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Volume 35, Number 4July/August 1984

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Bahrain through the Ages

Written by Arthur Clark
Photographed by Ali A. Khalifa
Additional photographs courtesy of Bahrain Department of Antiquities and Museums
Additional photographs by Arthur Clark

In December last year, exactly two centuries after the Al Khalifa family conquered Bahrain, the tenth Al Khalifa to rule that small Arabian Gulf island brought together 116 world-class scholars for six days of discussion and debate on 5,000 years' history on and around Bahrain. Called "Bahrain through the Ages," the conference was the imaginative way chosen by Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa to commemorate both 200 years of the family's rule and the anniversary of his own accession 22 years ago.

To both the local and international press, the conference was news. Reuters, for example, called it "the biggest event of its type ever staged in the Middle East." It was also a success in terms of those involved — not only the specialists invited to attend but also those who asked to participate. "We were amazed at the number of scholars who just wrote and asked to attend," said Tariq Almoayed, Bahrain's minister of information and a member of a ministerial committee formed in 1982 to plan the commemoration.

As one result, the 116 scholars who showed up spanned a multiplicity of disciplines: archeologists, historians, anthropologists, geologists, geographers, numismatists, philatelists and archivists — as well as the man who, in 1981, retraced the route of the legendary sailor Sindbad from Oman to China. Furthermore, the conference was deluged with information on Bahrain: 106 papers in four main categories: "Pre-Islamic Archeology and History," "The Islamic Period in Bahrain," "Bahrain's Modern History" — dated from the Al Khalifa conquest by Shaikh Ahmed Al-Fatih in 1783 — and "The Conservation of Historic Monuments in Bahrain."

In such papers, the history of Bahrain — a 33-island archipelago one-fourth the size of Rhode Island, with a population barely ahead of Tucson, Arizona — was analyzed and argued, debated and disputed.

Perhaps even more important than the papers were the endless talks between or among the scholars. These talks hardly halted one day before they were taken up again the next morning, continued inside and outside conference headquarters in the capital of Manama, on field trips that ranged over the northern half of the country's main island — and even in dashes over the causeway linking Bahrain to the island of Muharraq — site of the National Museum and the nation's busy international airport. Many delegates, in fact, kept right on talking to colleagues until their planes were called for boarding after the conference officially closed.

Indeed these talks, a sort of conclave, were much more important than the public forum. "What's been most important here is the contacts, the relationships that will be established between scholars in different countries," said Dr. Jacques Tixier of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Valbonne, France, an archeologist with six seasons of work in Qatar under his belt. In fact, said Tixier, who delivered a paper entitled "Pre-history and Protohistory of Bahrain," information exchanged "under the table is almost as important as that exchanged over the table."

His comments were echoed by Dr. Juris Zarins, an American archeologist from Southwest Missouri State University, who has worked for several seasons in Saudi Arabia. "It's a chance," the University of Chicago-educated scholar said, "to meet colleagues you just read about," adding that the meeting made the vital delivery of first-hand information easy. "Exchanges don't take place at 15-minute paper deliveries," he said, "but at breakfast, at dinner, at coffee breaks. Informally, that's where you get your data. Formal paper readings are just the tip of the iceberg. Bahrain's providing a good service; it's really invaluable."

"There are lots of misconceptions," Zarins went on. "This way, eventually, you can hammer out a consensus. You can go on from here to build a strong regional case [for ancient man] which you haven't had in the past."

The consensus, to be sure, was tentative; no one at "Bahrain through the Ages" could fully absorb more than 100 points of view in six days. Nevertheless, the history of Bahrain was unrolled — in detail — from the time, 4,000 to 5,000 years ago when, according to Dr. Curtis E. Larsen of the U.S. Geological Survey, rising sea levels — the result of the end of a glacial era to the north — separated Bahrain from what, today, is the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.

