Saturday, 2 November 2019

The First Museum of Bahrain - A National History

No, it's not the National Museum of Bahrain. Despite it being one of the earliest modern museums in the Gulf (opening in December 1988) and being a lot more humble than their Gulf counterparts, it is not the country's first museum. Well, at least not the current site. To delve more into this topic, we're going to look at what the United Nations' cultural agency UNESCO reported from its 20th century archives.

Building off from our last post on archaeology in Bahrain, it's important to note that there was very little coordinated archaeological excavation of the ancient sites of Bahrain. These sites included the ruins of the old Portuguese fort outside Manama, the thousands of artificial mounds that covered modern-day A'ali, Hamad Town and Saar, and other various pre-historic temples in Barbar & Saar.
Burial mounds of Bahrain, 1918. (QDL)
The first modern archaeological mission was the Danish expedition in 1952 (This is an excellent article reviewing the history of archaeology in Bahrain) began excavating the Bahrain Fort ruins & burial mounds. Fast forward to 1957 and the first public 'museum' per say opened as a temporary exhibition at the Hidaya Khalifa School in Muharraq. This exhibition of artefacts found in the excavations lasted for a few days but succeeded in drawing crowds and interest in the field of archaeology from the Bahraini community.

A UNESCO report by A. Ghosh in 1968 reported that all excavated artefacts were shipped back to Denmark because of the lack of local museums to showcase them in. An agreement was made between the Danes and the Bahraini govt to return at least 50% of  artefacts if a permanent museum was constructed. In the report (page 20), Ghosh recommended the creation of a national museum, an archaeological society, a law protecting historical artefacts. The report also identified potential national heritage sites for conservation such as the medieval agricultural water canals that enabled agriculture in the north of Bahrain, and other architecturally distinct houses in Manama and Muharraq.

In 1970, the first national museum was opened in Government House in Manama. It was temporary until a more permanent museum was built. The photos below show the opening ceremony of the museum. The same year, the country passed the Antiquities law that protected national artefacts and sites.
Government House museum opening in March 1970
(Source: Bahrain News Agency)
Government House museum opening in March 1970
(Source: Bahrain News Agency) 
Government House museum opening in March 1970
(Source: Bahrain News Agency) 
Government House museum opening in March 1970
(Source: Bahrain News Agency)
A grainy scan of the Government House museum, 1972.
A UNESCO follow up mission in 1972 even provided the architectural blueprint for a National Library and Museum right next to each other. The map shows sites considered for construction of the complex. Plans were even considered to relocate the museum to the planned city of Isa Town but it was decided it would be better to place the museum in the capital.
Map of Manama with potential sites for the museum (UNESCO 1972)

Proposed plans for the National Museum and Library (UNESCO 1972)

ADDENDUM: Although the dates are unclear, the museum was relocated from Government House to the officers' mess at the former site of the Royal Air Force base in Muharraq island.

Evidently, none of the above plans took place as the museum was finally shifted to a purpose-built complex on reclaimed land off the Al Fateh highway in Manama, in 1988. Deemed architecturally pleasing, it was shortlisted for the Aga Khan Architecture Award in 1991.

Note: As of 1 November 2019, all of this is also coincidentally covered in a current exhibition at the Bahrain national museum, I recommend a visit.

Monday, 12 August 2019

The Forgotten Art of Bahraini Architecture (and Coral!)

The history of architecture in Bahrain, like many other aspects, is a neglected one. At present, the Kingdom is home to an estimated 1.4 million people. In the most recent census in 2010, the number of dwellings was estimated at 140,000 buildings (an all-time high). With the trends of globalization in full swing in Bahrain over the past century (starting with its education sector a century ago), Bahraini architecture began to be overtaken by concrete-based Western designs as the country aimed to build itself as a financial hub in the 20th Century. 

Newly-reclaimed lands in the Diplomatic Area and the high-rise commercial buildings that have dotted the Manama skyline since the 1980s have been testament to this. But with the rush towards the future, it is very easy to forget about the past and how we got here. To put it dramatically - a nation that forgets its past can have no future (as said by the genocidal Winston Churchill)

So today, I present an article on the architecture of an affluent Bahraini house. Unfortunately, this will not discuss barastis (houses used by the poorer population mostly in Manama) and I wholeheartedly apologise for this.

