Bahrain is steeped in history offering a wealth of heritage sites just waiting to be discovered, creating a heritage trail across the island. Follow the trail and see what treasures you find
Starting Point: Bab Al Bahrain
Bab Al Bahrain is quite possibly Bahrain’s most famous attraction – at least to those in the know anyway – because the modern Kingdom has been built around it. This perfect white palatial building once stood along the waterfront upon its completion in 1949, when surrounding Customs Square was the first thing that sailors saw when arriving into the old port to sell their spices and tea from Asia, Ottoman carpets, and to take fresh pearls to sell in far flung lands.
Since Sir Charles Belgrave, the British advisor to the Emir of Bahrain, unveiled the building before the modern Kingdom emerged, a lot has changed in the surrounding area; towering glass skyscrapers, modern cafes, and countless white SUVs now dominate the reclaimed land along Government Avenue.
Stepping through the archway is like walking back in time. Narrow alleyways full of shops selling colourful spices, gold jewellery, scarves, carpets, and not so old electronics, offer a flavour of what Manama was like before it developed into the modern state of today. Manama Souq, and the handicrafts shops located actually inside Bab Al Bahrain building, is the perfect place to haggle for framed antique khanjar knives from across Arabia, cashmere pashminas from India, wooden puzzle boxes, and Bahraini tea sets. And there are numerous cafes selling local dishes and refreshing drinks after a busy day of shopping.
Point 2: Bahrain National Museum
This showcase modern building on the corniche is not old in its own right, but some of its exhibits are thousands of years old. There are exhibits dedicated to the Dilmun civilisation, the ancient people of Bahrain, including their tools, pottery, and graves; there are also sections that are dedicated to the history of Islam in Bahrain, to the strong and historic Anglo-Bahraini relationship, and to the modern excavations taking place across the Kingdom.
Entry to the striking cream coloured building along the waterfront is 1 Bahraini Dinar per person. If you go before lunch, it’s likely that you’ll get the whole museum to yourself, and if you do see other visitors, they are as likely to be locals dressed in flowing white dishdasha and black hijabs as they are tourists. This is testament to the pride that Bahrain has in its heritage and traditions.
Point 3: Bahrain Fort
Bahrain Fort is by far the oldest intact building in the Kingdom, and is well worth a visit, even if it is a little off the beaten track from central Manama. Officially called Qal’at al-Bahrain, this sandy yellow fortress stands on a small hill overlooking palm plantations on one side, the Persian Gulf on another, and the towering glass towers of Seef district on the other. Bahrain Fort is a small slice of medieval history in an ever-evolving nation.
The geography of this archaeological site has developed over 5,000 years of inhabitation, but the most significant sight is the multi-storey fortress and its Bahraini flag flying at the top of its highest point. Danish archaeologists, led by Geoffrey Bibby, first started excavating the site in the 1950s, and were followed by French archaeologists soon after. Many of the findings, including pottery from China, Persian stone figurines, Greek coins, and a wooden dhow can be seen in the museum at the entrance to the site – and its air conditioning is a welcome retreat from the scorching Bahraini sun outside.
The fort itself is largely a creation of the Portuguese who modified the original Dilmun and Persian installation. Narrow walkways with intricately-carved archways, cool guard rooms, and tall towers offer a small insight into the importance of Bahrain when the Gulf was the focal point of shipping between Europe, Africa and Asia.
Point 4: Al Fateh Grand Mosque
The most famous mosque in the Kingdom, and one of the world’s largest, cannot be missed when in Juffair. The building can comfortably hold 7,000 worshippers at any time and is also the site of Bahrain’s National Library.
The mosque, named after the founder of Bahrain Ahmed Al Fateh, was built on the orders of the late ruler of Bahrain Sheikh Isa ibn Salman Al Khalifa, who wanted a site to symbolise Bahrain’s close relationship with the Islamic faith. The huge dome on top of the main prayer building is made entirely of fibreglass, and it is the world’s largest, the marble flooring was imported from Italy, and the chandeliers were made in Austria; the huge teak wooden doors were also imported from India. Throughout the interior of the Grand Mosque there are calligraphic scripts written in Kufic, an old style of Islamic calligraphic writing.
