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Baking in the kiln

By Archie D'Cruz » Deep in the heart of Bahrain, amidst 4,000-year-old burial mounds, seven family units in the village of A'ali practice a craft that is just as ancient. Bahrain's potters believe that the craft originated in the country, during the time it was known as Dilmun. True or not, what is certainly beyond question is that people from the Dilmun era - which dates back to 2300 BC - loved beautiful pottery.


In 1996, archaeologists recovered from a necropolis at Riffa a jar with rounded shoulders topped by a broad neck, whose shape places it among the masterpieces of early Middle Eastern pottery.

A couple of years earlier, an archaeological dig recovered a gorgeous ovoid jar in red clay painted with black bands to simulate horizontal grooves. And a tall ribbed jar from around 2000 BC reveals a sense for style with speckled shell fragments shooting through the brownish red clay.

Many more impressive pieces have been recovered from the thousands of Dilmun era burial mounds, revealing the love residents of the time had for pottery.

Amazingly enough, this craft is today still being practiced in almost exactly the same way it used to be, with little or no resort to modern devices. The skills have been passed down, generation by generation, and although the number of craftsmen has declined, the potters still in the trade have remained true to their tradition.

The potters still use the old fashioned wheel, operated by foot, and the finished pieces are often baked in kilns built into nearby burial mounds.

The learning begins at a very early age. The 'elder' amongst Bahrain's current generation of potters, 67-year-old Jaffer Mohammed Al Shughul recalls he got started when he was just five.

Jaffer never went to school, at the time it was unthinkable that male children born into the tradition would contemplate any other career. He first learned his craft from his father, but when he passed away shortly thereafter ("I was six or seven"), his uncle and cousins took over the training.

"It was difficult in the beginning," recalls Jaffer. "I was so small then, my feet wouldn't reach the wheel, so I had to stand to operate it."

By the time he turned 15, he was a master who could create anything from the shisha (Arabic water pipe) to the jahla (huge pots for boiling water that were used in the days before electricity). They would bring the clay from the Umm Al Guwaifa and Um Al Samim wadis (valleys) in Riffa. At the time, there were only seven houses in Riffa, a far cry from the prized, golf-course adorned area it is today.