Throughout its history, Bahrain has been the crossroads for traders and invaders, and is also believed to be the "holy" and "pure" land of Dilmun referred to in cuneiform tablets recovered from ruins in Mesopotamia — present day Iraq. As such, it is the land — according to a Surnerian story more than four millennia old — to which the gods sent Ziusudra, the survivor of the Flood, and to which the legendary Gilgamesh sailed in his vain search for immortality (See Aramco World, July-August, 1983).

As Dilmun, around 2000 B.C., Bahrain was the center of a trading network through which were funnelled valuable cargoes from Mesopotamia, from "Meluhha," believed to be the raw-materials-rich Indus valley, and from "Makkan," thought to have been copper-producing Oman (See Aramco World, May-June, 1983), and the eastern part of today's Saudi Arabia.

Third-and second-millennium B.C. "temples" at Barbar on the northern edge of Bahrain highlight this ancient history. Other parts of the Bahrain story are revealed at Qala'at al-Bahrain — site of seven "cities," dating from before the earliest temple to the ruins of a 16th century Portuguese fort — and more is unveiled at "one of the largest, if not the largest, burial grounds in the Middle East," according to Harvard Peabody Museum Director C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky.

Bahrain's later history is just as rich, particularly with the rise of Islam in the seventh century, when Bahrain "had its share in the shaping of Islamic history . .. (and) acted as a launch pad for Islamic conquests in the East..." said Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs Shaikh Abdullah binKhaled Al Khalifa,chairman of the conference organizing committee.

Such a varied history, of course, requires a wide range of experts to study it and the specialists at the Bahrain conference were nothing if not varied. One was Bahrain Antiquities and Museums Department Director Shaikha Haya 'Ali Al Khalifa, the only woman in the Gulf to hold such a post.

Shaikha Haya, who will head the new, $34.5 million National Museum in Manama when it is completed, took advantage of the conference to display sliced seashells uncovered in excavations in Bahrain and first identified as jewelry. Shaikha Haya argued that they were, in fact, not decgrations but rather another ancient seal-stamp fashioned from a local marine resource — rather than the usual chlorite or soapstone seals found in many locations in the Gulf.

Another of the specialists was veteran Geoffrey Bibby, co-head of the pioneering Moesgaard Forhistorisk Museum expedition from Aarhus, Denmark, which commenced activities on the island on December 4, 1953, three decades, almost to the day, before the opening of the conference. Back in Bahrain with five more of the little museum's experts — two thirds of that institution's staff — Bibby described the Danish museum's pioneering work in Bahrain as part of a process wherein "a new civilization discovers itself when the time is ripe ... and we were lucky to be the nearest archeologists at that time."

Author of the popular book Looking for Dilmun, about the Danish museum's work on Bahrain and neighboring countries, Bibby praised the Bahrain government for its "enlightened attitude," and said the conference was invaluable. "There's not merely factual information being exchanged here," he said, "but ways of thinking about things. And that means there will be more work going on here. People now know what they are going to look for. Before, we got together occasionally. Earlier we had a lot of 'duologues.' Bahrain has let us all get together."

For Bibby, of course, Bahrain's good will toward scholarship is not new. In the early 1950's, Shaikh 'Isa's father, the late Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, helped pave the way for the initial Danish expedition by offering £1,100, to assist in its proposed work — an action unique in Near East archeology at that time. Then, in 1970, Bahrain hosted the Third International Conference on Asian Archeology — at which Bibby served as general secretary.

As to this conference, Bibby said the Bahrain gathering was "the most strenuous conference I've ever attended," adding that "everybody is enjoying the dogfights thoroughly" and is "going away with a lot of new ideas and inspiration."

Among the "dogfights" — academic disputes — mentioned by Bibby was one that broke out over a controversial paper entitled "Death in Dilmun." The work of Harvard's Lamberg-Karlovsky, it posited that all the tombs in the vast Bahrain fields were not meant for its local population, as most scholars believe.

There were "insufficient indigenous settlement patterns [i.e. population]" on the island "to account for the enormous number of graves in Bahrain and the adjacent eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia," Lamberg-Karlovsky argued. Instead, he claimed, the tombs "represent an elaborate funerary cult reflected in Sumerian literature referring to Dilmun" which suggests "the possibility that Dilmun was a place for burial where immortality could be obtained."

