31st Jul, 2013 –
It was only relatively recently, during the mid-20th century, when it was proved that the land of Dilmun – praised by the Mesopotamians as a wealthy place of “sweet water” and pearls – was actually the islands of Bahrain.
Archaeologists now know ancient Bahrain to have been a wealthy trading centre. It was one of the few locations on major trading routes between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley where ships could stop and obtain fresh water; as well as loading up on supplies. Dilmun merchants also had a monopoly of trade in copper, shipped from the mines of Oman.
Archaeologists have uncovered impressive cities and temples across Bahrain. The ancient city of Saar is remarkably well preserved and is currently going through a process of restoration, so that it can be developed for tourism and artifacts from the site can be exhibited.
The Saar site is encircled by tall and thick stone walls and there are well-preserved foundations of temples and homes with intact ovens, shops, and even restaurants. Saar and several other locations – notably Barbar – boast temple sites, where altars and evidence of animal sacrifice have been found.
The belief system seems to have had a lot in common with Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt: Burial of the dead with tools, food, weapons and gold indicates a belief in the afterlife. However, there is much that is unknown about this early Dilmun civilization, including what language these ancient Bahrainis spoke.
Bahrain is also home to some 170,000 burial mounds in honeycomb-shaped burial complexes; nowhere else in this region hosts so many of these structures in such high density. Many burial grounds date back to the second and third centuries BC, but some are around 2,000 years old. The oldest and largest burial mounds – the “Royal Tombs” – are found at Aali; some measuring up to 15 metres in height and 45 metres wide.
A major urban site of ancient Dilmun is at Qal’at al-Bahrain, which was occupied since 2,300BC. This was much later the site of a substantive Portuguese fort which stands there to this day. However, underneath the Portuguese fort can be found the ruins towns built on top of each other over subsequent periods, as well as a Greek city dating back to 200BC.
Excavations have now found evidence for Neolithic communities in Bahrain since 5,000BC, along with stone tools and the scattered remains of animal bones and shell fish – indicating their dietary preferences. It has been speculated that diets of oysters may have led to the discovery of pearls and therefore the origins of Bahrain’s famed pearling industry.
It appears that at times the realm of Dilmun extended along the eastern coast of modern Saudi Arabia – slightly ironic to imagine that tiny Bahrain once controlled substantial parts of its huge Saudi neighbour!
The Bahraini government is looking to make Bahrain a destination for heritage tourism. At the Bahrain National Museum you can see a wealth of artifacts from Bahrain’s ancient civilizations, and historical sites are being renovated to make them more accessible. Bahrain’s abundance of ancient sites is one of the reasons why it has become a UNESCO regional headquarters.
With abundant sweet water flowing from its springs, Dilmun was also an important centre for agriculture, an oasis of fertility in a mainly desolate region. Hence the legend that Bahrain is the biblical Garden of Eden.
We hope that greater awareness of Bahrain’s spectacular history and culture will bring more visitors to our modern-day Garden of Eden!