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Volume 13, Number 5May 1962

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Isle In The Gulf

It was from the shores of Bahrain that oil explorers looked searchingly across the Persian Gulf to the Saudi Arabian mainland 16 miles away.

THERE ARE LEGENDS within legends . . .

Four thousand years ago in the fabled Sumerian city of Ur, children listened wide-eyed to tales of the land of Dilmun—tales so wondrously ancient, so close to the beginning, that they have been part of the lore of all men ever since.

There was the story of the "First Place," the misty Garden of Eden made ready by the gods for the first man and woman. There was the "Great Deluge," the terrible tale of Ziusudra—elsewhere called Noah or Utnapishtim or Xisuthros—who dwelt at Dilmun after he had been spared and made immortal. There was the saga of Gilgamesh, the wandering hero-king, who came to Dilmun in his search to evade death and found and lost the "Flower of Eternal Life" beneath its waters.

At Dilmun, they were told, the gods first gave man understanding, taught him to read and write his language, to grow crops, tend herds, work metal, first endowed him with a sense of the spiritual and instructed him in the arts and sciences.

The island they called Dilmun, we know as Bahrain. Today we can still visit it, explore it, attempt to understand it. In a way it is like going home.

Bahrain, the largest of six islands in an archipelago 15 miles off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, is about 30 miles long and nine miles wide. A three-mile-wide fertile strip of land arches across the northern part of the island. With the exception of scattered oases, the central and southern areas consist of flat desert and barren, rocky slopes.

It was not always so.

A thousand centuries ago, when Neanderthal Man was shivering in his glacier-threatened caves in northern France, Bahrain had a lush and temperate climate. It may have been grassland or forest; it may not have been an island at all. But whatever its appearance, anthropologists believe that it was one of the regions where man developed.

On the flat lands and prehistoric beaches of the island, early man has left us thousands of mementos of his presence: tiny flint chips—the debris of his tool and weapon making—which are found wherever the original surface has not been buried under layers and layers of fine grains of sand.

During the Copper Age, 5,000 years ago, the inhabitants of Bahrain constructed time's most unusual memorial—a graveyard of 100,000 tombs, each one a gigantic mound of gravel containing one or more stone-built chambers which served as the grave of a single person. Nowhere in the world, then or since, has there been a society so prosperous as to permit of such elaborate burial for so many of its citizens.

What was the source of its wealth?

Dilmun was the first of the three great seafaring civilizations of the ancient world. Before Crete and Phoenicia expanded the boundaries of geography to include the Mediterranean, the coastal Atlantic and the British Isles, Dilmun was the nucleus for ships plying waters off Arabia, West Africa, Persia, India and all the great lands of the East.

From then to recent times its pearls—"fish eyes"—were the finest and most plentiful found anywhere. Islanders brought pearl diving to a perfection still apparent today in the Persian Gulf. Before the tides turned and the winds changed and the shamals (sandstorms) brought their suffocating dust, Bahrain's agriculture—particularly the tasty dates still grown on the island—fed the neighboring regions.

One of the reasons for this agricultural abundance was the great fresh water sea that lies beneath the island and the salty waters of the Gulf itself. Where the sweet water flowed, from beneath the ground and through the saline seas, there was no thirst.

More important was the island's strategic location midway down the length of the Gulf. Merchants who entrusted their cargoes to primitive wooden ships that sailed in pirate-infested waters were more than anxious to sell or exchange their wares at the halfway point. While to the north and west splendid civilizations rose and fell amidst war and turmoil—the Sumerians yielding to the Babylonians, who in turn were overwhelmed by the Amorites of the Syrian deserts and later by the Kassites from the Iranian highlands—Dilmun remained insulated from and vital to her warring neighbors.

Great cities rose on the island. Gold, ivory, copper, dolomite, jewels, jade—all the riches that moved from land to land passed through her harbors. Inzak, the god of Dilmun, watched over his people.

The first great decline came about 1800 to 1600 B.C. when an Indo-European group called Aryans swept south through the Hindu Kush into present-day Pakistan and destroyed the great and still mysterious Indus Valley civilization. With the cities of Harrapa and Mohenjo-Daro severed suddenly from the trade patterns that were the main source of Dilmun's economic life, the island's prosperity dwindled, almost died.

Pearls and dates, always in local demand, were probably the principal sources of income for Dilmun for the next seven or eight hundred years. The island survived—but only that. Growth and construction came to a standstill. The great temples at Bar Bar fell into ruin, the wells and subterranean baths were clogged with rubble, the city at Qala'at al-Bahrain was buried beneath the ruins of succeeding villages. Today it is a broad hillock, topped by the crumbling remains of a fort built by the Portuguese four short centuries ago.

Relative prosperity returned about 850 B.C., but no longer was the island totally its own master. The Assyrian Empire had arisen in Mesopotamia, and at least token subjectivity was paid its rulers. One legend tells of the destruction of Babylon by the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, who sent samples of the charred debris to Dilmun as a warning to those who might be tempted to oppose his might.

The island entered new cycles of progress. But perhaps as an omen of eventual decay, each period of rise and fall was shorter than the one before. As the boundaries of civilizations, then nations, then cities, then tribes flowed across Bahrain, it seemed almost as if the races of men who had found their beginnings there were futilely trying to regain their lost heritage.

The struggles of antiquity passed into darkness, the island into decay. Not until the rise of Islam and the birth of a new calendar to record events did Bahrain reawaken. The expansive mood of the Islamic movement, felt so keenly and profoundly in the West, had its effect on Bahrain as well. The marks of those tremulous times are reflected in the lineage of modern-day Bahrain—in the Bahama, oldest known inhabitants of the island, who trace their genealogy to the desert races taken into Iraq by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, and in the Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs, who trace their differences to the early development of Islam.

The present ruler of Bahrain, Shaikh Isa bin Sulman al-Khalifah, is a direct descendant of Shaikh Ahmed bin Khalifah, who conquered the island in 1782. The present government succeeds a series of modern dominations, principally by the Portuguese, who controlled the island from 1521 to 1602, and the Persians, whose sovereignty lasted throughout most of the seventeenth century.

In 1820 a treaty was signed between the ruling shaikh of Bahrain and the British East India Company. This agreement has guided the destiny of the island. The discovery in 1932 of oil on Bahrain, immediately south of the city of 'Awali, signaled a rebirth that was eventually to lead to a new way of life for all the peoples of the Arab world. It was on the shores of Bahrain, looking westward, that geologists decided that Saudi Arabia might also hide black wealth beneath its shifting dunes.

Today Bahrain, the great grandchild of Dilmun, experiences a new life, one that calmly, yet impatiently, links its 150,000 inhabitants to the glories of its past and the promise of its future. Once again its harbors are crowded with ships from distant ports, its fishermen cast their nets in ripe waters, its gardens and oases press back against the desert wastes. No longer faced with the heartaches of bare survival, they are free to reflect on the legendary wonders of their past and test those reflections with the tools of modern science and space age technology.

Today the mongoose scurries in gardens that fringe hospitals and schools. The hunting falcons soar above bustling seaports and wells pumping oil.

Now legend has the leisure needed to come true.

This article appeared on pages 14-17 of the May 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May 1962 images.