A kaleidoscope of culture, history, food, arts and crafts, Bahrain has many secrets up its sleeve that you can discover when you visit the heart of the Gulf.
Known as Dilmun in the past Bahrain is an island country in the Persian Gulf and is the third smallest nation in Asia. The cluster of 33 islands sits right in the middle of the Gulf and it is no wonder that the tourism department has branded the country just that, ‘Ours. Yours.’
I start my sojourn at Manama the capital of the country and my first stop was at the beautiful Al Fateh Grand Mosque. The cream hued exterior façade and large dome makes for a compelling sight on the outside and this is a space open to everyone irrespective of their religion. Built in 1988, the mosque and was named after Bahrain’s founder Ahmed Al-Fateh. Spread over a huge 6500 square meter space, the mosque can have 7000 worshippers. There is a guided tour you can take here which is recommended and they are quite flexible with both the language and time you have at your disposal to take you around. The only condition they have is that you must be barefoot and also be dressed appropriately covering your arms and legs. If not, simply wear the hijab and head gear that is available to all. The interiors of the mosque has the world’s largest fiberglass dome and has Italian marble flooring, Austrian chandeliers, Indian teak wood doors and calligraphy writing of words from the Quran. There is a large library here with some books over a 100 years old. High on design sensibilities, the muted colours of the mosque add to the calm vibe and the only colour I saw was in the stunning red, blue and green stained glass windows on the top all around the central dome. When you are here, just be mindful that this is a place of worship so be sensitive to people who are praying and ensure you do not click their pictures. Being known for its rich trading history, there are many archaeological sites here and a stop at the Bahrain National Museum is a great way to come up close with the same. Built on the edge of the sea in 1988, the exhibitions halls showcase artefacts uncovered in the numerous arch sights in Bahrain unpinning the long standing history of the island. The rich collection covers 6000 years of Bahrain’s history. There are also spaces dedicated to local customs and tradition, featuring cloth, housing, rituals and traditional crafts. Next to this is the exquisite Bahrain National Theatre, a cultural center whose intricate ceiling is inspired by traditional Bahraini homes and the crisscross aluminum strips ensure light and air filter in. The design is inspired by the sailing culture of the country and the curvy design of the auditorium is an ode to this sentiment. The theater hosts musical and theatrical shows regularly.
An interesting museum that I recommend you see if the House of Quran or the Bait al Quran. Engraved with Arabic script, this building has a large collection of Quranic manuscripts and a library of over 50000 books centered around Islam in various languages. There are manuscripts dating back to the 7th century with some Qurans on old parchment paper. Said to be the only institute dedicated to the Quran, the building houses a mosque, an auditorium, a religious school, madrasa, a museum and hosts art exhibitions as well. Towards the evening, head to the Qalat al-Bahrain site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a sound and light show that takes your through the fascinating history of the country. Located atop a 17.5 hectare hill, this is the site of the former capital of Dilmun and excavations over the past 50 years are a mirror to the country’s history. The show itself is an interactive audio-visual experience that takes you on a journey back in time through the Dilmun civilization and the epic of Gilgamesh. The show is a lovely experience under the moonlight and must be on your itinerary when you are here.
Culture Trip in Muharraq
Muharraq, the former capital of Bahrain has been declared as Bahrain’s capital of Islamic Culture for 2018 is home to many restored traditional Bahraini houses. Walking through the narrow lanes and byways, there is a photo opportunity a minute. The Sheikh Isa bin Ali House here is an ode to Gulf Islamic architecture and showcases the 19th century royal life and has four courtyards around which many rooms are arranged. Carved wooden doors, wind towers, perforated gypsum panels and draft towers to control weather, this is a space which is an eye opener to how life in the past was. Also stop by at the Sheikh Ebrahim Bin Mohamed Al Khalifa Center for Culture and Research that showcases the embroidery at Kurar House, Bahrain’s pearl history at the Bin Matar House and is a fine example of conservation of the country’s rich art and cultural traditions. Maison Jamsheer another traditional courtyard house here hosts art exhibitions and film screenings regularly. While you are here stop by at Suq AlQaisariya an old market place that has a quaint charm that is unmissable. I also suggest a stop at the 15th century Arad Fort that is a fortified castle close to the shallow seashore and was a defense space in the past.
Thrills & Spills
For an adrenalin rush, you must visit the Bahrain International Circuit, home of motor sports in Bahrain for the 4X4 Land Rover tour. This is a 45 minute ride that will take you over several hurdles in a vehicle that is so robust that it is impossible not to enjoy the experience. Our driver Mehmood was excellent and being a race car driver, diving seemed to be in his genes. As he navigated on a steep flight of stairs, through deep water, sand, rock and hilly terrains, the 3.5 km stretch includes 32 varying man made obstacles. After this you can also tour the facilities and also head to the top level that gives you a bird’s eye view of the stunning circuit that is rightfully called ‘The Home of Motorsport in the Middle East.’ This apart, there is a state of the art karting track as well here that is open to visitors that is a fun activity. For some more wheel adventures head to one of the many desert camps here for a Quad bike experience. Driving these bikes (available for kids too) is an experience that is a must for its sheer fun and exhilaration on the desert sands. Follow this up with a bonfire and dinner accompanied by a sterling performance by traditional musicians and you know that you have spent the evening well.
Art of the Matter
Interestingly the Al Jasra Handicraft Centre is an ode to all things related to art and culture. The artisans and craftsmen here have independent workshops here and the best part is that visitors can enter inside and interact with them personally. This is where you can see traditional music instruments, pottery making, basket weaving, cloth weaving, wood working, box making and also boat making or dhow making as well. Located in the vicinity is Beit Al Jasra or Jasra House built in 1907 and restored in 1986 and has traditional building materials like palm leaf trunks, gypsum and coral stones. The home was once the summer home of former ruler Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa and has several rooms including a sitting, living and family room, kitchen and date juice extraction center as well. Done up with traditional artefacts, furniture and furnishings, each room is a great example of how the people in the past lived their lives.
Shopaholics will love this country and I would recommend a visit to the Manama Souq and Bab Al Bahrain to pick up spices, dates, incense, clothes, perfumes, handicrafts and souvenirs. Step into one of the traditional cafes for some local Arabic coffee. For a more organized shopping experience head to the City Centre Mall and Seef Mall that have a good mix of local and global brands. Do make time to take a drive on the King Fahad Causeway that actually connects you to Saudi Arabia and it is an interesting sight to ‘see’ another country on the other side of the immigration gates! Being an island, the beaches here are beautiful and a visit to Marassi is the perfect way to enjoy the beach life. Perfectly laid out – this beach is a delight and the waters are quite calm. Grab a coffee and light snacks and sink into a bean bag and enjoy the cool breeze. Else indulge in a spot of water sports or play beach volley ball. Else head to the beach restaurants and tuck into delectable local cuisine – this beach has it all. For me however it was a stunningly beautiful sunset here that will remain forever etched in my memory. Much like the rest of Bahrain – what’s not to love about this delightful country?
Reach: Gulf Air has daily flights from several cities in India.
Stay: There are several accommodation options here and Hotel Wyndham Grand Manama is a great choice with rooms that have a lovely view of the city and an array of restaurant options.
Shop: Bahrain is well known for its natural pearls as they are formed between fresh underwater springs and sea water and come with a certificate of authenticity.