The Traditional Bahraini House:

The Isa Bin Ali Al-Khalifa House, in Muharraq (2008).
A traditional affluent Bahraini house was made up of a series of pavilions around a courtyard. Traditionally, houses had two courtyards (though sometimes only one); one would host the reception of men and the other would be for private living use. The more economical option adopted by modest households was a singular courtyard. However, such options depended on multiple factors such as family size, business needs etc.

The house's rooms were organised in terms of seasonal migration, with the important pavilions for living and hosting receptions having a counterpart on the roof to capture summer breezes and redirect it into the pavilion. The lower rooms of the house would have thick walls, allowing them to be utilised during the cool winter months.

To combat the intense heat during the summer months, a framework of coral rubble piers with spaces filled with large panels of coral rocks (with a thickness rarely more than 4cm) were erected. In the higher levels, the panels were arranged in a two-lead construction, with trapped air in between to reduce thermal conductivity when the sun shines on the outside walls. The light-weight and porous coral is lined with a coat of lime and gypsum (again keeping to a minimal thickness of 1/8 cm), reducing the capacity of the walls to store daytime heat into the evenings when it might have been re-radiated at a time of high humidity to cause discomfort. 
A diagram showing the anatomy of the spatial composition, the unique architectural language and the visual features of Muharraq houses, the case of Sh. Salman House (Source: Yarwood, 1988)

Hundreds of buildings with this feature were built in Bahrain but virtually none currently function, with most not being repaired or serviced in several decades. A disadvantage of the coral used is that its core is made from clay, as a mortar, and dissolves easily because of its soapy consistency. As a result, this causes cracks to develop in the walls during rainy weather, compromising the structure's stability and requiring yearly maintenance.

The most famous example of such a house would be the Shaikh Isa bin Ali al-Khalifa house, built in 1830 and recently restored as a national monument. The house is built around four courtyards and includes beautifully incised stucco panels in the upper rooms. 

Designs of such continuous cross-ventilation through rooms in hot & humid climates originated back to the time of ancient Assyria in the 6th century BC although even earlier models have been found in structures dating to 3000 BC. The concept of pier-and-opening construction was favoured in ancient Egypt and the Greek islands of ancient Ionia. 

Bonus Topic - A Brief History of Coral Building

Detail of coral carving on the premises of Male' Friday Mosque © Dominic Sansoni (Fair Use)
Coral as a building material was used primarily along coastal settlements throughout the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Believed to have originated from the Red Sea coasts, the earliest example of its use was at the site of Al-Rih in Sudan where a Greek cornice made of coral was found re-used in an Islamic tomb. It then spread to the East African coast and was primarily used as building material for monuments. 

In the Persian Gulf, there is another tradition of coral stone construction although the antiquity of this tradition is being questioned as suitable coral has only grown in the area within the past 1,000 years. At present, coral stone building have been seen along the coastline of Gujarat in India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka - believed to have been associated with Islamic traders.

Two types of coral were used for construction; fossil coral from the coast shore (more suitable for load-bearing walls) and reef coral cut live from the sea bed (more suitable for architectural features such as door-jambs and mihrab niches). Living reef coral is easier to cut through and dress to a smooth finish although it did require hardening by exposure to air. 

If this article has inspired you about architecture in Bahrain or the use of coral stone, I enthusiastically recommend you to visit the House for Architectural Heritage in Muharraq that goes into incredible detail regarding the subject.


Petersen, Andrew (2002). Dictionary of Islamic architecture. Routledge. ISBN 9781134613663.
Lewcock, Ronald (2012). Bahrain Through The Ages. Routledge. ISBN 9781136141782.
Michael, Mika. (2013) "Architecture in Bahrain". Bahrain Guide.

Bonus Coral meme

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Aerial Old Photograph of Manama and Muharraq, 1933

Originally scanned and posted by the Qatar Digital Library

This is a rare composite aerial photograph showing the northern portion of Bahrain , predominantly Manama (L) and Muharraq island (R). Dated from 27 September 1937 and written up by the British Royal Air Force (RAF), the following locations are indicated by means of identifying letters in red ink:

Monday, 4 June 2018

Drama in Manama: A Foreigner's Guide to Muharram in Bahrain (1940 Edition)

Bahrain holds a special place in the Persian Gulf for being one of the few countries to openly host processions commemorating the Islamic month of Muharram throughout the country. However, this post will not go into the history of Muharram itself and its significance to Shia Muslims in particular (though I do encourage independent research on the matter). In Bahrain, the first recorded public processions occurred in Manama in 1891, with it becoming an annual public event since. British records showed public Muharram processions also emerged in villages throughout the country in 1939.

