One of the most impressive features of Bahrain’s desert landscape are the thousands of large burial mounds which in some locations stretch out as far as the eye can see. Many mounds are around 40 metres in height. Before many were destroyed by development projects, there were perhaps around 100,000 of these across Bahrain in the early twentieth century.
The Dilmun Burial Mounds were listed as a UNESCO world heritage site on 6 July 2019. They consist of 21 principal archaeological sites, the oldest dating back to around 2,200 BC. The graves are of different styles, sizes and belong to different eras, these sites include around 11,700 historical mounds. Seventeen of these are known to be royal mounds.
At the time when these graves began to appear, over 4,000 years ago, Bahrain was becoming a prosperous and vital central hub of a growing international maritime trade system. The fortunes of Dilmun, as Bahrain was then known, rose and fell as the pattern of wider civilizations evolved. Whenever the Arabian Gulf increased as the primary trading route then Bahrain’s fortunes rose. This is evident in the patterns of building and wealth accumulation in key sites on the Bahraini islands; not least in styles of tomb building.
Given how much of this burial heritage has been lost as a result of urban development, the UNESCO recognition is a welcome development for securing their preservation and gaining greater global awareness of their historical significance. Bahrain National Museum has an excellent set of displays where people can go to learn more about Dilmun’s burial traditions, as well as the lifestyles of ancient islanders and their role in the global trading system.
The Dilmun burial mounds are the third Bahraini site to be listed as a UNESCO world heritage site following the Bahrain Fort site in 2005 and the Pearling Trail which was listed in 2012. The efforts of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities are commendable in preserving the rich culture and history of Bahrain and putting the Kingdom’s popular sites on the international map.
Discovering the mysterious civilization of Dilmun
It was only relatively recently, during the mid-20th century, that it was proved that the land of Dilmun – praised by the Mesopotamians as a wealthy place of “sweet water” and pearls – was definitely 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 (Bahrain Fort), 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.
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!