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TUESDAY: Bahrain's magnificent mosques, minarets and Quran museum
Already it's Tuesday, Day Four. With the week passing all too swiftly, I decide to have an early breakfast, this time at the small Lebanese restaurant, Zahlawiya. A change to cereal and toast, we have Lebanese bread with cheese, yoghurt and coffee.
Our morning visit is to the Grand Mosque, a definite must for visitors with its particularly Bahraini architecture. The Grand Mosque is topped by the world's largest fibreglass dome. Inside, it is very light, tranquil and quite beautiful with very big archways on all sides, a gigantic circle of suspended lights in the middle and a huge chandelier in its centre.
There is normally no problem about taking photographs so long as you are discreet. To get the full majesty of the interior, you need a very wide angle lens. You will also need a tripod, unless you have fast film. It can be quite frustrating without a wide angle because it's much harder to give the impression of size. All is not lost however if you don't have one, because the outside is also very picturesque. You do need to walk back some distance to include such a large building, especially to keep the very tall minarets in the picture.
The mosque also looks superb by night; it is thoughtfully illuminated in such a way as to bring out the architectural majesty. For a "different" shot, try photographing it in silhouette against the setting sun, you should get some very impressive results.
Since we are in Manama, we decide to stay in the city and explore the other sights. We first drive over to the Beit Al Quran, a rather unique museum as it is dedicated solely to the Quran and to works of art inspired by it. As with other important new Bahraini buildings, the modern architecture is impressively Islamic with walls inscribed with Arabic calligraphy.
There are many historical copies of the Quran on display, ranging from the 12th to the 16th century, and they are marvellous works of art in themselves. I had to get special permission to photograph just a couple of them, and the closer I looked at them through the camera the more detailed they seemed to become!
Then it was on to another museum with a difference, the Currency Museum. Located in the Bahrain Monetary Agency building, it houses many ancient coins and rare Islamic currencies. It's time to use the close up lens again to capture the fine detail in just one or two of the vast array of specimens, and naturally special permission is needed for this. On display are items including one of the nine rarest Islamic coins in the world through to all currencies circulated in Bahrain since much earlier times.
Next it was on to perhaps the finest handicraft centre in Manama itself, the Craft Centre. It is entirely run by Bahraini women and is a favourite with visitors. Of course the central location helps but it does have some very exquisite creations, ranging from jewellery, glass, paper, embroidery and crocheted items, which you can see in the actual making by local women.
Ali arranged for me to meet Mariam Fakhro who works at the centre and who so kindly provided permission for me to photograph two local women who were actually willing to have their photographs taken whilst at work weaving. Mariam is a much travelled lady who invited us for coffee later in the week to see her collection of artefacts, personal paintings and drawings for which she is well-known on the island.
From the Craft Centre, it was on across the city, southwest to Khamis Mosque, one of the oldest in the Arab world. It is believed to have been built in 692 AD. It is well restored and although mainly a ruin, is excellent for photography with its decorative archways and two lovely minarets. You can actually go up one of the minarets, so long as you don't suffer from a fear of heights. The view makes it well worth it, not only for looking across the landscape but also to survey the neat outlay of the mosque ruins below. You can walk around a tiny, seemingly fragile, but quite safe balcony at the top of the minaret, but my goodness, this is where you need a head for heights. It certainly looks further to the ground than when you were down there looking up!
Once back on safer ground, we take a break for lunch at the Persian Golestan restaurant in Sheraton Hotel, then pay another visit to Muharraq, this time to see the dhow builders at work. It is a treat to see the skilled carpenters shaping the hulls of these traditional craft, even if the dhows are now powered by motor rather than sails. Needless to say, the dhow builders make excellent subjects for photography, whether they are building a new hull or simply, as they are often doing, repairing existing boats pulled up on dry land.
While in Muharraq, we call in to see the Al Oraifi Museum. It is perhaps more of a private art gallery dedicated to the works and collection of artist/owner Rashid Al Oraifi. The museum has well over 100 works of art and sculptures from the Dilmun period. The shop in the museum also sells postcards and prints of Al Oraifi's work.
In Muharraq, we also stop to see and photograph Arad Fort, another fort with interesting walls and turrets. This is another fort that is well illuminated at night, so it's worth seeing then if you don't have time during the day.
Today we are able to take up Mariam Fakhro's invitation to visit her house in Muharraq. She and her husband Abdulla share a wonderfully decorated home, filled with arts and crafts of local origin as well as from her visits abroad. Her own paintings and drawings are also on display, including her collection of hand drawn and/or painted greeting cards, many with typical Islamic themes. One of these I am very proud to have now on display in my lounge at home, Mariam having very kindly given me one of my own choice.
Dinner that night is at Monsoon, a Far Eastern restaurant made to resemble a Buddhist temple. The terraced gardens, exotic Balinese melodies and splendid dishes transport you to an all new world.
As a finale to Tuesday, we tour some of the traditional Arabic shisha cafes which have become very popular with foreigners living in Bahrain too. Patrons play cards, chat and smoke shisha, the ubiquitous version of the hubble-bubble pipe so well known in the Middle East. In recent years shisha has taken off amazingly in popularity. Even more surprising is the fact that women have taken up to smoking shisha in a big way. I have to say the smell of this tobacco is very pleasant, not like the tobacco from cigarettes at all. But perhaps that's not surprising when you realise the tobacco is very mild and flavoured with fruit.
One of the most popular of these shisha places is the Verandah Gallery and Cafe with artworks on display, a covered courtyard and even a separate family area. As with other shisha establishments, all the smoking equipment is provided so even visitors can give shisha a try!