Unearthing Bahrain's buried secrets
By Maeve Kelynack Skinner  »  Bahrain's history goes back a long, long way. How long? Well, consider this: The Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq) – widely believed to be the first to discover the art of writing – etched man's earliest adventures onto clay tablets more than 5,000 years ago. Among those tales were the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Great Deluge and, the Epic of Gilgamesh which gives the first mention of Bahrain, then known as Dilmun.

So Bahrain not only existed in those prehistoric times, it was apparently also well known in the region.

The epic tells of how King Gilgamesh of Uruk (Iraq) sought the secret of eternal life. This, he believed, lay in the sea surrounding Dilmun which was composed of sweet water which gushed up from underground streams to mingle with the salty water, thus forming two seas – to which Bahrain owes its name: bahr is sea in Arabic and 'thnain is two.

The epic contains the following verse:


There is a plant that grows under the water
It has a prickle like a thorn,
like a rose; it will wound your hands,
but if you succeed in taking it,
then your hands will hold that which restores his lost youth to a man

The 'plant' is believed to refer to an oyster and what Gilgamesh likely held in his hands was a pearl because even 5,000 years ago Bahrain was famous for its dazzling natural pearls which owe their special lustre to oysters found only at this confluence of the two seas. Bahrain was the pearling centre of the known world and its gems sought after by royalty such as Queen Elizabeth I, Emperor Napoleon and wealthy princes and maharajahs.

Geoffrey Bibby, the late Danish archaeologist, led the first archaeological expedition to Bahrain in 1953 to search for Dilmun, which according to folklore was 'a land without death or sickness and with an abundance of sweet waters believed to grant eternal life.'

Bibby verified the existence of Dilmun, the rich capital of an independent kingdom and a strategic trading entrepôt between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley (India) which is described in his book, Looking for Dilmun.

Bibby also found the world's largest known prehistoric cemetery with more than 100,000 burial mounds covering areas of Bahrain. No one knows quite why people were buried here in such numbers but the fact that pearls have been found alongside other jewels, clay pots and artefacts in excavated grave mounds, indicate a belief that the island possessed the secret of immortality.

The burial mounds were from two distinct eras – the Dilmun period of 3000 to 1800BC and the Tylos (Greek) period of 1500BC to 350AD. The most exciting finds from the Dilmun era were the soapstone seals, that were used to make impressions in soft clay or wax, representing a signature or mark of ownership. Bibby found the remains of a seal-carver’s workshop and as the seals found in Bahrain were unlike similar types from Mesopotamia or India, it confirmed that many originated in Bahrain. The most notable seal sites are in Barbar and Saar.

Saar was one of the major discoveries of the Arabian Gulf region when first uncovered in the early 1980s by a Jordanian-Bahraini team. But it wasn’t until 1989 when archaeologists Dr Robert Killick and his wife Dr Jane Moon, arrived in Bahrain and formed the London-Bahrain Archaeological Expedition, that the site was fully investigated.

The city was inhabited between 2100-1800BC during the Dilmun era when Bahrain was involved in the copper trade between Oman and southern Iraq.

According to Killick, uncovering the ancient city was almost like lifting the lid on a toy box to reveal a perfectly laid out 'Lego-land' city with walls, streets, stones and a temple that had remained intact for four centuries. Lying undisturbed on the temple's sandy floor were numerous seals, platings and sealings indicating that food and drink offerings used for ceremonial rites had been stored there.

These exquisitely preserved Dilmun seals are now on display in the Bahrain National Museum and are a 'must-see' on any visitor's tour of Bahrain. The designs are often used by Bahrain's jewellers to create unique mementoes of Bahrain.

The Tylos area was introduced to Bahrain by a Grecian naval fleet exploring the Arabian coast for Alexander the Great who had his eye on annexing the peninsula into his Hellenic empire. Nearchos, one of Alexander's admirals wrote: "There lies the island of Tylos, distant from the mouth of the Euphrates about a day and a night's sail .... it is large and neither rough nor wooded and bears garden fruits and all things in due season."

But before Alexander had a chance to conquer Arabia, he died. His fleet remained however and set up a flourishing entrepôt in Bahrain, benefiting from the increasingly affluent commerce between Greece, Rome, Persia and Arabia, exporting frankincense from Oman and pearls from Bahrain. Ancient historian and military commander Pliny acknowledged in one of his letters: "Tylos was famous for its vast number of pearls."

Finds from excavated Tylos tombs now displayed in the Bahrain National Museum include exquisite Hellenic gold and precious gem necklaces, rings and earrings, delicate glasses and bowls, stone figurines and pre-Islamic coins copied from Alexander's monetary designs.

Flash forward a few centuries and Dilmun's waters of eternal life could so easily have referred to the discovery of oil in Bahrain in 1932. It was the first nation in the Gulf to find the precious 'black gold' that paved the way for untold riches to gush forth from beneath Arabia's sands and change forever the lives of its people. New Zealander Frank Holmes, the first overseas representative of California's Standard Oil Company, (forerunner to Bapco) was convinced that an immense oilfield ran along the Gulf coast – and he was proved right.         

Although the discovery of oil took a few years to bring financial security to Bahrain, it saved the nation from an economic downturn caused by a decline in the pearl trade and World War II.

By the early 1970s Bahrain was replacing Lebanon as the financial centre of the Middle East and in 1973, the Bahrain Monetary Agency (BMA) was established to implement the country's fiscal policy and ensure a secure and well regulated investment market that operates within world class standards. The Central Bank of Bahrain has recently replaced the BMA as the kingdom's official financial services regulator.

Political history: Bahrain was conquered by the Al Khalifa dynasty in 1783 when Shaikh Ahmed Al Fatih became the first Ruler of Bahrain. Ten generations later his descendant, HM King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa transformed the Emirate of Bahrain into a Kingdom in 2002 with a constitutional monarch as its head. He also introduced elections for parliament. HH Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa is Prime Minister and HH Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa is Crown Prince and Commander in Chief of the Bahrain Defence Force.

Bahrain has a population of approximately 700,000, about half of whom are its own citizens and the remainder composed of other Arab nationals and expatriates from all corners of the world. Bahrain is a melting pot of nationalities, renowned for its friendly people and relaxed lifestyle, tax free environment and large investment potential.

In November 1986 the King Fahad Causeway officially opened, linking the vast Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the Gulf's smallest island nation and opening the doors for huge investment and tourism opportunities between Bahrain the Arabian Gulf.

In 2006, construction began on the Friendship Causeway linking Bahrain to Qatar. When completed in 2012, it will be the longest fixed link causeway in the world.