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By Heather Anderson » Unless you live or work in Muharraq, chances are you will only pass through the island when you arrive at or leave from the airport. If so, that would be a pity. The sense of history and timelessness you experience in Bahrain's second-largest city is the kind you will not find anywhere else, and is reason enough to take this trip into the past.
As you cross over the bridge to Muharraq, you leave behind the hustle and bustle of Manama, its traffic jams and new skyscrapers to travel back in time and get a feel for the old Bahrain.
Muharraq was the country's capital in the 19th Century and still has much of the charm of an old-world Arab city, with its low-rise buildings, narrow streets and tiny alleyways, and fine historic buildings with their traditional Arab-Gulf style of architecture.
Over four millennia ago, the islands that collectively form Bahrain today were part of a thriving Bronze Age Dilmun culture and a hub for trade and commerce within the region. Muharraq, with its strategic location, must have played a key part.
In the Tylos or Greek period of influence (from about 300 BC to the early First Millennium), Muharraq was known as Arados, from which Arad Fort gets its name. Philip Ward in Bahrain: A Travel Guide states that Muharraq means the “the burnt one” or “the burnt” and there has been much speculation by writers and historians about how it got this name. Was there once a great fire here or destruction after an invasion, or is this where burnt offerings were made to the deities in pre-Islamic times?
The Portuguese occupied the islands and the coastal areas of the region in the16th Century and built a fort on the mainland and in Muharraq on top of an earlier Islamic fort. The islands were later occupied by the Omanis in the early 18th Century.
By the 19th Century, Muharraq was the capital of Bahrain and the centre of a thriving pearl trade in the region. The ruling family and many allied families lived in the town in a honeycomb of houses, at the centre of which was the Shaikh Isa Bin Ali House. In 1914 Muharraq’s population stood at 20,000, according to figures quoted by Ward, and there were 700 boats or dhows on the island’s coastal waters, half of which were used for pearl diving.
The first government school, Al Hidaya School for boys, opened in Muharraq in 1919 and was one of the first schools in the Gulf region. However, Muharraq’s importance began to lessen from about 1930, with the decline of the pearl trade as a result of the Depression and the availability of cheaper cultured pearls from Japan.