In the Arabian Gulf region a bewildering number of empires, states and dynasties have come and gone with names lost to history – Hormuz, the Salgharids, the Tayyibi dynasty, colonial outposts, the Qarmatians, Hawala mini-states, the island kingdom of Qais and dozens of clans and tribes from central Arabia which have risen and disappeared over the centuries.
There is one name which has had a legendary stature throughout that period for being a continuing power-centre and a hub of wealth, stability and culture – this is Bahrain.
Long before these islands became widely known as Bahrain and stretching back into pre-history, the islands ofDilmun had a semi-mythical status.
Dilmun grew fabulously rich as a centre for trade between the emerging empires and civilizations of the Near East, like Mesopotamia – and the Indus Valley. Meanwhile Bahraini merchants monopolized the copper trade from Oman and had a central role in the trading of other precious metals, spices and luxury products.
Even this far back in history Bahrain was already legendary for its pearling wealth and as a rare source of fresh water for long-distance traders.
At the beginning of the Islamic era, Bahrain sent delegations to Mecca to meet the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon Him) and they introduced Islam to Bahrain. When Bahrain sent its first payment of Islamic tax to Mecca it is said that the Prophet refused to believe that such large quantities of wealth existed!
As Damascus and Baghdad flourished under the Caliphs, Bahrain reached even greater heights of wealth and culture, as the Gulf trade intensified. This is a period of mosque-building and expansion. At this time, the main island of Bahrain – then known as Awal – was the centre of trade, but the domain of Bahrain extended all the way along the east Arabian coast between the modern states of Kuwait and Oman.
In the early centuries of Islam, this greater region of Bahrain was ruled by a succession of powerful and semi-autonomous governors. However, during the tenth century much of this region fell under the influence of an unorthodox sect known as the Qarmatians. In 1058, it was the people of the island of Bahrain who rose up against the Qarmatians and expelled them, under the leadership of a popular local figure known as Abu-Bahlul.
For the next two centuries Bahrain and eastern Arabia was ruled by the Ayounis. The Ayounis were from the Abd-al-Qays tribe which had been centred around Bahrain since the beginning of the Islamic period. During periods of unity, the Ayounis were a powerful and wealthy dynasty which strongly supported the Caliphate and as a result were delegated responsibility for protecting the pilgrimage routes across Arabia – which brought both tribute and prestige.
Ayouni rule weakened around the time of the destructive Mongol raids across the region in the mid-thirteenth century, which laid waste to many of the great cities like Baghdad. The Mongols never penetrated into the Gulf region and so Bahrain and the Gulf shores were a place of relative safety where many of the great families from the Islamic world took refuge.
For example, many of the Arab tribes – which settled along the Persian coast and later arrived in substantial numbers in Bahrain – trace their history in this region back to this period of unsettlement and migration.
However, even the Gulf region was politically unsettled. For a time the Ayounis were under the sway of the Island of Qays and then the Salgharids. The Asfour dynasty from the local Banu Amir tribe ruled for perhaps a century or so. However, there is little detailed written history for this period and it is difficult to patch together who ruled Bahrain for much of the twelve and thirteen hundreds. During the latter part of this period, a Sunni Arab dynasty rose to prominence at Hormuz on the Persian coast and for a period they became the pre-eminent power.
In the 1400s, Bahrain once again became a regional power to be reckoned with under the Jabri dynasty. The Jabris were – like the Asfour dynasty – from the Banu Amir tribe, centred around Bahrain. At the height of their power the Jabri empire once again covered the entire east Arabian coast and dominated the trading routes. This was a period of cultural florescence for Bahrain, with many mosques being built and Sunni scholars being brought all the way from Cairo to promote religious learning.
Over this period, Bahrain and Hormuz were the undisputed powers in the entire Gulf region. Under the Safawis, Persia in the sixteenth century began to emerge from centuries of instability and chaos. However, Persia had always tended to be a land-based power, with the Zagros mountain chain blocking access to the sea and the Persian coast for the most part controlled by Arabian dynasties and tribes.
Resisting colonial powers
At the beginning of the 1500s the Portuguese swiftly wiped Hormuz off the map and then turned on Bahrain. Bahrain and the Jabris represented the core of regional resistance to the Portuguese, sending ships down to Oman to help the local tribes fend off the invaders.
However, in 1521 the Jabri rulers were pushed out by a Portuguese invasion of the islands. Continual uprisings forced the Portuguese to concede that they couldn’t stay. In 1529, the Governor of Bahrain, Badruddin organized a revolt from inside the Bahrain fortress and imposed heavy casualties on the colonial forces, which were forced to conduct a humiliating retreat after being decimated by thirst, hunger and fever.
For the next century, the Murad dynasty – the descendants of Badruddin (from an elite Arab Hormuz family) ruled Bahrain and also fended off an Ottoman invasion. This resulted in recognition of Bahraini independence and sovereignty from both the Ottomans and colonial powers.
Regional instability and transition
During the seventeenth and eighteenth century Bahrain was under the control of a succession of governors and local rulers. This was a period of disintegration and instability in Persia, culminating in the invasion and sacking of Persia by Afghans in 1722.
Many of the latter Safawi rulers were feeble and incompetent and they had a constant struggle to exert any control over the Arab tribes of the Persian coast. For much of this time there was no Persian navy to speak of and they often sought to commandeer colonial ships or rely on Arab mercenaries.
This Persian reliance on the Arab seafaring tribes strengthened Arab regional prominence. As well as controlling much of the Persian coastline, for several brief periods during the eighteenth century Arab Hawala tribes ruled Bahrain and controlled the pearling trade. The Madhkur family were also seafaring Arabs who dominated parts of the Persian coastline and ruled Bahrain for three decades from 1753.
The Khalifa family were another Arab tribal group which had a presence in the Gulf region throughout this period and had controlled towns and regions on the Persian coast, while being active players in the pearling industry around Bahrain.
After establishing the port town of Zubara in modern Qatar, the Khalifas came into conflict with the Madhkur clan. As a result of their military successes and local support and loyalties, the Khalifas defeated the last Madhkur leader and ruled Bahrain from 1783 until the present day, beginning with Ahmed al-Fateh Al Khalifa.
The Khalifa rulers succeeded in defeating numerous invasions and regional claims over Bahrain, from the Wahhabis, Oman, Persia, colonial powers and even Egypt. However, by shoring up local support, signing treaties with other regional powers and securing maritime security in the waters around Bahrain, the Khalifa dynasty managed to bring peace to Bahrain, following two centuries of political instability and regional turmoil.
With the formal recognition of Bahrain’s independence in 1971 came international recognition of what had been broadly true for several millennia – Bahrain as a sovereign nation, in charge of its own affairs and assertively seeking warm relations with its Arabian Gulf neighbours.
Ten reasons why Bahrain is best
#1 – Family-friendly
#2 – Religious tolerance
#3 – Personal safety
#4 – Cultural hub
#5 – Open economy
#6 – Tourist paradise
#8 – Dependable ally
#9 – Island nation