The archeologist also took up the question raised by the Arab Expedition to Bahrain in the late 1970's: why nearly 20 per cent of the tombs opened contained no human burials. "These vacant tombs may have been commemorative tombs, to serve as a home for the spirit of one who died in more distant lands," Lamberg-Karlovsky said, or perhaps "commemorative and/ or actual burials of Sumerians were interred on Dilmun ..." he hypothesized.

Lamberg-Karlovsky's theory was immediately challenged from many sides. Bibby, for example, said accounts of transportation of corpses to distant lands for interrment were nowhere to be found in the corpus of Sumerian records and that, indeed, the Sumerian Ziusudra had been carried to Dilmun by the gods not because he was dead but for everlasting life.

Dr. Bruno Frohlich, a physical anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. presented a fascinating rebuttal of Lamberg-Karlovsky's theory based on an analysis of bones found in the tombs.

Frohlich, a Dane who has studied human remains found in Bahrain tombs, said that statistical tables showed that the island's population could account for most of the tombs. "About 150,000 burial mounds are estimated to be associated with the time period approximately between 2800 and 1800 B.C.," he said. Taking into consideration various life expectancies and possible periods of major tomb building, "the large number of burial mounds can easily be explained by demographic patterns on Bahrain island..."

The Smithsonian expert also corrected his early findings that some Bahrain tombs were empty, explaining that he has since discovered that the saline environment of the tombs crystallizes bones into particles too tiny to be easily seen. Frohlich, whose computer-aided analysis can determine a tomb occupant's sex, age at death, and even what he or she died of, has compared bones found in Jordan with those in Bahrain's tombs - with remarkable results.

For one, life expectancy in Bahrain around the turn of the third millennium was up to 40 years, "about five to eight years more" than in Jordan. Furthermore, the Bahrainis had "the highest stature in the Middle East," said Frohlich. Adult males averaged 170.4 centimeters (about five-and-a-half feet) compared to 164 centimeters in Jordan; adult females stood 162.4 centimeters, compared to just 154 centimeters in Jordan

"And what's interesting," said Frohlich, "is that diseases related to old people, such as degenerative arthritis, are found in much higher frequencies here than other places." One skeleton uncovered in Bahrain was that of a man over 35 years old with a fully fused backbone. "That man could not function in society," related Frohlich, concluding that Bahrain's Bronze Age society "was obviously so successful it could take care of sick people. It didn't ask them to leave or kill them or starve them to death. Based on its skeletons, it was a wealthy and successful society."

The tombs have yielded other secrets too. Bahrainis living as long as 4,000 years ago had a sweet tooth, ate high-sugar foods, suffered tooth decay and even had dentists, said dental anthropologist Dr. Karen Hojgaard of Copenhagen.

Studies of the teeth and jaws of ancient Bahrain residents, she reported, revealed "a pronounced ante-mortem loss of especially molars," and X-rays revealed cracked tips or roots still in jaws, so the Bahrainis appear to be the first people in the world known to have carried out dental extractions."

In her Dilmun article, Hojgaard even included a photo of ancient metal instruments unearthed in Bahrain, alongside modern Danish instruments used to extract teeth today. The resemblance was not mere chance; it was quite likely, she said, that the "common torment" of toothache was treated by extracting the offending tooth by means of instruments like the old tools shown.

Yet another delegate, Marny Golding, a longtime resident of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, zeroed in on her specialty in a talk entitled "Artifacts from Later Pre-Islamic Occupation in Eastern Arabia." Golding, who stunned the 1970 Asian Archeology Conference in Bahrain when she and colleague Grace Burkholder revealed finds in the Eastern Province of pre-Sumerian 'Ubaid pottery, until then unknown in the Arabian Peninsula, took delegates on a tour of important sites in the region which has long had close ties with Bahrain. She ranged from the tomb fields near Dhahran to the old inland trading city of Thaj — with remarks and slides that focused on the period from the eighth century B.C. to the third century.

