A brief guide to the history of Bahrain

From 3,000BCE to the modern day, here's everything you need to know

A brief guide to the history of Bahrain

Unsurprisingly for a place that has been occupied by various peoples since around 3,000BCE, Bahrain has a lot of history.

Over the centuries, the area has been part of the Dilmun, Assyrian and Persian empires, been taken over by the Greeks (who renamed it Tylos) and other rulers, and is now controlled by the House of Khalifa, who have been in charge since 1783. All these different influences from across the Middle East and Europe make for a fascinating and rich cultural history.

We don’t claim to be history experts at Time Out (though we do try), but we think we can give you a rundown of all you need to know about this beautiful archipelago.

Modern day Bahrain
What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Bahrain? We’re willing to bet it’s oil, which has been a mainstay of the economy since the 1930s. The Kingdom was the first to find the so-called black gold on the Arabian side of the Gulf, and for a real insight into the effect that had, you can even visit the very first oil well. Although the state is also investing heavily in tourism and banking, it is still very much reliant on the fossil fuel.

Bahrain, the smallest Gulf state and the 23rd smallest country in the world, gained its independence from Britain on 15 August 1971. Prior to this, Bahrain had been a protectorate of the UK after signing a treaty in 1861. At the time, tensions with other Gulf states such as Oman had been building, and the Kingdom wanted the naval power of Britain to prevent the outbreak of war.

Independence was granted following a United Nations poll of citizens in 1970, after which the British revoked its special agreements with the Kingdom. Bahrain celebrates its independence on December 16 – the day former ruler Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa ascended to the throne.

Despite interventions by Great Britain, including reforms and the removal of leaders during this period, Bahrain and the UK now enjoy a healthy working relationship with each other.

Pearl diving
It will come as no surprise to anyone with an ounce of common sense that pearl diving was once incredibly important to a country nicknamed the Island of Pearls.

The history of pearling in Bahrain dates back to at least the 3rd century BCE, reaching its peak in the 19th and early 20th century. Muharraq, Bahrain’s former capital, is the perfect place to explore this past, as there are many intact buildings such as traders’ homes and warehouses for you to explore on the UNESCO world heritage-recognised Pearling Path.

Essentially, Bahrain’s economy was entirely reliant on the precious sea bounty, even accounting for as much as 75 percent of the country’s exports in 1877. You can still see the cultural impact of this vital trade today. Fijiri, or the vocal music sung by pearl divers, is being submitted by Bahrain to the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list, and dhow boats used by divers are a common site in Bahraini waters. You can even visit the dhow building yard in Muharraq, and, if you’re lucky, get a glimpse of craftsmen hard at work.

After a boom in the early 20th century, things quickly fell apart. Demand for pearls fell during the world wars, and then Japan began developing cultured pearls that were far cheaper and easier to produce. Nowadays, there are very few pearl divers, and the trade certainly isn’t as illustrious as it once was. Thankfully, the collapse of the pearling industry coincided with the discovery of oil, so Bahrain switched one precious material for another. Tourists can head out on a dive and try their hand at searching the oyster beds for precious pearls.

Portuguese rule
The Portuguese first conquered Bahrain in 1521, and maintained rule over the country (with a few brief lapses) from then until 1602.

The most visible example of this period is the Qal’at al-Bahrain Fortress on the north coast of the kingdom. The site had been occupied for centuries, but Portugal reconstructed the stronghold as a strategic base from which they could prevent others invading the country, and to stop insurrections. Portugal used indirect rule to maintain control in Bahrain, leading to some revolts by the local inhabitants.

Dilmun civilisation
The Dilmun civilisation spanned Bahrain, Kuwait and parts of Saudi Arabia from 3000BCE until 538BCE.

During this time, Bahrain had an important role to play as the most-likely capital of the Dilmun empire that controlled the Persian Gulf trading routes.

Archaeologists have uncovered Dilmun sites at Qal’at al-Bahrain, as well as thousands of burial mounds across A’Ali, Madinat Hamad and Janabiyah.

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