|Discovering Muharraq's hidden charms
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The discovery of oil in Bahrain in 1932 was very timely, but the country’s capital had already moved to Manama, which became the new commercial and administrative centre. Many fine old buildings in Muharraq were left vacant and soon fell into disrepair. As a result quite a few once impressive dwellings were torn down to make way for new development and wider roads.
Yet, all has not been lost and in recent years there has been something of a revival in the area with many older historic buildings restored and opened to the public, and some dwellings renovated by private owners. Much of the renovation and restoration work has been spurred by Shaikha Mai Bint Mohamed Al Khalifa who, with the support of private sponsors, is keen to protect and preserve the cultural heritage of Bahrain for future generations.
Many of the buildings which have been demolished were, fortunately, recorded by Dr. John Yarwood through photographs and many detailed architectural drawings in his delightful book, Al Muharraq – Architectural Heritage of a Bahraini City.
Bait Shaikh Isa or the Shaikh Isa Bin Ali House is the place to start your visit to Muharraq. The best way to get there, I find, is to cross the Shaikh Hamad Causeway opposite the Diplomat Radisson Hotel, and on reaching Muharraq take the underpass until you come to a small roundabout and then turn right onto Shaikh Abdullah Avenue and follow the brown tourist signs to Road 916. This splendid former royal residence was built from about 1830 and over a number of years by Hassan Abdullah Bin Ahmed Al Fatah Al Khalifa.
The house is named after its most well-known resident, Shaikh Isa Bin Ali Al Khalifa, who ruled Bahrain from 1869 to 1923. The residence consists of four main courtyards linked by a labyrinth of tiny passageways. The house has been beautifully restored and is a fine example of traditional Bahraini architecture of the early 19th Century.
Note the large wind tower or badgir which provided cool air and natural ventilation in the days before electricity and air conditioning, the impressive wooden doors and the intricately carved geometric gypsum plasterwork designs. On the upper floor there are more rooms, summer sleeping areas and an impressive view of the adjacent mosque and other parts of Muharraq.