Now the main subject of this post is the Muharram of 1939 which was during a significant time in Bahrain's history; oil was discovered in the country only 8 years before (the first in the Gulf region). With this oil and the establishment of the Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO), the country saw an influx of engineers and experts in the oil & gas industry (predominantly British and Americans). For the most part, the westerners intermingled well with their Bahraini counterparts.

However in the Muharram of 1939, British records indicated that some minor altercations occurred between western employees of BAPCO and procession-goers after the foreigners laughed and photographed the processions, no injuries were reported. The following are excerpts from British records.

Written by Charles Belgrave, Advisor to the Bahrain Government in 1939
Scanned and posted by the Qatar Digital Library
As a result of the massive influx of foreigners, processions during 1939 changed course of their regular procession paths and some of the foreigners followed into the side streets, causing minor altercations. In an effort to avoid the possibility of a riot in future Muharram processions, it was advised by the British political agency in Bahrain to BAPCO to restrict the number of foreigners in Manama to 100 persons during the month of Muharram.

Preparations were drawn up for the Muharram of 1940 and included a map that highlighted and identified areas for the public & those out of bounds to foreigners. Furthermore, a document was prepared on how foreigners should present themselves in Manama, should they wish to observe the processions of Manama (which many do to this present day). These plans were for the next Muharram procession, estimated to take place on 19th February, 1940.
"The Muharram square and the two main roads leading from the bazaar (highlighted in red, including the Jama Mosque) shall be open to the public and the rest of the area highlighted in yellow will be out of bounds for foreigners." Originally posted in the Qatar Digital Library

The Foreigner's Guide to Muharram in Bahrain, prepared for the Muharram of 1940. Originally posted by the Qatar Digital Library.

Bonus: this page includes side commentary on Muharram by Charles Belgrave and include some inflammatory statements.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

A Study of Bahrain in Old Maps

One of the many ways we can perceive and analyse the past is through depictions of contemporary geography onto maps. Cartography (the study of maps) has long helped historians understand and appreciate how peoples and empires perceived themselves in their time. And, more often than not, they were the centre of their own universes

Historically & up to the 18th century, Bahrain referred to the eastern shores of Arabia, an area that currently encompasses Kuwait, eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and parts of northern Oman. The German map, made by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, below from 1745 lays testimony to this. 

Note the Bahrayn region of the eastern Arabian coastline (Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, 1745)

Other interesting maps of Bahrain throughout the ages that I could find and appreciate are the following. All of these have been found, scanned and uploaded by the Qatar Digital Library (which is doing an incredible job at documenting and preserving primary source historical documents of the Persian Gulf)

Trigonometrical Map of the Island of Bahrain, 1828.
This splendid map was produced by James Horsburgh, Hydrographer to the East India Company in 1828. This map's title features in a decorative cartouche with a view of ‘A Mosque on Bahrein. From a rough sketch by Dr. A. Mackell’, with the mosque in question being the Khamis Mosque (the oldest mosque in the country, dating back to the 7th century AD). Other prominent locations mentioned include the ‘Portuguese lighthouse, harbour and fort’, west of Manamah.

The engraver’s details inserted below a compass rose orienting north at the right centre of the map. Nautical chart of the western coast of the Persian Gulf showing the Island of Bahrein compiled from the surveys carried out by the Bombay Marine’s officers between 1820 and 1829.

Originally posted in the Qatar Digital Library

Imperial Airways Flight Path of Bahrain, 1937.
This map was made in 1936 and edited in 1937, published by the UK Admiralty. Imperial Airways (the predecessor of British Airways) planned to introduce flying boat services to the region, including Bahrain. This map was utilised as a means of assessing the various seaborne approaches to Bahrain Harbour and Khor Kaliya [Khawr al Qulay‘ah]. The map shows Bahrain island and the surrounding sea. It includes soundings in fathoms with supplementary depth contours, and highlights features to aid the navigator. The map also outlines Manama and Muharraq and details buildings (prominent buildings being labelled).

Manuscript additions to the map have been included. Red additions outline the proposed alighting area, the proposed location of moorings, and a proposed location for a passenger shelter. It also includes the location of the pre-existing Royal Air Force (RAF) pier. Navigation beacons have been highlighted in orange. The Imperial Airways Landing Ground has been highlighted using pencil.

