ali house — with its four courtyards, carved wooden doors and perforated gypsum panels — ticks all the boxes. But just as suddenly, only a short drive away on Bahrain Bay, amid a fleet of spanking new buildings is the dramatic 50-storey twin towers (inspired by traditional Arabian wind towers) of the World Trade Center.

The artsy route

Mural walls in Adliya 338
Mural walls in Adliya 338

Other competing attractions of past and present that I’m compelled to toggle between are the traditional workshops of craftsmen, mural walls and state-of-the-art contemporary art spaces. Here, in  Al Jasra Handicraft Center, for instance, sit legions of craftsmen — some engaged in weaving, others in pottery, dhow-making and woodwork, amid an assortment of crafts. But drive a while and you’ll be in a contemporary neighbourhood that is another world in itself. The area of Adliya 338 is strewn with art galleries and restaurants, murals and installations — pushing boundaries on the past. Al Riwaq Art Gallery, for instance, promotes local and contemporary art.

As my guide reiterates, this mix of old and new can be seen as much in economic terms. Bahrain has morphed from a pearl-based economy to an oil-driven one, to a society inspired by clever entrepreneurship. The beauty is that you can see these various layers.

For the foodies

Another welcome mat to any experience in Bahrain is food. To try a lavish, local breakfast, Haji Cafe satisfies. Here, the locals vote with their feet, as they tuck into a breakfast feast of balaleet — sweet vermicelli and eggs, kebab roll, foule — made from fava beans, as starters. Meanwhile, Hala Café sweeps the vote on the subject of lamb al quzi. This dish, to which odes have justifiably been penned, is slow-cooked lamb with roasted nuts and raisins, served over rice.

Breakfast on offer in Haji Cafe
Breakfast on offer in Haji Cafe

To work off some of the excesses of that heavy dining, I head in the direction of Bahrain International Circuit. This motorsport venue opened in 2004. But even when the Formula One Grand Prix isn’t taking centre stage, there’s plenty here to stimulate the senses — open-track events and circuit tours, for starters. I opt for the Land Rover Experience that traverses a rugged terrain featuring both natural and man-made obstacles. The ably competent instructor circumnavigates the exceedingly undulating course — here water, there sand and rock, everywhere a steep slope. His accompanying commentary illustrates the capabilities of this thrill-a-minute vehicle.

On the international circuit and off, there are many active ways to get to know Bahrain more intimately. I tend to be especially partial to the idea of a pearl dive, given that Bahrain’s history is inextricably linked to pearl trade. If you’re not an expert diver, no matter, for you can still snorkel in shallow water and collect oysters. If you’re lucky enough to find a pearl, it’s yours to take home.

Lost in the souks

My final stop in Bahrain is at Manama Souk. Here, like in other souks, there’s an abundance of things on offer — spices and sweets, fine perfumes and pearls, antiques and regional handicrafts. But its clear to me that while malls and markets embellish the country, it’s the experiences that push the boundaries on the familiar and invite new ways of seeing — that define it. So, whether you are here to pearl-dive, or dive into the country’s unique culture, hopefully, you’ll take back a little of the zest that has long attracted travellers and traders to Bahrain’s fabled shores.