Forget getting out of town, here's somewhere to try out in Bahrain over the summer months
As many galleries close for the summer and cultural events across the island evaporate in the heat, one centre will remain a fountain of activity throughout the hermit months. Situated on one of the most important historical sites in the region, the Qal’at Al Bahrain Site Museum is worth a visit for its riveting lesson in Bahrain’s history alone, but there are a few other reasons to head there: its tranquil seaside setting is one, and late opening hours mean you can wander around the fort after dark when it’s cooler; there’s also the newly opened Le Palm Café where you can settle in air-conditioned comfort and take in the views with a tasty snack, and this month there are kids’ activities to entertain and educate.
The origins of the museum date back to an extraordinary discovery in 1954. A British and Danish archaeologist were on an expedition in Bahrain, and saw the tops of walls poking up through the ground. They assumed, like everyone else had, that these were the remains of buildings contemporary to the 14th century Portuguese fort standing next to them. Curious nevertheless, they decided to dig a hole – eventually they found two bathtub-shaped sarcophagi, each containing a skeleton. But it was only the beginning. The archaeologists had, in fact, discovered the capital of the ancient civilisation of Dilmun – among the most important archaeological remains in the GCC.
‘They picked the site because the fort stands on a tell, an artificial mound created by many successive layers of human occupation,’ explains Dr Nadine Boksmati-Fattouh, director of the Qal’at Al Bahrain Site Museum, which opened at the fort last year. ‘They found the beginnings of what turned out to be six cities. Settlements were consistently located at the harbour from 2200 BC to the 17th century AD, when it was finally abandoned as the sea channel silted up due to heavy construction at the fort.’
There had been mutterings that Bahrain might be Dilmun as far back as the 1880s. Descriptions of the utopian civilisation, which existed from the end of the third to the middle of the first millennium BC, appeared in many Mesopotamian texts. Dilmun was known as a land of eternal life, with abundant fresh water. Its precise boundaries are unknown, though it is believed to have extended as far as Kuwait, Qatar, eastern Saudi Arabia and Oman. Bahrain was a very active trading centre within it, linking Mesopotamia (Iraq) and the Indus Valley (Pakistan).
The astounding remains were classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, and called Qal’at Al Bahrain, the Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun. ‘It was nominated because it’s a very important site in terms of uninterrupted settlement,’ explains Dr Boksmati-Fattouh. ‘The importance is not only the fort, it’s the settlement underneath it and the harbour.’
One of the conditions of it being added to the revered list was that an information centre or site museum be built. Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, the culture and information minister who fought for the nomination, chose Danish architects Wohlert Arkitektur for the project, having been impressed by the simplicity of one of their museums at a World Heritage site in Denmark.
The result is an appealing long white building on the edge of the harbour, which reflects Bahrain’s architectural traditions. Pass through the entrance’s sliding glass doors, and you are immediately in an open courtyard with a modern fountain. The glass doors opposite, with wonderful sea views, lead to the fort. Turn left inside the courtyard, and you are out of the heat and into the cool of the museum, where the clever use of space and lighting has created a contemporary and stylish home for just some of the archaeological treasures that were found in the dusty remains outside.
Undoubtedly the most astonishing of the exhibits are the snake sacrifices. Around 50 bowls were found, each containing a cloth bag with the skeleton of a snake and a bead, or very occasionally a pearl. Snakes were a symbol of fertility and rejuvenation in antiquity, and their discovery is a link to the story of the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh, who, in around 2300 BC came to Dilmun to look for immortality. He dived into the sea to find the flower of eternity (also thought to have been a pearl), but it was eaten by a snake, which became immortal instead. The sacrifices, which date from the sixth or fifth century BC, were discovered in the temple next to a palace, where a king called Uperi lived. Interactive screens show the pots being unearthed.
Also significant are the fascinating stone Dilmun stamp seals, numerous of which have been found. They were used on contracts or labels to certify ownership or authenticity. Bearing figures, animals and plants, they offer an insight into the daily lives of the people at the time, of which there is no written evidence. There are also letters and administrative accounts written in Akkadian on tiny tablets of unbaked clay produced by a team of scribes, which date from the 15th century BC. One refers to the replacement of a sick worker. ‘These cuneiform tablets are very significant because they represent the archive of the Kassite kingship that was established at Qal’at Al Bahrain around 1500 BC,’ says Dr Boksmati-Fattouh.
Other curious exhibits include funereal bowls containing the skeletal remains of babies, found underneath a dwelling, rather than outside the city walls, a tradition that came from Mesopotamia in the ninth or eigth century BC. And 15 steles carved in bas-relief depict priests and priestesses with a hand raised in prayer, believed to have been used to protect burial grounds in the second and third centuries AD.
So far only around 10 per cent of the site has been excavated. The pioneering excavations of Geoffrey Biddy and Peter Vilhelm Glob continued until 1972, and were taken over five years later by a French team, working closely with archaeologists from Bahrain who have carried out most of the restoration work. The French are due to return to Bahrain in September. Who knows what they will find next?
Behind the scenes
Dr Nadine Boksmati-Fattouh, director of Qal’at Al Bahrain Site Museum.
What is your background? I did a BA and MA in archaeology at the American University of Beirut. While I was doing my MA, I was a trainee in the museum sector at the Directorate General of Antiquities in Lebanon, and went on to work in the National Museum and site museums there. In 2002, I went to Cambridge University and did my PhD in archaeology. I came to Bahrain in 2008 with my husband, which was when I heard about the vacancy for a director at Qal’at Al Bahrain Site Museum.
What does your job entail? Everything! There isn’t a curator. I do have staff, but they are not museum people, so I am training them. I have to deal with everything from basic maintenance to big projects. I’m also involved in different museum projects in Bahrain. I try to take the weekends off, but it’s not always possible, particularly when there are important visitors coming to the island, as I like to show them the museum.
What do you enjoy most about it? There’s a lot of work, and it’s stressful, but I love the challenge and feel very fortunate. It’s a big responsibility and I want to prove myself. I get to meet lots of different people and work on very interesting projects. There’s no routine. I’m very attached to the place. It’s my baby in a way.
Which objects found at the site fascinate you the most? The snake sacrifices. They are amazing. I’m fascinated by religion in ancient times. It’s interesting to see that Bahrainis even today are not scared of snakes. I love this handing down of tradition.
Qal’at Al Bahrain Site Museum, Karbabad (39 795 100 or 39 796 200). Open 8am-8pm, Fri from 10am daily. Entry costs 500 fils, which includes an audio guide to the site.