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.
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.
Close by, in a square off road 913, is one of Bahrain’s prominent landmarks, Bait Siyadi. The ground floor of the house was built in about 1850, but the majlis, where visitors were once welcomed, has a tall and impressive façade, which was constructed in the early 20th Century. This was the home of the wealthy pearl merchant, Ahmed Siyadi.
Unfortunately, the house is currently closed to visitors, but plans are under discussion to restore it to its former glory and to open it to the public as a museum. Yet, it is definitely worth a visit, just to marvel at the Arab-Persian style of architecture, which has been featured on the cover of many publications about Bahrain.
The adjacent Siyadi Mosque, described by Dr. Yarwood as “the best traditional mosque in Muharraq” has a simple ten-metre high minaret, which was built by the Siyadi family about the same time as the house. It too fell into disrepair, but was restored four years ago. The most difficult part of the restoration was not only dealing with termite infestation, a problem in many older buildings in Bahrain, but in finding the traditional building materials for the work. The mosque is open to worshippers and once again serves the Muharraq community.
Within walking distance of Bait Siyadi and Bait Shaikh Isa is the Shaikh Ebrahim Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Centre for Culture and Research. If you walk along lanes 917 and 923 following the brown tourist signs you will soon find the centre. It was built just a few years ago on the spot where Shaikh Ebrahim, an intellectual and man of letters, had his majlis and forum in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, in a part of old Muharraq which has recently become a noted conservation area.
The building evokes, in a modern way, the former majlis with its traditional façade including a large Islamic-style arch, traditional door and mashrabiya. The interior has an open auditorium and there is a small majlis for meetings, an office, and upstairs a reference library with books, mostly in Arabic, on history, literature, and architecture, as well as a number of old documents. Since it opened in 2002, the centre has hosted lectures, poetry recitals, musical and cultural evenings, which have been documented and published in the volumes of Ishraqat.
The new Iqra children’s library opened in October 2006 and is a restored building opposite the Shaikh Ebrahim Centre on Road 723. Iqra means ‘read’ in Arabic and this light open-plan building has a reading room with a small but growing collection of books in Arabic and English for children aged six to twelve, as well as computer terminals. In the afternoons there is a supervisor for reading and computing activities and there are plans for storytelling sessions and cultural programmes for children
One of my favourite places in Muharraq, very close to the Shaikh Ebrahim Centre in an open square off lane 932, is the renovated Abdullah Al Zayed House for Press Heritage which opened to the public in November 2003. The façade of the building has retained the original features including, the arched doorway with decorative carved gypsum designs, and the old-style stained glass fanlight panes, wooden mashrabiya panels on the windows, which provide privacy, shade, and let in soft filtered light. The stunning carved wooden door at the entrance is from an old and important Bahraini house and has proved, with some readjustments, to be perfect for the Abdullah Al Zayed House.
The house has a small majlis as you enter on the right and you go through a tiny passageway to the once open courtyard, which now has a glass roof to let in light and keep out the dust, heat, humidity and cooler winter weather, plus the occasional rain shower. The small courtyard is typical of Arab and Islamic architectural design, though the cool flagstone floor is new and there is a little alcove seating area with cushions. Upstairs is a reading area which has a beautifully preserved painted wooden ceiling. A visit to the house provides an opportunity to learn about Abdullah Al Zayed, who was a talented young member of Shaikh Ebrahim’s forum and who later became a journalist and the editor and publisher of Bahrain’s first newspaper. Today the centre is used for meetings and cultural events.
Muharraq souq is quite a long walk from Abdullah Al Zayed House, so it is probably better to retrace your steps and take your car and follow the signs to the souq. Smaller than Manama’s souq, the souq in Muharraq is well worth a visit and far less touristy, though parking can be a problem. It dates back to the early 19th Century when the souq had special areas for grocers, bakers, sweet makes, herbalists, goldsmiths, and ship suppliers, as well as other artisans and professional trades.
