Dilmun, the Ancient Garden of Eden

History in Bahrain is nowhere more intriguing than among the 85,000 burial mounds that now lump, curdle and honeycomb 5% of the island’s landmass. Archaeologists have recently confirmed Bahrain as the seat of the lost and illustrious empire of Dilmun (3200–330 BC), whose influence spread as far north as modern Kuwait and as far inland as Al Hasa Oasis in eastern Saudi Arabia.

According to Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian inscriptions, the island’s residents were not only commercially active but also attentive to matters at home. The proper burial of the sick, disabled and young in elaborate chambers, together with their chattels of ceramics, glass and beads (carefully displayed at the Bahrain National Museum), suggest an enlightened civilisation of considerable social and economic development, assisted by the perpetual abundance of ‘sweet’, or 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 around 1800 BC, Dilmun’s strength fell with it, leaving the island vulnerable to the predatory interests of the surrounding big powers. By 600 BC Dilmun was absorbed entirely by Babylon and was subsequently ceded to Greece. The Greeks called the island Tylos, a name it kept for nearly a thousand years (from 330 BC to AD 622), despite Greek rule enduring for less than 100 years. Little distinguishes the history of Bahrain from that of the rest of the Gulf thereafter until the 16th century.

Pearls & the Founding of Modern Bahrain

Take a stroll through Muharraq, and you'll quickly learn the significance of the pearl trade to Bahrain. Sweet water from springs under the sea mingling with the brackish waters of the shallow oyster beds contributes to the particular colour and lustre of Bahrain’s pearls, and it was upon the value of these that Bahrain grew into one of the most important trading posts in the region.

A ‘fish eye’ (the ancient name for a pearl) dating back to 2300 BC found in the excavations at Saar suggests that pearling was an activity during the days of Dilmun. It was an unglamorous industry in which local divers worked with little more than a nose-peg and a knife in shark-infested waters and were hauled up with their bounty by ‘pullers’ working long and sun-baked shifts from June to October. At the height of the pearling industry, some 2500 dhows (traditional cargo boats) were involved, and loss of life was common.

Pearling was something of a mixed blessing in other ways as well, 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 Bahrain Fort, one of their typical sea-facing compounds, on the northern shore. Their rule was short-lived, however, and by 1602 they were ousted by the Persians.

Pearls played a hand in the country's modern incarnation too, for it was this lucrative trade that first attracted the Al Khalifa family that now rules Bahrain to the area from their original stronghold in Al Zubara, on the northwestern edge of the Qatar peninsula. The Al Khalifa were responsible for driving the Persians from Bahrain in around 1782. They were themselves routed by a later Omani invasion, but returned in 1820 and have ruled the country since.

Relationship with the British

The symbol of the capital city, Bab Al Bahrain, was built by Charles Dalrymple Belgrave, British adviser to Sheikh Salman Ibn Hamad Al Khalifa, in 1949. Today, this twin arched entrance to Manama Souq stands as a constant reminder of the proximity of relations between the two countries.

The relationship began in the 19th century, when piracy was rife in the Gulf and Bahrain had gained a reputation as an entrepôt, where captured goods were traded for supplies for the next raid. The British, anxious to secure their trade routes with India, brought the island within the folds of the trucial system (the ‘truce’ or treaty system of protection against piracy, which included states that now form the United Arab Emirates). In hindsight, this could almost be dubbed invasion by stealth: 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. Bahrain regained full independence in 1971, but it only takes a walk through certain neighbourhoods popular with the sizeable expatriate British community, with its emphasis on full English breakfasts and high teas, to see that the British are not just a part of the island's history.

Oil: Bahrain's Black Gold

Roughly in the middle of the country's main island stands a small museum sporting marble pillars and a classical architrave, wholly incongruous amid the surrounding landscape of nodding donkeys. 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 that, the entire financial 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, the fortunes of the government started to turn, 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, culminating in the hotel bombings of 1996. Despite some concessions, including the establishment of a constitutional monarch in 2002, the political tensions have yet to be fully resolved.

Arab Spring Uprising

In the spring of 2011, inspired by the scenes in Tunisia and Egypt, people across the Middle East and North Africa began taking to the streets in an outpouring of anger towards their leaders.

Members of Bahrain's marginalised Shiite community, led by the country's main opposition party, Al Wefaq, took their cue from this, and in scenes that echoed Cairo's Tahrir Sq, demonstrators occupied Pearl Roundabout in central Manama for days, effectively bringing the city to a standstill. They were joined by some non-sectarian demonstrators calling for greater democracy. The protests were the surfacing of ancient sectarian tensions between the country's ruling Sunni elite and the Shiite majority. The scenes, the worst in the country since the 1990s, led to calls to overthrow Bahrain's ruling family, the Al Khalifas.

A brutal response came on 17 February 2011, as pre-dawn government raids on the demonstrators' encampment left four protesters dead and hundreds injured. A month later, Bahrain called in troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to clear the protests and destroy the pearl statue that had become the symbol of the demonstrations, before declaring a three-month state of emergency. During this period of high alert, a huge crackdown led to thousands of arrests and the systematic torture of some of those involved, as international governments and human-rights organisations strongly criticised the use of force in dispelling protesters.

Demonstrations continued across the country, emerging from the villages and towns with majority Shiite populations, right up until November 2012, when the government made public gatherings illegal. Since then, sporadic attacks on police stations, arrests of opposition activists and government accusations of Iranian complicity in 'terrorism' on Bahraini soil have continued.