The Kingdom of Bahrain comprises an archipelago of 33 islands situated in the Arabian Gulf off the east coast of Saudi Arabia. In global geographical terms, Bahrain can be found more or less at 26°0'N, 50°33'E.
The name Bahrain is believed to be derived from the two Arabic words thnain Bahr meaning 'two seas', which perhaps refer to the phenomenon of sweet water springs which exist under the sea, especially along the northern shoreline.
Archaeological evidence in the form of flint tools found on the island suggests that agriculture may have been practised in Bahrain as early as 8,000 BC. Perhaps more significantly from an archaeological perspective, Bahrain, with an abundance of fresh water in the form of springs and shallow wells, was a natural stop-over point for vessels trading between Sumer and the civilisations of the Indus Valley, and is commonly believed to be the seat of the lost civilisation of Dilmun, the 3,000 BC Bronze Age paradise described in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The land is repeatedly mentioned in Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian inscriptions. Around 600 BC, Bahrain was incorporated into the expanding and flourishing Babylonian empire, and then in 323 BC it attracted the attentions of the Macedonian Emperor, Alexander the Great, who named it Tylos.
The ancestral line of the contemporary monarchy, the Al Khalifa family, can be traced back to Ahmed Al Fatih (The Conqueror) who is believed to have arrived in Bahrain from the East Coast of Qatar in 1783. In 1820, Ahmed's sons, Salman and Abdullah, signed a treaty with the British East India Company, and in 1861 the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship was signed with Britain, thereby making Bahrain a British Protectorate. Bahrain announced its independence from UK 14 August, 1971, and independence from British protection on 16 December, 1971.
Since then, the nation was first ruled as an independent Arab Emirate under the leadership of the Amir, Shaikh Isa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, and subsequently (upon his passing) by his son, Shaikh Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa who came to power on 6 March, 1999. Almost immediately, Shaikh Hamad embarked on a 'modernisation of government' programme by producing a National Action Charter. On 14 February, 2001, His Excellency, the Amir was given overwhelming support for endorsement of the sentiments of the Charter and a year to the day later, on 14 February, 2002, Bahrain was pronounced a Kingdom, and the Amir was pronounced King.
The largest island, Bahrain Island, measuring roughly 50km by 16km, is 586.5km2 in area and together with the smaller islands of Muharraq, Sitra and Um Al Nassan, to which it is linked by causeways, forms the bulk of the 707km2 aggregate land area of the kingdom. To international travellers, its size may be compared with Singapore, or Washington DC. The archipelago was extended in 2001 when the International Court of Justice ruled that Hawar Islands, to the south-east of Bahrain near to the Qatar coast should become under Bahraini jurisdiction.
The central area of Bahrain Island is low lying and barren limestone rock covered with saline sand, which supports only the hardiest desert vegetation. The highest point in Bahrain is the Jabel Dukhan, ('Mountain of Smoke'), a solid 134 metres above sea level.
Around and About
Despite good-natured local resistance, Bahrain essentially consists (from a human perspective) of one city, Manama, which is also the national capital. Most other population centres exist as satellites to Manama, which itself sits on the northern shore-line of the main island.
To the east, linked currently by three causeways1 is the island Muharraq, traditionally and still to some extent a hub of fishing villages but, as the physical and figurative gap between Manama and Muharraq closes, is increasingly a dormitory suburb of the Capital. Muharraq also plays host to the international airport, as well as providing a link to the industrial area of Hidd.
South of Manama, across a further causeway is Sitra, another industrial hub. Close by, heading west, are the towns of Riffa, Awali, Isa Town (for the National Stadium) and Hamad Town, in which Bahrain University is situated.
Out west, close to the causeway link to Saudi Arabia are the villages of Budaiya and Saar, both of which have expanded into suburbs of Manama.
A round-trip would take around two hours without breaking speed-limits.
Before the discovery of fossil fuels, Bahrain's economy relied on its position as a trading port and the harvesting of pearls, which are distinguished by a unique lustre, possibly as a result of the 'fresh'(or 'sweet') spring water interacting with the seawater on the seabed.
The first oil in the Middle East was discovered in Bahrain at Awali in 1931. In 2002, the Awali field had estimated oil reserves of 148 million barrels, and is currently producing around 35,000 barrels per day, a somewhat lowly figure. Additionally, as a refiner of imported Saudi crude, it has petroleum revenues that comprise Bahrain's largest single source of income.
Aluminum manufacturing is the second-largest industry after petroleum, accounting (in 1999) for 26% of exports by value.
Places of Interest
Any visitor, or indeed resident, ought to pay a visit to the National Museum which houses exhibits featuring all manner of Bahraini existence, culture and heritage. A second museum, the Oil Museum, situated near 'Oil Well No 1' in Awali celebrates the discovery of oil in Bahrain and the Middle East. Beyond, the museums, perhaps garnering most tourist attention is Bahrain's 'Tree of Life', a lone flourishing mesquite tree among the oil fields south of Awali, whose existence often fuels stories that Bahrain was the original Garden of Eden.
Further south Al Areen Wildlife Park, established in 1975 as a result of the (then) Crown Prince's interest in falconry, is home to the National Commission for Wildlife Protection. The 8km2 compound is also home to many indigenous flora and fauna in an effort to protect and breed endangered species, while simultaneously educating the public in environmental issues.
If you like forts, Bahrain has three prize ones. Near to the airport on Muharraq is Arad Fort, a 16th Century fort of Arabic construction. Bahrain Fort, also known as the Portuguese Fort, located west of Manama, dates back to the early 16th Century when it was constructed to defend Portugal's recent acquisition of the island, although the site is believed to date back to Dilmun (3000BC). And finally there's Riffa Fort, an 18th Century fort that was also once a dwelling. Other architectural places of interest include the Bab Al-Bahrain ('Gateway of Bahrain') which was designed by Sir Charles Belgrave in 1945 to house the government offices of that time, and Shaikh Isa's House, in the Old Town of Muharraq which is preserved as a museum and provides a valuable insight into traditional 19th Century Bahraini life.
Further, as may be expected, there are plenty of Mosques in Bahrain, most of which are open to non-Muslim visitors subject to compliance with certain conditions ie, visits are permitted only outside prayer times, and appropriate dress should be worn. Probably one of the most impressive Mosques is Al Fateh Mosque, a hugely-impressive and beautiful sandstone-coloured structure on the eastern sea front just south of Manama proper. Most famously, however, is Al-Khamis Mosque, which is considered to be one of the oldest relics of Islam in the region. The foundations are believed to have been laid as early as the 11th Century. Al-Khamis, however is in something of a state of disrepair and is not open to visitors. Scholars of Islam (although all visitors are welcome) may also care to visit the Bait Al-Qur'an ('The House of the Koran'), which was constructed to accommodate a unique and valuable collection of Holy Korans and manuscripts.
Then, situated near to Isa Town are the 'ali Burial Mounds', some of which date back to 3000 BC. As high as 15 metres high, the 'Royal Tombs' are situated at 'ali village. Also to be found in 'ali is traditional pottery and a traditional Arabic bakery. Other handicraft centres worth a visit are the dhow builders, who reflect Bahrain's sea-faring traditions, and the basket weavers at Karbabad who work with date-palm.
The following useful Country Profiles provide a feast of facts and figures about Bahrain: