There’s something of a cultural explosion in Bahrain right now
Time Out Bahrain staff
Be honest. You’ve sometimes questioned whether Bahrain actually has a cultural heritage at all, haven’t you? You’ve been to the National Museum and read that there is one but, driving around the Kingdom, you’ve found precious little evidence of it. You’ve seen the plans for endless new housing projects, the steel skyline of Manama, land reclamation after land reclamation, and you’ve driven past building sites with big piles of dirt that, on second glance, have turned out to be ancient burial mounds. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Bahrain was all about oil-driven progress and blast the past. But it looks like all that is about to change.
In fact, change has been under way for some time now, under the guidance of Minister of Culture Sheikha Mai bint Mohammad Al Khalifa, who has recently been nominated Chairperson of the World Heritage Committee. She will chair the committee for twelve months until its next session in June 2011, which will be held here in Bahrain.
The World Heritage Committee, part of UNESCO, aims to promote the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world. Sites and monuments on its List are regarded as especially valuable to humanity, reflect collective ownership of them and highlight the significance of passing this heritage on to future generations (visit www.unesco.org for more information).
All very admirable, but what has this got to do with Bahrain? Well, not only has the Kingdom got one site on the list already (Qal’at al-Bahrain, or Bahrain Fort) but it has also has another five sites on the World Heritage Tentative List, at the forefront of which is pearling and its cultural landscapes, the plans for which were first submitted in 2008.
Later this month, UNESCO officials are expected to visit the proposed Pearl Route in Muharraq. The 2km stretch of the town is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the country, pearl traders used to live and trade here, and approximately BD10m is to be spent transforming it. Work is expected to begin in the new year if planners are given the go-ahead by the World Heritage inspectors. Culture Ministry under-secretary Dr Isa Ameen estimates that the project will be completed by December 2012.
Harvesting pearls was the main source of income for Bahrain until the early twentieth century, when Japanese cultured pearls flooded the market and oil was first discovered in the region. The current pearl project is part of Bahrain’s efforts to diversify its economy away from oil by promoting a tourism industry. The idea behind the Pearl Route project is to take visitors on a physical tour of Muharraq that tells the story of the pearl diving industry, starting at the seafront, winding through the old streets of Muharraq and taking in the souq along the way. As part of the project, traditional houses in the area will be refurbished, a path will be built linking a fishing museum to the historic fort, oyster beds will be restored and visitors will be able to try pearl diving for themselves, and there are also plans to redesign Muharraq souq (Souq Al Qaisariya).
To qualify, Muharraq has to prove to the inspectors that it has outstanding universal value and that it tells a story of the development of humanity in the region. We at Time Out Bahrain will be keeping our fingers firmly crossed that it does just that.
Qal’at al-Bahrain (Bahrain Fort)
• One of the largest archaeological sites in Bahrain • Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2005 • Capital and harbour of the ancient Dilmun civilisation, one of the most important ancient civilisations in the region, and a recognised centre of commerce and cultural exchange • The site is dominated by a 16th century Islamic fort and also contains remains of cities dating back 4000 years • Open 7 days a week, 8am-8pm
Other sites in Bahrain on the World Heritage tentative list
1 The Tumuli burial mounds at Hamad Town 2 Barbar Temple at Saar 3 Saar Heritage Park (burial complex) 4 Hawar Islands wildlife reserve 5 The burial mounds of Dilmun and Tylos, at A’ali
Do it yourself
• Try out the PADI Pearl Diver Programme run by Robin Bugeja, where you learn to scuba dive and also get to keep any pearls you find (39 671 748) • Visit the Museum of Pearl Diving (near Government Avenue and Manama Souq) for displays of Bahrain’s pearl diving and seafaring heritage (17 210 600)