The old and the new sit easy in Bahrain. The 33-island archipelago, nestled between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the Arabian Gulf, hosts towering skyscrapers next to mosques, spiffy malls alongside souks and Michelin-star eateries besides hole-in-the-wall kebab joints. Despite overarching Arabian and Persian influences, capital city Manama is packed with enough cosmopolitanism —instagrammable locations, luxury hotels, chic restaurants, theatres, night clubs, bars—to give its glamorous peer Dubai a run for its money.
Known as the original Garden of Eden, Manama is also home to an array of natural attractions— man-made islands, the Persian Gulf rimmed with azure waters, turquoise lagoons, stunning reefs and of course the "disappearing” island of Jarada which appears in the ebb and disappears with the tide's flow.
I begin my city tour with Manama Souk famed for its pearl and gold jewellery shops. Located in the warren of streets behind the famous “Bab al-Bahrain”, the souk is an Alibaba's cave of assorted goodies. Shops going back centuries brim with a cornucopia of goods—Turkish and Moroccan lamps/glassware, frankincense, spices, sheesha bottles, garments, shoes, carpets, ittar—after an immersive experience of retail therapy, I head to a local cafe to enjoy creamy homemade icecreams available in a mind boggling array of flavours—zaffran, ittar, khus khus, kewra, allspice. Needless to say I had a tough time choosing just one.
Next stop: Al Fateh Mosque. One of the Gulf's largest shrines at 6,500 square metres, the historic mosque can accommodate a whopping 7,000 people. It also houses an Islamic centre, a department for Quranic studies and an Islamic library. As we perambulate the shrine, we notice its Italian marble clad floors and doors (made of teak wood imported from India) inlaid with intricate carvings. The mosque's fibreglass dome, accoutred with 12 stained glass windows, is the world's largest such construction we're told while the central chandelier crafted in Austria is surrounded by hand-blown round lamps imported from France.
Manama is peppered with UNESCO World Heritage sites. One such construction is the 16th century Bahrain Fort or Qala’at al-Bahrain constructed under Portuguese domination. It was built around the Persian Gulf to protect the country's prized spice trade routes. As I nip up to its vertiginous top, a panoramic view of the city opens out before me like a medieval painting. To my left shimmer the green-blue waters of the Persian Gulf, while to my right stretch the 4,000-year-old ruins of the Dilmun civilisation referenced in Sumerian writings of the Bronze Age.
The island nation's premier showcase, the Bahrain Museum in Manama, offers a fascinating peek into the 5,000-year-old Bahraini civilisation. It mainly houses artefacts from the ancient Dilmun civilisation that flourished in the region for millennia. The largest and one of the oldest public museums in the Gulf, millions of dollars were funnelled into building it as part of the country's larger drive to preserve its heritage and history. The multi-tiered museum's first floor recreates a souk, the second one has a display of art and sculptures while other floors showcase Dilmun seals, pottery and other excavated objects.
One of Manama's most photographed sites are the Dilmun Burial Grounds where thousands of graves dating as far back as 4,000 years greet one. It is believed that over 350,000 ancient burial mounds cover the area spanning a period of 1,000 years. Story goes that the mounds are where Adam and Eve came from. Others believe the site to be the world's largest pre-historic burial plot. Some mounds also hold copper and bronze weapons, others entomb jewellery and pottery. All exhibits tell the story of the unique Dilmun civilisation that spread across swathes of Mesopotamia, South Arabia and India..
No visit to Manama is complete without a visit to the beautiful city of Muharraq, Bahrain's erstwhile capital. Its winding alleyways host exquisite 19th century town houses of pearl merchants which now stand restored. As we wind our way through the streets, the guide points to the Sheikh Isa Bin Ali House, with its ornate panelling and carved doors. Exhibits at the Bin Matar House trace the history of Bahrain's pearling industry. Another traditional building, Siyadi House, once belonged to a 19th-century pearl merchant, the guide informs us as we soak in the freshly whitewashed area splashed with vibrant graffiti.
Overlooking these historic houses is the 15th century Arad Fort. Souk al Qaisariya, also the cornerstone of Muharraq Souk, is famed for its pearls and spices. We next visit the Al Oraifi Museum which showcases artworks from the Dilmun civilisation including masterpieces by the 20th-century Bahraini artist Rashid Al Oraifi. At the nearby Kurar House, local women keep alive the tradition of Kurar embroidery, weaving threads of gossamer gold into silken cloth as we watch fascinated their deft fingers flying in and out of the garments!