Originally published on the Qatar Digital Library

Map of Muharraq and the New Airport, 1937
This map was drawn up in 1937 when the British Political Residency in Bahrain intended on establishing a civilian aircraft landing strip for Imperial Airways (in addition to the sea landings that were to be conducted).. This map shows Muharraq Island, and the causeway linking Muharraq to Manama. Also shown are principal roads, tracks, buildings (including the Political Agency in Manana), islands, and the location of several underwater freshwater springs. A rectangle on Muharraq Island indicates the area specified for the landing ground, which would later become the current Bahrain International Airport.

What I specifically like about this map is that it shows the original villages of Muharraq island including Arad, Hidd, Samaheej, Dair, Galali and Busaiteen on their own and isolated (which is very different to what we currently see them as). First posted on the Qatar Digital Library

Bahrain Saudi Maritime Border, 1939
Dated 29th May 1939 and drawn up with regards to Saudi claim to certain islands, this detailed sketch map was prepared by the Bahrain Petroleum Company from Admiralty charts. It shows  Bahrain, the Saudi Arabian and Qatari coasts and the waters to the north, with shoals and reefs mapped in detail. New information obtained during a reconnaissance survey between 25th and 27th May 1939 were added in red ink including the proposed boundaries line to determine territorial waters of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Originally posted in the Qatar Digital Library

Artesian Water Supply in Bahrain, 1948
This is fairly straightforward. In 1948, at the request of the Government of Bahrain at the time, a map was drawn up by the Bahrain Petroleum Company showing the national distribution of artesian water wells in Bahrain. Artesian water wells are basically a well that doesn't require a pump to bring water to the surface; this occurs when there is enough positive pressure in the aquifer itself. This pressure forces the water to the surface without any sort of assistance. Famous examples of artesian wells in Bahrain include the Adhari spring, Ain Abu Zaydan, Ain Um Sujur, Ain Barbar. However, due to overutilisation of the aquifer and rapid urbanisation, many of these springs have ceased running since the 1980s. This paper by Mohammed Al-Ansari on Bahrain's water demand and subsequent management provides a good overview of the current situation and likely hurdles to be faced in the future.

Originally posted in the Qatar Digital Library.
Greetings From Bahrain! 1939
This is light hearted compared to the other ones. On the occasion of King Edward VIII's birthday in June 1939, the British political residency of Bahrain (headed by Kennard Foulkes) sent Buckingham Palace a greetings card from Bahrain. If you look past the imperialism, it's a pretty cute card. Designed by Ashraf Brothers (a well known local business), the card features important sites in Bahrain including the Shaikh's Hunting Lodge, Oil Wells, the Portuguese Fort, and Water Wells.

Originally posted here

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Bilad al Qadeem in 1908 - A Brief History Of A Bahraini Village

The Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia (abbreviated Lorimer, after its author) is one of the more remarkable by-products of British colonial intelligence-gathering. I've already spoken about it in great detail in prior posts but would like to re-emphasise the importance to historians (and amateur history geeks) that this document presents. It showcases a Domesday book (much like that of the Normans) written from a colonial British point of view of much of the Arabian peninsula, highlighting histories (finished in 1915) and major/minor geographical settlements  (finished in 1908) from the then-large towns of Manama and Muharraq to small hamlets spread across the plains of Arabia.

As you can imagine, I will delve into a series of posts about the entries of Bahrain's villages in the Gazetteer to appreciate an idea or snapshot of what the Bahrain of 1908 really looked like back then & in turn help understand the history of Bahrain. I will start with Bilad al Qadeem because it's literally the oldest and I feel that maybe we owe it that much.

Bilad al Qadeem
A large scattered village on Bahrain Island about 1.5 miles southwest of Manama fort. It consists of 350 mud & red huts, along with the ruins of many well-built houses. 
There is a south-western suburb called Bilad-al-Rafi (بلاد الرفيع) and the ground on the northwest side of the village, called Suq-al-Khamis (سوق الخميس), is the scene of a largely attended market which is held every Thursday throughout the year. 
About half a mile west of the existing habitations are the ruins of the Madrasah Abu Zeidan (مدرسة ابو زيدان) mosque*, with two slender and not inelegant minarets, 70 feet high, still standing; in combination with Jebel Dukhan, these minarets form the leading mark for vessels entering Manamah harbour. 
The Khamis Mosque (likely the Abu Zeidan too)
In the midst of the ruined part of the village is the Abu Zaidan spring, over which is built a modern Shia'h mosque, its beautifully clear waters fill a tank to which all the notabilities of Bahrain resort for hot bathing in the hot weather. 
The people of Bilad-al-Qadim are Baharnah who gain a livelihood as pearl merchants, cultivators and tailors. Livestock include 21 donkeys and 7 cattle. Date palms are estimated at 11,500 trees, and there are some figs, almonds and pomegranates. The rose and jessamine grow. 
*The Abu Zeidan mosque is very likely referring to the Khamis Mosque.

