All you need to know about Bahrain’s forts and other historical gems
Time Out Bahrain staff
As you travel round Bahrain, history is at every turn, the island has evidence of settlement going back 12,000 years and is the seat of an ancient civilsation. Read on for all you need to know about Bahrain’s forts and a few of the country’s other historical gems.
First up has to be a trip to Bahrain Fort or Qal’at Al Bahrain. There are numerous reasons, not least because it’s beautiful and in a fabulous location right on the sea plus the in-built museum makes sense out of the history lessons. Also, in 2005, it became Bahrain’s first Unesco World Heritage Site.
The Bahrain Fort, also known as the Portugese Fort, stands on the island’s northern coast close to Seef. To get to it, go straight ahead at the Le Chocolat traffic lights (with Seef Mall on your left), follow the road and it’s on your right.
The original fort was built around 3,000 years ago and the present building dates to around the sixth century AD.
The fort, according to Unesco, is an exceptional example of more or less unbroken occupation over a period of almost 4,500 years. A classic tell, or artificial hill formed over time by successive occupations, excavations carried out since 1954 have unearthed items from the 12m-high mound which has seven specific layers created by occupants from 2300BC up till the 18th century.
Those former inhabitants came from Portugal, Persia and parts of modern-day Iraq.
The site and its surrounding areas including a sea tower, thought to be an early lighthouse, and the palm groves, which formed the basis of agricultural trading, are recognised as being the capital of the ancient and powerful Dilmun civilisation from which rich remains have been discovered in the layers of the tell.
These days Qal’at Al Bahrain has been turned into a really good museum. Digs have turned up residential, public, commercial and military structures and the findings are brought to life by an audio guide plus the display area consists of five exhibition halls organised around a massive tell wall exhibiting 500 artefacts that showcase the site’s long settlement history against the unique backdrop of the wall which recreates the different archaeological layers uncovered within the tell. There’s also a seaside café which offers great views over the fort and the surrounding palm groves. Bahrain Fort, open daily 8am-6pm, (17 564 654). Qal’at Al Bahrain Museum, open daily 8am-8pm, (17 567 171).
Next drive across the island to Riffa Fort which was built by Sheikh Salman bin Ahmed in 1812. It’s the only one of the island’s forts which was wholly built by Bahrainis using local materials, though it is believed to have been constructed on top of a much earlier fort.
Riffa Fort was the seat of power in Bahrain until 1869 and was also a royal residence with Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, who ruled Bahrain from 1869 to 1932, being born there. (See panel for details of his Muharraq residence.) Today it provides a tranquil glimpse into how the monarchy lived in times gone by.
You will find traditionally-made benches in the open courtyards, intricate carvings on the doors and evidence of how dates were stored and processed for their sugar.
Saffron, our favourite Muharraq restaurant, has also just taken over catering duties on the gorgeous outside terrace so make sure you stop by for a cool drink and to take in the view over the Hunanaiya valley. Opening times vary. Call Riffa Fort (17 779 394) for further details.
Lastly, see Arad Fort at twilight, it looks beautiful when it’s lit up and, if you have the chance to attend a concert here, it’s a stunning outdoor musical venue surrounded by a pleasant seaside walkway.
Built in the typical Islamic style during the 15th century, not much is known about the history of Arad Fort but it overlooks a number of sea passages into Muharraq’s shallow shores and, in the past, there was an inaccessible marine channel controlled by locals to stop ships breaking through to Muharraq island.
Surrounded by a trench, which would once have been filled with water, Arad is a square shaped construction with round towers on the four corners and slit-openings for marksmen in the walls. It’s undergone extensive renovation using traditional materials with no cement or any other items not in keeping with the original construction being employed. For details call Arad Fort (17 672 278).
Five to try
If visiting the forts has awakened your inner history geek, here are five more important spots to home in on Ancient burial mounds: Bahrain is thought to be one of the world’s largest graveyards, which is slightly freaky! More than 170,000 mounds pepper the landscape between Hamad Town and A’ali dating back to around 3000 BC. Some of the most impressive examples, near A’ali village, and are thought to contain royal remains from the days of the Dilmun civilisation which had its capital in Bahrain.
Barbar Temple: This site was discovered by the Danish archaeological expedition of 1954 and remains one of the island’s most significant discoveries. Consisting of three temples built one on top of the other, they are thought to have been built to worship the ancient god Enki, the god of wisdom and freshwater, and his wife Nankhur Sak (Ninhursag). The temple contains two altars and a natural water spring thought to have held spiritual significance. During the excavation many tools, weapons, pottery and small pieces of gold were found which are now on display in the national museum.
Saar digs: Although the exact location of the ancient civilisation of Dilmun has never been confirmed, Bahrain is recognised as a likely spot with Bahrain Fort’s likely claim to being the capital set out in the reasoning for granting the site Unesco World Heritage status. This is backed up by the archaeological digs at Saar, which unearthed an entire village dating from that period at around 3000BC.
Sheikh Isa bin Ali House: Coming a bit closer to the present day, the former residence of Sheikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain between 1869 and 1932, is a premier example of 19th century architecture of the Gulf region. Forming part of the Pearling Trail, the house has four main sections, the walls are covered in intricate Islamic bas relief and here you’ll find one of the country’s biggest traditional wind towers.
Siyadi House – Muharraq: The recently restored Siyadi House was built by a well-known Bahraini pearl merchant at the beginning of the twentieth century and also includes a majlis and a mosque which was donated to the local community in 1865 – it’s the oldest preserved mosque in the area and is still in use. The house looks like a mini fort from the outside and inside you’ll find a riot of traditional geometric design and engraved walls.