Bahrain and the Dilmun Civilisation

Building on this rich legacy, a country can face the future with confidence knowing that with its distinctive cosmopolitan past and ancient civilization, it can easily and effortlessly blend with present-day modern…

Visiting a friend in Bahrain for one or two weeks in summer can be very challenging especially if one is an outdoors person. The August heat varies between 31 to 41 degrees on any day. But life has now become more tolerable in modern cities built in tropical climates as a result of air conditioning facilities. The apartments are air-conditioned, you travel in air-conditioned cars and the vast malls are air-conditioned too. These malls have become public spaces where visitors, expatriates and the richer section of the population can spend their time shopping, for these vast shopping centres contain all the world brands so that one can buy almost anything needed from the cradle to the grave. In the evening when it is slightly less hot, one can take an evening walk past apartment blocks along the boulevards lined with trees and plants all watered with automatic irrigation. In the luxurious hotels or apartment blocks one can sunbath by the pools or spend some time in a gym.

Many of the modern cities in the Gulf States are not organic cities and had been planned and built from scratch by architects. Their skyscrapers, tower blocks, apartments and bungalows are all modern. They consist of administrative, commercial and residential buildings for business and cater for transnational professionals who are high income earners. In fact Bahrain is one of the most popular places for expatriates. The economy which rests on petro-dollars has since been diversified and increasingly new pillars of the economy seek to attract banks, accounting and engineering firms and other financial institutions to deliver services and products worldwide. Besides investing in foreign assets, there is also a lot of spending in the domestic economy to create new jobs and build houses. The infrastructure of all these modern cities is embedded in technology.

Spreading over a total area of around 77,000 square meters, Lost Paradise of Dilmun is the largest water park in Bahrain. The park is themed around the ancient Dilmun civilization

In the malls one could see visitors or expatriates from all parts of the world. During the Eid holidays, many of the rich Bahrainis will spend their holidays abroad in the US or Switzerland or Tokyo. The city and its malls attract visitors every weekend from Friday to Saturday from the nearby gulf countries. During the Eid season, the hotels are 90 to 100 per cent full with visitors and tourists. During the last week of the holidays, stores attract lots of parents and their kids busy preparing for the resumption of classes, and offer discount on many school items including stationery, clothes and shoes.

The souk too is modern and clean and its streets and alleys are lined up with its variety of shops filled with goods from various countries. The consumer revolution is a global phenomenon but we are reminded by Professor Frank Trentman in his book ‘Empire of Things’ that the modern consumer culture can be traced to Renaissance Italy, the Ming dynasty 1520-1644, and Netherlands and Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Walking inside the souk, one feels one could be in any of the popular shopping areas around the world with almost the same kind of goods one would have come across in India, Singapore or Thailand. Here the shoppers are mostly Indian migrants from various states of India, and according to some figures, there are in Bahrain 350,000 Indians and 40000 Filipinos in a population of about 1.3 million.

Today Bahrain has been identified as the site of the ancient Dilmun civilization. While people remember Mesopotamia, Sumer and the Indus civilizations, Dilmun civilization was forgotten completely. Yet the name Dilmun appears in one of the earliest poems written in cuneiform on clay tablets 4000 years ago. It was referred to as Paradise Island and appeared in many other cuneiform writings and in Mesopotamian mythologies. It was there that the epic hero of Gilgamesh went to look for the flower of eternity but allowed a serpent to eat it and thus deprive mankind of its benefit. Several writings from Mesopotamia and Sumer written in cuneiform on tablets also refer to Dilmun.

At one time the town of Dilmun that appeared in many literary sources of Mesopotamia and Sumer was thought to refer to the Indus civilization. But archaeological discoveries in the 1950s have put this hypothesis to rest after the excavation of the old city of Dilmun on the island of Bahrain. Today Qal’at al-Bahrain, capital of Dilmun is a Unesco World Heritage Site with an unbroken continuity of occupation between 4000 BC to 2300 BC on the island. The city port of Dilmun was already a globalized centre in the ancient past. Although I missed the opportunity to visit the heritage site, with the ruins of the ancient ports, temples, sea tower, its urban and defensive structures, a visit to the National Museum provides a rounded picture of this ancient civilization.

The exhibits and artifacts displayed in the Museum reveal that Bahrain is not only a modern state but was also an ancient civilization. Dilmun was the strategic port city which linked Mesopotamia, Sumer and the Indus civilizations. Like all coastal Indian Ocean communities, the port town was a cosmopolitan trading centre attracting merchants from many places and shipping goods from the Indus to Mesopotamia. We learn a lot about the ancient life and culture. From objects in  the burial mounds, one can conclude that these ancient inhabitants believed in an afterlife and the different types of objects, which accompanied the dead, indicate the stratification of the society at that time…

Besides its prehistoric religion and culture, with its temples and ancient gods, one can see the evolution of the Arabic numerals and during the early Islamic period, see ways of printing and various editions of the Koran and other aspects of Islamic life and culture. One can learn about local occupations, crafts, pearl fishing, art and the weaving tradition. There is a display of women clothing including the traditional Bahraini wedding dress as well as jewellery. One exhibit pictures women gathering round a bride on the eve of the wedding singing songs of hope for the future bride, reminding  us of similar Indian traditions.

Today Bahrain can project itself to the world as a modern state but with a rich historical past – the Dilmun civilization taking a place of pride among the most ancient civilizations of the world. Building on this rich legacy, a country can face the future with confidence knowing that with its distinctive cosmopolitan past and ancient civilization, it can easily and effortlessly blend with present-day modern Bahrain and endow it with a distinctive identity among the Gulf States in an era of globalization.

* Published in print edition on 13 September 2018

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