If you would like to read more about the history of Bilad al Qadeem (which is now a suburb of Manama, the capital city of Bahrain), the Wikipedia page is a great place to start.

This sketch map of Bahrain in 1936 shows the 'minarets' (centre), believed to stand for the minarets of the Abu Zeidan mosque of Bilad al Qadeem, which guided naval vessels to Manama port (QDL)

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Napoleon Never Started A War

Hear me out.

A heavily romanticised portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, painted by Jacques-Louis David (1801)
Contrary to the often dramatised caricature of a mad, power-hungry & incredibly short Frenchman, Napoleon Bonaparte had never started a war during his time as emperor of the French.

In the space of 12 years (1803-1815), France was the target of seven international coalitions of European powers, determined to isolate and dismantle the French state for disrupting the status quo of European politics that had been thrown in disarray after the French revolution. All seven wars were declared upon France, not by it.

When confronted with war, Napoleon took to the offensive, that is a given. But how often in contemporary culture do we find ourselves briefly referring to Napoleon as "that crazy French guy who wanted world domination". In Franceshi & Weider's book on The Wars Against Napoleon: Debunking the Myth of the Napoleonic Wars (review), is is argued;
Napoleon had an ‘obsessive attachment to peace’, maintained his ‘intangible principle of avoiding conflicts’, never provoked a war, and never took the initiative in declaring war: even his invasion of Russia in June 1812 was a reluctant response to Tsar Alexander’s ultimatum of April 1812 which ‘in fact if not in law’ had established a state of hostilities between the two empires. - See more at:
Napoleon had an ‘obsessive attachment to peace’, maintained his ‘intangible principle of avoiding conflicts’, never provoked a war, and never took the initiative in declaring war: even his invasion of Russia in June 1812 was a reluctant response to Tsar Alexander’s ultimatum of April 1812 which ‘in fact if not in law’ had established a state of hostilities between the two empires. - See more at:
Napoleon had an ‘obsessive attachment to peace’, maintained his ‘intangible principle of avoiding conflicts’, never provoked a war, and never took the initiative in declaring war: even his invasion of Russia in June 1812 was a reluctant response to Tsar Alexander’s ultimatum of April 1812 which ‘in fact if not in law’ had established a state of hostilities between the two empires. - See more at:
Napoleon had an ‘obsessive attachment to peace’, maintained his ‘intangible principle of avoiding conflicts’, never provoked a war, and never took the initiative in declaring war: even his invasion of Russia in June 1812 was a reluctant response to Tsar Alexander’s ultimatum of April 1812 which ‘in fact if not in law’ had established a state of hostilities between the two empires.
While of course his assembling of the Grande Armée (the largest standing army at the time) certainly doesn't rank well for his peacekeeping reputation nor does his unprecedented invasion of Russia, his motivation was the protection of his homeland. He often was quoted as saying "France before all else".

I'm not saying Napoleon not declaring war makes him a saint, perhaps he was egotistical (he did install himself & his own family upon several European thrones, after all). Hitler himself didn't declare a war until December 1941 (on the United States) two years into WWII. All I wish to say is to think of these casual biases. Somehow someway these biases have ingrained and disseminated themselves in popular culture; perhaps it is the result of clever propaganda, a case of the victors writing history, or simple, lazy misinformation.

Whatever the cause, the takeaway message is to HOW and WHY you think of historical figures in negative and positive views. After all, we're all bound to be biased.
Napoleon had an ‘obsessive attachment to peace’, maintained his ‘intangible principle of avoiding conflicts’, never provoked a war, and never took the initiative in declaring war: even his invasion of Russia in June 1812 was a reluctant response to Tsar Alexander’s ultimatum of April 1812 which ‘in fact if not in law’ had established a state of hostilities between the two empires. - See more at:

The First Museum of Bahrain - A National History

No, it's not the National Museum of Bahrain. Despite it being one of the earliest modern museums in the Gulf (opening in December 1988) ...