By Kristina Chetcuti

With Bahrain gaining in popularity as a tourist destination, many tour operators have begun offering package deals with charter flights and hotel stay. Check with your travel agent, there are some real bargains to be had!

In search of the
Garden of Eden

The old gentleman lies with his legs and arms drawn to his chest. A position which makes him look like an embryo in a womb despite his 6 ft height. On his right just inches away from his hands, lies a small bronze spear. Clearly he had not had the time to use it, but it shows that this is a man not to be trifled with. Or at least he was, in his time. You see, the man whose face is now inches from my own has been dead for over 4,000 years.

In Hamad Town, one of the main archaeological sites in Bahrain, I gaze at the intact remains of the skeleton, then shift my eyes to the surroundings: an impressive landscape of thousands of domed burial mounds - standing like huge ant-hills. This was the resting place of the people who inhabited the island over the millennia.

Mohammed Jafar, the site director, tells me that these graveyards have bewildered academics all over the world. Many claim that Bahrain was a sacred island where people came to bury their dead for eternal life, he says. See the position this man lies? Like a baby? Thats because these ancient people used to think that the dead will be resurrected in the same form they were born in.

Mohammed keeps on explaining but his deep voice and heavily Arabic accent is only an echo in my mind. I am busy trying to memorise the whole three kilometre square of burial mounds - in a couple of months it will all be built over. The government has plans to replace it with a new housing estate.

But the government cannot be blamed for running over these treasures - wherever one digs in Bahrain theres a strong possibility that youll discover evidence of the islands ancient past. Bahrain, approximately twice the size of my homeland, Malta, is only an hours flight away from Dubai. Up to a generation ago, virtually all trade came and went by sea. Its name is reminiscent of this - Bahrain means the two seas - the land between the Gulf states and India. Now a spectacular 25-kilometre bridge, the King Fahad Causeway, one of the largest in the world, links it permanently to Saudi Arabia.

It is a land where petrol (gasoline) is cheaper than water. Where people do not have to declare their earnings. Where salaries are tax free. Its history of oil discovery and the subsequent infrastructural boom is fascinating. But that was not the motive of my stay in Bahrain. I was leading a team on a filming assignment: We had to see whether this place lives up to its claim: that it may have been the geographical location of the biblical Garden of Eden.

Mirza, a very slim Bahraini from the Directorate of Tourism, is our guide around the wonders of the land. Mirza is a popular guy in Bahrain, everywhere we go, everybody knows him and with his winning sense of humour, everybody is willing to accommodate him. I am your master key, he jokes.

He tells us he had been twice to Malta on business. I bought a couple of boat souvenirs from Malta and a mug with a plastic cockroach at the bottom - a nice shock for my guests, he chuckles. We trust him immediately.

He first takes us on the trail of Gilgamesh, the hero of the worlds first written tale. Thousands of years ago, Bahrain used to have a different name. It was known as Dilmun. And in the earliest writing tablets in the world, found in Nippur, south of Iraq, Dilmun is called The Garden of Eden.

One of these tablets tells the story of Gilgamesh - the King of Uruk (ancient Iraq). This Gilgamesh spends much of his time looking for the sacred island of Dilmun where, he was told, there is an underwater plant which gives eternal life to whoever gets hold of it.

You know, the fabled plant actually was the oyster. The ancients believed that anyone who ate the flesh of the oyster and the crushed pearl within would live forever. For example, even Cleopatra gave Marc Antony a potion of crushed Bahraini pearls so that he would never die.

Mirza says that to this day Bahraini natural pearls are considered the finest in the world,.

Cultured pearls are illegal here. We have the originals.

You can tell, from his pained tone of voice, that the cultured-pearl technology, which killed their pearl-diving economy, is still an open wound for the Bahrainis. Mirza goes back to his story: After a long and arduous voyage, Gilgamesh finds Dilmun, obtains the flower of eternal youth and sets off back home. On the way he stops to get some sleep, when a serpent slithering by notices the flower and eats it. So Gilgamesh is back to being a mortal man.

From this legend we move on to another one which is also centre-piece in the Bahrain-was-the-Garden-of-Eden theory. We go to the Tree of Life, a huge flourishing solitary mesquite tree in the middle of the desert. Famous, because it is not known how it survives in this barren desert - its source of water is still a mystery. Its a popular place with both tourists and locals. For the foreign visitors the story goes that whoever touches the tree will come back to Bahrain. The locals come to check out the rumour that an angel with a flaming sword in hand stands guarding the tree. (He wasnt there when we went).