Some 20 papers focused on "The Islamic Period in Bahrain," describing the first letters from the Prophet Muhammad to the ruler, his early embrace of the faith and the strong financial support given Islam. Spanning the era from the seventh century to the 17th century, they included a paper by Dr. Abdul Latif Kanoo, Bahrain's undersecretary of housing, "Bahrain in the First Century Hijra," and one written by Dr. 'Ali al-Doi, Bahrain's consul in Montreal on "The Geography and History of Bahrain during the Middle Ages."

On this subject there was also a paper by Dr. Monique Kevren of the Mission Archéologique Française, Paris, on "Qala'at al-Bahrain: A Strategic Position from the Hellenistic Period to Modern Times," and by Dr. Abdul Karem Al Ane, Baghdad University, on "The population of Bahrain at the Beginning of Islam."

Dr. Paul Kunitzsch, Munich University, discussed a 1490 account of Bahrain by the navigator Ahmad ibn Majid: "And on it there is sweet water in all directions. The most interesting thing there is a place called al-Qasasir; there a man can dive into the salty sea with a water skin and fill it with sweet water while being down in the salt water..."

Lending a practical knowledge of sailing to the conference was Tim Severin, lately captain of the Sohar, a traditional, hand sewn, fully rigged Arab sailing vessel which made the 9,600 kilometer (6,000 mile) voyage from Oman to China in 1980-81, following in the wake of the legendary sailor of the Middle Ages named Sindbad (See Aramco World, September - October, 1981).

According to Severin, scholars, who are considering trade carried out by early wooden sailing ships, should "think timber ... (and) forget the European notion of a harbor: it's not relevant to India or the Gulf."

"Look for a land route trade," Severin said, "fresh water, a good holding ground to get the anchor down and — most important — a facility to apply anti-fouling to the ships to get rid of 'shipworm' and to load the vessel." That meant, he said, a place where a ship could be beached at high tide so that work could be carried out with ease at low tide.

Some papers dealt with material from the archives of nations with former strategic and commercial interests in Bahrain. Dr. Salih Ozbaran of Ege University, Izmir, Turkey, discussed "Bahrain in the 16th Century as Reflected in Turkish and Portuguese Sources," and Dr. Ihsan Surayya Sirma, Ataturk University, Ankara, spoke on "Turkish Documents in the History of Bahrain in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries." BJ. Slot, the director of the Dutch State Archives, delivered a paper on "The Dutch East India Company and Bahrain (1645-1762)," while Dr. Maqbul Ahmed of Kashmir University, Srinagar, India, spoke on "The Geography and History of Bahrain as Described in Arabic and Persian Sources."

The conference section on "Bahrain's Modern History" ranged all the way from a paper by Shaikh Abdullah Al Khalifa and Dr. 'Ali Aba Hussain, director of Bahrain's Documentation Center, on the history of the tribe from which sprang the Al Khalifa — "From the History of the 'Utub During the 18th Century" — to one entitled "The Making of Modern Bahrain: Reflections on an Effective Experiment in Nation Building" by Dr. Emile Nakleh of Mount St. Mary's College, in Virginia.

In their paper, Shaikh Abdullah and Dr. Hussain described how the 'Utub moved from Qatar to al-Hasa in the eastern part of the Arabian mainland, participated in the conquest of Qatif in 1671, and moved back to Qatar to take part in the seafaring trade. In 1700, they attacked Bahrain for the first time but failed to capture it, and settled in Kuwait until, in 1762, they returned to Qatar and built a fortress at Zubara on the coast. In 1783, under Ahmed, later known as "The Conqueror," they first beat off an attack from Bahrain, then conquered it.

Focusing on Bahrain's ages-old economic lifeline, Shaikh Khalid Al Khalifa, a member of the ruling family who teaches at Bahrain University College, traced "Bahraini Trade from 'Utub Rule to the Discovery of Oil."

"It is anticipated that this commodity (oil), too, will vanish at the beginning of the next century," said Shaikh Khalid. "The end of the economic role of oil does not mean that Bahrain will be resourceless. Trade is a continuous process and its development will take the place of preeminence in the economic life of the country."

