Anyone with the mildest interest in history cannot help but be curious about the civilisation that left behind 85, 000 burial mounds that lump, curdle and honeycomb 5% of the island’s landmass. Standing atop a burial mound at A’Ali, it is easy to imagine that the people responsible for such sophisticated care of their dead were equally sophisticated in matters of life. And, indeed, such was the case. Although Bahrain has a Stone-Age history that dates back to 5000 BC, and evidence of settlement from 10, 000 BC, it has recently been confirmed by archaeologists as the seat of the lost and illustrious empire of Dilmun, the influence of which spread as far north as modern Kuwait and as far inland as the Al-Hasa Oasis in eastern Saudi Arabia.
The Dilmun civilisation lasted from 3200 to 330 BC, during which time, according to Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian inscriptions, the island’s residents were not only commercially active, plying the busy Gulf waterways, but were also attentive to matters at home. The proper burial of the sick, handicapped and young in elaborate chambers, together with their chattels of ceramic, glass and beads (meticulously displayed at the Bahrain National Museum), suggest a civilisation of considerable social and economic development, assisted by the perpetual abundance of ‘sweet’, in other words potable, water on the island. Little wonder, then, that Dilmun (which means ‘noble’) was often referred to as the fabled Garden of Eden and described as ‘paradise’ in the Epic of Gilgamesh (the world’s oldest poetic saga).
Dilmun’s economic success was due in no small part to the trading of Omani copper, which was measured using the internationally recognised ‘Dilmun Standard’ (the weights can be seen in the Bahrain National Museum). When the copper trade declined, in around 1800 BC, Dilmun’s strength declined with it, leaving the island vulnerable to the predatory interests of the surrounding big powers. By 600 BC Dilmun was absorbed entirely by the empire of Babylon.
In 323 BC, two of Alexander the Great’s ships arrived, and such strong, though temporary, links were forged with the Greek empire that the island was renamed Tylos. Although the flirtation with Greece was brief (less than 100 years), the presence of unexcavated Hellenistic ruins alongside Bahrain Fort may yet show it was passionate, and the island retained its classical name for nearly a thousand years (from 330 BC to AD 622).
There is little that makes the history of Bahrain distinct from that of the rest of the Gulf until the 16th century AD. The presence of sweet-water springs under the sea, mingling with the brackish waters of the shallow oyster beds, contributes to the peculiar colour and lustre of Bahrain’s pearls, and it was upon the value of these pearls that Bahrain grew into one of the most important trading posts in the region. This was something of a mixed blessing, however, as it attracted the big naval powers of Europe, which wheeled about the island trying to establish safe passage for their interests further east. In the early 1500s the Portuguese invaded, building one of their typical sea-facing forts on Bahrain’s northern shore (Qala’at al-Bahrain) – the coping stone on seven layers of ancient history. Their rule was short-lived, however, and by 1602 the Portuguese were ousted by the Persians.
It was in the mid-18th century that the Al-Khalifa, the family that now rules Bahrain, first arrived in the area. They initially settled at Al-Zubara, on the northwestern edge of the Qatar peninsula, and became involved in the region’s lucrative pearling trade. They drove the Persians out of Bahrain in about 1782, and were themselves routed by an Omani invasion, but returned in 1820 never to leave again.
During the 19th century, piracy was rife in the Gulf and, although it never gained a foothold in Bahrain as such, the island gained something of a reputation as an entrepôt, where pirates sold their captured goods and bought supplies for the next raid. The British, anxious to secure their trade routes with India, brought the Al-Khalifa family, who were professedly opposed to piracy, into the ‘Trucial system’ (the system of protection against piracy that operated throughout the old Trucial States; that is, the Gulf states which signed a ‘truce’ or treaty with Britain against piracy and which largely make up today’s UAE). In hindsight, this could almost be dubbed ‘invasion by stealth’, as by 1882 Bahrain could not make any international agreements or host any foreign agent without British consent. On the other hand, as a British protectorate, the autonomy of the Al-Khalifa family was secure and threats from the Ottomans thwarted. To this day, a special relationship can be felt between the Bahrainis and the sizable expatriate British community, even if only in the landscaping of public parks and the building of roundabouts. Bahrain regained full independence in 1971.
In the middle of the desert, roughly in the middle of the island, stands a small museum sporting marble pillars and a classical architrave, wholly unbefitting of the landscape of nodding donkeys in the vicinity. But the museum has a right to certain pretensions of grandeur; it marks the spot where, in 1932, the Arab world struck gold – black gold, that is – and with it, the entire balance of power in the world was transformed forever. The first well is in the museum grounds, perhaps no longer pumping oil, but with polished pipes and cocks, worthy of the momentousness of its role in modern history. The discovery of oil could not have come at a better time for Bahrain as it roughly coincided with the collapse of the world pearl market, upon which the island’s economy had traditionally been based. Skyrocketing oil revenues allowed the country, under the stewardship of the Al-Khalifa family, to steer a course of rapid modernisation that was a beacon for other countries in the region to follow well into the 1970s and ’80s.
When the oil began to run out, so did the fortunes of the government, and in the last decade of the 20th century the country was shocked by sporadic waves of unrest. The troubles began in 1994 when riots erupted after the emir refused to accept a large petition calling for greater democracy. There was more unrest in April 1995, and again in the spring of 1996, when bombs exploded at both the Diplomat and Meridien (now the Ritz-Carlton Bahrain) hotels.
On 6 March 1999 Sheikh Isa bin Sulman al-Khalifa died and was replaced by his son, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Upon his accession, Sheikh Hamad pledged to introduce a fully elected parliament, hold municipal elections and set up a constitutional monarchy. He also released political prisoners, allowed exiles to return and declared all nationals equal. As a result, the violence of the previous years came to a timely halt. In 2001 a national charter for constitutional reforms was endorsed by the country’s first ever national referendum and a year later, on 14 February, Bahrain was declared a constitutional monarchy and Sheikh Hamad its king. Under this new charter, both men and women are eligible to vote and stand for office, and a system of financial controls and administration has been created to ensure transparency in the government’s finances.
Bahrain, long a byword for a contented gulf state, was rocked by demonstrations in 2011 and 2012, with Arab Spring-inspired protesters with protesters demanding political freedom and equality for the Shia majority in the country. The government called in the Saudi military in 2011 and though protests were quelled anger has continued to fester, hitting the headlines again around the hosting of the Formula 1 Grand Prix in April 2012. An independent commission found that 35 people died in the 2011 protests.