Today there are no longer these area distinctions, but a variety of outlets and some interesting antique shops where you can find restored furniture, old doors and other curiosities. The souq is busy, but local men still have time to sit in the many tea and coffee shops to drink shay, or tea, and qahwa, a lightly roasted coffee flavoured with cardamom.
Muharraq souq is most well-known for its halwa or sweet shops. Halwa is a sticky sweetmeat, a little like Turkish delight, which is still made in the traditional way in enormous copper pots, by the halwachi or sweet maker, much as it has been made for the last couple of centuries. The recipe uses butter or oil, sugar and water which is boiled for long periods, and then flavoured with rose water, cardamom, saffron and decorated with almonds, pistachio or other nuts.
One famous shop is that of Hussein Mohamed Showaiter Sweets, but there are many other equally good sweet makers to choose from. Taste the halwa before you buy; fresh warm halwa is sticky and very sweet, but well complemented with a cup of unsweetened qahwa.
The Mohamed Bin Fares House on the corner of lane 1337 and 1335 off Shaikh Hamad Avenue is close to the souq. This recently restored tiny house once belonged to the famous Bahraini oud player and songwriter, Mohamed Bin Fares and is now a museum in honour of the late musician, which houses a collection of his old records, musical instruments and documents. Bin Fares was famous for his contribution to Al Sout, a form of urban Bahraini folk music.
As you leave the souq head back onto ring road for the dhow yards in Arad Bay which sadly today are only a shadow of what they once were. In the early part of the last century there were once thirty dhow yards in the whole of Bahrain with 150 master dhow builders and the coastal areas of Muharraq were a hive of activity.
Statistics gathered from the East India Company in 1838 and quoted by Ward, record that there were 30,000 pearl divers on 4,200 boats in the Gulf coastal waters of which 3500 boats were from Bahrain at that time. Whole villages and communities were almost completely dependent on the pearl trade.
The word dhow is a generic term for many different types of boat including the Boom, Baqarah, Sambook and others. The traditional method of dhow construction was handed down over the generations and is still used today by the few remaining dhow builders, though the boats are now powered by Japanese diesel engines. There were often no detailed drawings or measurements taken and construction relied on the skill of the dhow builder who used a few simple instruments.
Teak was used for the dhow’s hull, a very strong, expensive but long-lasting wood. The minute spaces between the wooden planks were sealed with raw cotton and fish oils and the hull was coated with a mixture of gypsum, fish oils and animal fats.
From the dhow yards it is not far to visit Arad Fort. The restored Arad Fort and the former Abu Mahir forts overlooked the navigable channels and protected the bay to the west and east of Muharraq. What you see today is the 16th Century Portuguese Fort which was built upon an earlier Islamic fort, discovered in the late 1970s. In the small fort museum there is a copy of a 16th Century Portuguese map which shows the double-walled Arad Fort under siege and the larger Bahrain Fort on the mainland.
The outer wall of the fort was once surrounded by a moat seven metres wide. There is a very unusual entrance, which slopes down and then up, which was probably designed to make it difficult for the entrance to be stormed easily. A well inside the fort provided ample sweet water and water for the moat. Today the fort is another popular visitor attraction that also provides a backdrop for cultural events and festivals.
The Rashid al Oraifi Museum is close to the airport and signposted. This older house is the former family home of the artist, Rashid al Oraifi who is president of the Bahrain Contemporary Arts Association. It has been turned into a mini museum and art gallery to showcase the paintings and sculptures of Mr. Al Oraifi, whose artwork has been much influenced by Bahrain’s Dilmun period of history and in particular by the 4000-year-old Dilmun seals on display at the Bahrain National Museum.
After a busy day of sightseeing in Muharraq, return to the main Bahrain island from the airport road and you will pass the Al Hedaya School and Busaiteen, or little gardens, before crossing the Shaikh Isa Bin Salman Causeway with its two large sail-like structures. Once you cross the main bridge you will really feel that you have been somewhere different; that you have stepped back in time and discovered something of the old Bahrain.