Later records, as well as those from earlier centuries, figured strongly in the Manama meetings. Among them were the diaries of C. Dalrymple Belgrave, advisor of the British government to Bahrain from 1926 to 1957. Containing rich, day-to-day details of life on Bahrain, as well as astute political insights, the advisor's diaries might prove a valuable resource for historians today, said his nephew, Robert Belgrave, of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, noting, "It is in the consciousness and understanding of its own history, the bad parts as well as the good, that a country can best find its own history, the way through the tangle of current events."

Dr. T.A. Anthony, Savannah State College, Georgia, struck a similar chord in her paper documenting the "Modern History of Bahrain (1890-1935) from American Sources," including photographs of the period. Using records of the Mission of the Dutch Reformed Church of North America to the Gulf, whose headquarters was in Bahrain, Anthony noted that the information left by the doctors and nurses who had worked in eastern Arabia and Bahrain could provide valuable additional information to historians working on the area.

"There is nothing more valuable for a historian than having an eyewitness who is an outsider observing events and happenings... The contribution of various members of the American-Arabian Mission in this connection should not be underestimated. Both doctors and nurses wrote extensively on the social and economic life of the inhabitants in places visited across the Gulf," she said.

Screening photographs from the Arabian mainland and Bahrain, she added that students of the region could tap a rich vein of information by looking at mission photos. They could prove invaluable in researching the history of "medicine and modern education, the architecture and the landscape of the period (and) social and cultural history," she said.

Dr. Carney Gavin, curator of the Harvard Semitic Museum, could not agree more (See Aramco World November - December, 1983). In fact, his contribution to the conference, titled "Early Photographic Records of Bahrain," had almost exactly the same message.

Gavin showed delegates what he said was the first-ever photograph of Bahraini citizens — two pilgrims in Jiddah in 1886. Then the enthusiastic Gavin flashed another photo on the screen. "Does anyone know where this is?" he asked his audience of experts, and drew an immediate reply from someone in the Iraqi delegation: "Basra — probably at the turn of the century." Gavin called his discipline "photo-archeology" and invited all delegates to "save old photos." Said Gavin, "I'm eager to work with you" to preserve and utilize old photographs for research.

The most modern era — today, and even tomorrow — was another conference target. George Rentz, an Arabist who retired from Aramco's Government Relations Department in Dhahran in 1963 after 17 years in the kingdom, touched on a point of major importance in the area today: state-to-state and regional cooperation. He described the 1958 "Abu Sa'fah Agreement" between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia which settled the question of ownership of a shoal located between the two countries.

The accord, reached in face-to-face talks between the Amir of Bahrain, and King Sa'ud ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz of Saudi Arabia, seven years after negotiations under British auspices in London had failed, gave title to Abu Sa'fah to Saudi Arabia under an arrangement that called for the sharing of any oil found there. In the mid-1960's oil was found at Abu Sa'fah and, noted Rentz, "both parties have adhered faithfully to the agreement since it was signed."

Dwelling on Bahrain's most recent history, including its independence in 1971 and especially its membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council, (See Aramco World, January-February, 1984), modern historian Emile Nakleh noted, "Bahrain's stature in regional and international political and economic relations has far exceeded its small size, both territorially and demographically... as an open, cosmopolitan society, Bahrain has provided us with a success story in nation-building . .."

Apart from making Bahrainis themselves "more aware of their historical heritage," Minister Almoayed predicted a boom in the number of persons researching about Bahrain. The "biggest import" of the meeting was to the scholars in attendance themselves, he said, in turn "generating interest among students so that everything being said here today, by multiplier effect, will produce maybe five times the interest we have today. If we have 100 papers today, we will have 500 researchers to follow."

Arthur Clark, now a writer for Aramco Public Affairs in Dhahran, formerly worked on U.S. newspapers, and was a free-lance writer in.

This article appeared on pages 12-21 of the July/August 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1984 images.