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By Heather Anderson » There is perhaps no more beautiful gem than the natural pearl, and for centuries Bahrain was the place to go if you wanted the world’s finest pearls. Even today, despite cheaper cultured (artificially created) pearls being widely available, Bahrain’s exquisite natural gems are highly prized for their beauty, near perfection and brilliant lustre.
The superior quality of the Bahraini pearls is believed to be due to the abundance of sweet water springs, which bubble up through the seabed where the oysters make their home.
In the past, many people believed that pearls were formed when the oysters came to the surface of the sea at night or during a rain shower to drink the rain or the dew. Even today there are still some who hold to this ancient belief.
Myth and early history
Until the last century, we had no real idea or scientific knowledge of how pearls were formed, so we invented stories, which became woven into the mythology and culture of the region.
One of the most enduring is the epic of Gilgamesh, King of the Uruk, first found on clay cuneiform tablets discovered over 160 years ago at Mesopotamian archaeological sites in Iraq. The story of Gilgamesh is told in a long poem in which Utu-nipishtim (or Dilmun, the old name for Bahrain), is described as Paradise.
Gilgamesh is said to have made the journey to this land in search of the ‘Flower of Immortality’ or pearl, which grew on the seabed. When Gilgamesh descended to the depths of the sea in one of the first recorded accounts of diving, he found the flower, but a snake came in the night and ate the pearl, dashing his hopes of life ever after.
Another often-repeated story comes from ancient Egypt, where Cleopatra is said to have drunk pearls dissolved in liquid to achieve strength, immortality and other worldly powers, or according to ancient Roman historian Pliny, as a testament of her love for Mark Anthony.
Excavations at archaeological sites in Bahrain, including Saar and Bahrain Fort, have unearthed pearls and also bowls containing snake skeletons. A snake worshipping culture is believed to have existed in the late Dilmun period and perhaps there was a real link with the legend of Gilgamesh and the snake that stole the ‘Flower of Immortality’.
In other stone tablets found at the ancient site of Ur in Iraq, a trade manifest dating to between 1907 and 1871 BC lists many items from Dilmun including ‘fish eyes’ in the cargo. Dilmun was certainly a key trading hub in ancient times. Geoffrey Bibby in his classic book on archaeology, Looking for Dilmun, writes of pearl fishing having probably taken place in this region over 5,000 years ago, due to the large number of oyster shells found by archaeologists in the coastal areas of Bahrain and Qatar.
In the relatively prosperous Tylos or Greek period of Bahrain’s history, geographer Strabo and Pliny wrote of the pearls of Bahrain, and pearl necklaces and earrings have also been found in the Tylos burial sites of Shakhura.
For thousands of years, economic activity in Bahrain centred around the sea, principally pearl diving. Statistics gathered on behalf of the British East India Company in 1838 record that there were 30,000 pearl divers on 4,200 boats of which 3,500 boats were from Bahrain.
Pearl diving as a profession began to decline in the early 1900s after Japan introduced the cultured pearl. Philip Ward’s book Bahrain – A Travel Guide records that in 1929 there were about 20,000 pearl-divers, with revenue from pearls being £2,125,000. By 1936 the number of divers had declined to 9,800 and revenue to £657,000.
Whole villages and communities were in the past almost entirely dependent on the pearl trade, as the divers and their co-workers had families to support. Pearl merchants, suppliers or ships chandlers, dhow builders and other related tradesmen and professionals were dependent on the industry too.