Point 5: Arad Fort
Arad Fort is a 15th century fortification that once guarded a separate island in Bahrain, prior to being absorbed into Muharraq, and it is a typical example of an Islamic fort prior to the Portuguese invasions in the 16th century. The fort is square is shape, with cylindrical towers on each corner. Along the walls there are small holes where marksmen used to stand with bow and arrows aiming down at the surrounding water channels and to the deserts further afield.
Arad Fort is one of the Middle East’s most important fortified castles, and formed the basis of the various empires that governed Bahrain over the centuries – the Jabrids, Portuguese, Omani, British, and since 1971 the Kingdom of Bahrain. Although the fortress is impressive during the day, with its sand-coloured walls and towering turrets, at night it really comes to life. After dark bright spotlights shine on Arad and create a glow that can be seen from many parts of Muharraq and Manama.
Point 6: Riffa Fort
Also located on Muharraq Island, Riffa Fort was once the seat of power in Bahrain during the rule of Sheikh Salman bin Ahmed. Sheikh Salman, who was born in Riffa Fort, ruled Bahrain between 1869 and 1932 and his former palace is one of the best places in the Kingdom to experience how royalty lived in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The sandstone palace, located in East Riffa, showcases intricate carvings and unique architecture that can only be found in Bahrain. As the Riffa area was the base of Bahrain’s government until 1869, the views from the fort were important, overlooking the Hunanaiya Valley and further afield. At night, spotlights are strategically placed to light up the most impressive sections of the exterior walls, making for a great place to visit after sunset.
Point 7: St. Christopher’s Cathedral
St. Christopher’s Cathedral is hidden away in a compound in central Manama, and is more reminiscent of Mediterranean architecture than the Gulf. The Anglican cathedral church, which is part of the Church of England’s Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, demonstrates the religious tolerance across Bahrain, which dates back more than a century. The pure white building with a huge black cross above its main entrance door, with stained glass windows, is an interesting and unique place to visit or worship when in Bahrain.
Point 8: Sheikh Isa bin Ali House
The residence of Sheikh Isa bin Ali between 1869 and 1932, the former ruler of Bahrain, this icon of Muharraq Island is perhaps the best-preserved example of 19th century royal architecture in the Kingdom. The palace is divided into 4 sections, one showcasing the family wing where Sheikh Isa’s family lived, the second is the Sheikh’s personal wing where Isa spent his time, the third is the guest wing where visitors stayed, and the fourth is the attendant’s wing, where Sheikh Isa’s servants lived.
Before oil was discovered in the Gulf, the royal families could ill afford to splurge on luxurious wall coverings and works of art, so they commissioned local Islamic artists to decorate their stone walls with carvings and paintings. Some of the rooms in Sheikh Isa bin Ali House display intricate Islamic bas reliefs and impressive carved wooden window shutters. For a taste of pre-oil royal life in the Gulf, Sheikh Isa’s house is well worth a visit.
Point 9: Siyadi House
Before the discovery of oil in Bahrain, it was not uncommon to find pearl merchants who were substantially wealthier than the ruling family. The Siyadi House is an almost palace-like building in Muharraq where Bahrain’s wealthiest pearl merchant once lived. Merchant Abdullah bin Isa Siyadi commissioned the building of his own personal palace 1910, complete with intricately carved walls, wooden sculptures, and geometric designs that were well ahead of their years.
In the same compound as the house there is a mosque that was built on the orders of the Siyadi family in 1865. The mosque’s minaret is unusual in its design because of the coral stone that was used for its construction; the minaret structure has smooth rounded walls and a domed top. The mosque is still in use for daily prayers today, and is the oldest preserved mosque on Muharraq Island.
Bahrain is not short of heritage places to visit, and this list is definitely not exhaustive. The Kingdom houses Dilmun, Portuguese, Omani, British, and post-1971 Bahraini architectural gems dotted across both islands of the Kingdom. One thing is for sure, Bahraini history is present throughout the country and Bahraini heritage is thriving.