Bahrain means ‘two seas’ in Arabic, and is named after the freshwater springs which pump into the middle of the Arabian Gulf. This local phenomenon resulted in the perfect habitat for some of the rarest natural pearls and led to Bahrain’s historic status as the ‘Pearl of Arabia’.
Archaeological evidence indicates human settlements which date back over 5,000 years, most likely Sumerian traders from the area of modern-day Iraq. By the second millennia BC, the archipelago was known as Dilmun and there are strong indications that it may have been the location of the biblical Garden of Eden.
For three thousand years Bahrain was ruled by Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians, until the Portuguese arrived in 1521. For eight decades they used the island as a military garrison and pearling post, before the Persians wrested back control in 1602. In 1783, Ahmad Bin Khalifa took control and his descendants still lead the country. As with many of the neighbouring states, Bahrain became a British Protectorate in the 19th century, finally achieving independence in 1971.
Present day Bahrain is a modern, progressive society which is reducing its reliance on the oil industry to focus on commerce and tourism. Its land mass comprises just 741 square kilometres and is home to around one million residents.
A tiny archipelago of 33 islands with 161km of coastline, many of Bahrain’s finest attractions lay in its white sandy beaches, clear waters and year-round sunshine.
Bahrain’s heritage is extremely well-preserved and the ancient fort, Qal’at al Bahrain, became the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. The archaeological site of a port, its 12-metre-high mound is topped by the heavily restored Qal’at al Burtughal, or Portuguese fort. After wandering through the small but informative site museum, visit the nearby coffee shop to watch locals riding Arabian stallions across the sunset drenched beach.
One of Bahrain’s most curious sights is the ‘Tree of Life’ or Shajarat al Hayah. Twenty minutes drive from Manama, this graffiti-ridden mesquite tree has existed in the middle of the desert – with no visible sign of water – for more than 400 years. Local legend says that those who don’t visit the Tree of Life during their stay will be compelled to return, and the tree is believed to mark the location of the Garden of Eden.
Almost half of Bahrain’s population are expatriates, and this statistic results in the availability of a wealth of different dining experiences from around the world. For every snackbar, takeaway and coffee shop there is a café, restaurant or fine dining destination to choose from, but only hotels are licensed to serve alcohol. You’ll find somewhere to eat on every corner; however, ‘restaurant row’ in Adliya contains more than 25 eateries within a couple of blocks and is a buzzing home for Bahraini cuisine.
For a small country, Bahrain has a surprising amount of bars and nightclubs dotted throughout the northern half of the island. Steer clear of the area around the causeway on Thursday nights – up to 60,000 daily trips are made each weekend across the 23km King Fahd Causeway by Saudi Arabia’s entertainment-hungry expatriates.
About 20km southeast of Bahrain Island are the Hawar Islands, a cluster of 30 small islands situated 1km off the west coast of Qatar. Reached by a 45-minute boat ride, the unique island environment is a habitat for endangered wildlife species and is much loved by birdwatchers.
The islands are surrounded with coral reefs, and their warm, shallow waters were once a major attraction for pearl divers. These days you’ll be more likely to find scuba divers in the ocean; organise a dive trip from one of the many hotel resorts and you might see one of the area’s rare dugongs, or ‘sea cows’.