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By Maeve Kelynack Skinner » Bahrain's history goes back a long, long way. How long? Well, consider this: The Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq) – widely believed to be the first to discover the art of writing – etched man's earliest adventures onto clay tablets more than 5,000 years ago. Among those tales were the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Great Deluge and, the Epic of Gilgamesh which gives the first mention of Bahrain, then known as Dilmun.
So Bahrain not only existed in those prehistoric times, it was apparently also well known in the region.
The epic tells of how King Gilgamesh of Uruk (Iraq) sought the secret of eternal life. This, he believed, lay in the sea surrounding Dilmun which was composed of sweet water which gushed up from underground streams to mingle with the salty water, thus forming two seas – to which Bahrain owes its name: bahr is sea in Arabic and 'thnain is two.
The epic contains the following verse:
There is a plant that grows under the water
It has a prickle like a thorn,
like a rose; it will wound your hands,
but if you succeed in taking it,
then your hands will hold that which restores his lost youth to a man
The 'plant' is believed to refer to an oyster and what Gilgamesh likely held in his hands was a pearl because even 5,000 years ago Bahrain was famous for its dazzling natural pearls which owe their special lustre to oysters found only at this confluence of the two seas. Bahrain was the pearling centre of the known world and its gems sought after by royalty such as Queen Elizabeth I, Emperor Napoleon and wealthy princes and maharajahs.
Geoffrey Bibby, the late Danish archaeologist, led the first archaeological expedition to Bahrain in 1953 to search for Dilmun, which according to folklore was 'a land without death or sickness and with an abundance of sweet waters believed to grant eternal life.'
Bibby verified the existence of Dilmun, the rich capital of an independent kingdom and a strategic trading entrepôt between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley (India) which is described in his book, Looking for Dilmun.
Bibby also found the world's largest known prehistoric cemetery with more than 100,000 burial mounds covering areas of Bahrain. No one knows quite why people were buried here in such numbers but the fact that pearls have been found alongside other jewels, clay pots and artefacts in excavated grave mounds, indicate a belief that the island possessed the secret of immortality.
The burial mounds were from two distinct eras – the Dilmun period of 3000 to 1800BC and the Tylos (Greek) period of 1500BC to 350AD. The most exciting finds from the Dilmun era were the soapstone seals, that were used to make impressions in soft clay or wax, representing a signature or mark of ownership. Bibby found the remains of a seal-carver’s workshop and as the seals found in Bahrain were unlike similar types from Mesopotamia or India, it confirmed that many originated in Bahrain. The most notable seal sites are in Barbar and Saar.