Recent excavations nearby this tree seem to indicate that at one time there were people living nearby. And throughout our stay we visit sites that testify to the importance of Bahrain five millennia ago. Artifacts at the Bahrain National Museum indicate that by 3000BC, Dilmun was a vital hub for the copper and timber trade shipped between Mesopotamia in the west and the Indus Valley (India and Pakistan) in the east.

The ruins of the Barbar temples, built on a water spring, evoke an aura of mystery reminiscent of the days when they were used as a place of worship for the God of Spring Waters and his Sacred Wells. It is during this same time that the islands legend of immortality spread and the hill-like burial mounds were erected in Aali and Hamad Town.

In Hamad Town, Mohammed Jaffar, after covering the robust skeleton from the potent heat, takes us to the Finds Hut. Its like digging up a treasure here. We have found everything - weapons, pearls, gold, pottery. Everyday we find something. He hands me over a pottery jar, roughly the size of an average flower pot. Thats five thousand years old. My hands tremble as I hold the delicate artifact even tighter. A feel of awe shivers through me, as I realise I am holding something which had last been used by a person living 5,000 years ago.

The thing is the Dilmunites used to live in the same places as we do now. Thats why archaeology has to make way for modern development, we have to make good use of the best places on the island - the shadier parts, said Mohammed.

But its not only the settlement areas that the Bahrainis inherited from their ancestors.

They still practice craft traditions carried on from the 4th millennium BC. In Aali village, pottery is still manufactured on the potters wheel. The clay dough is placed on a foot-operated wheel and shaped as required. The products are kept in the sun to dry and then carefully placed in ancient kilns..

In the nearby village of Bani Jamrah, Abdul Redha bin Jafar, 54, weaves from sunrise till sunset. He is preparing the threads for his wooden loom when we call. He has to tie 2,600 black threads to another 2600 gold threads held in place by tying it round his toe. After more than 40 years of weaving, his toes have adjusted to his job and are more than two centimetres spaced out in between. It takes him four hours to do it - barely a fraction of a second to tie each thread.

Here, you try! he tells me. I try and try and try again, till I resign myself to the likelihood that it would take me a whole day to tie a single thread. Ah!! You not patient! he says in gentle broken English.

After he finishes tying them all, he goes and sits with his legs inside a pit in the ground. Then with his hands and feet, starts interweaving threads cross-wise using a small shuttle. It takes him a couple of hours to weave a one-metre cloth which he then sells for two Bahraini dinars (about US$5.30). But Abdul Redha does not do it for the money - his wrinkled face says it all: weaving is his life.

Mirza, our guide tells me that this is a dying tradition. Young people are no longer taking up weaving. It is too much of a hard life for little money. But Abdul Redha is never alone - friends call all the time, and a cup of Arabic coffee is always at hand.

Coffee shops are very popular in Bahrain. They are the equivalent of pubs in the West, if such a similarity can be drawn. The coffee tastes more like Rosemary water and has a strangely refreshing effect in such a hot climate.

Its the first week of March and the temperature is already 24C. This is winter for us. We feel cold, says Mirza. Summer is one huge heat wave. We have a law in this country - whenever the temperature goes up more than 50C everybody stops working and goes home.

The more I saw of the island, the more I became convinced that the secret of its age-old success lies with its people. The country embraces Islam but is the least socially conservative of Arab nations. Beer and wine are served in many restaurants. Although many Bahraini men wear the thobe, the white floor-length shirt-dress, just as -many wear western clothes. The same goes for women. They are free not to wear the abaya, the all-covering black cloak which just leaves their faces visible. So why do many women still wear abayas? Fatima, 25, a henna beautician has the answer to that.

It often depends on how liberal your husbands family is. My husbands family always want me to put it on but when I go abroad with my mother I just wear jeans and sweatshirts.

We talk about religion and how their men can marry four wives. Does your husband have another wife, I ask her. Her eyes light up with laughter: Hed better not - he knows I would kill him!

While shes skilfully applying henna on my hands, members of her family come and sit next to us on the cushioned floor of the living room - shyly at first, and after a few minutes they bring in a banquet of sweets and coffee.

Its impressive how the Bahraini people go out of their way to make you happy. On our last day, Mirza took us to film an abandoned beach just as the sun was setting. He left us to set up our equipment, and then 20 minutes later we saw him coming back with a pure breed white stallion. Im sure this would look good. The scene was just too perfect - we were wrapped around a crescent of white sand lined with palm trees as the stallion galloped into the sunset horizon.

This must be the Garden of Eden.




A recreation of a pearl fishing boat on display at the National Museum

Bahrain's Ruling Family

How Islam came
to Bahrain

What to See