World Heritage #1192 – Qal’at al-Bahrain

Published 12.04.2024Bahrain, Middle East and Africa, World Heritage Sites

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The Qal’at al-Bahrain is an archaeological site with remains of 4500 years of human activity. Today the Portuguese Fort dominates the view.

The UNESCO World Heritage List includes over a thousand properties. They have outstanding universal value and are all part of the world’s cultural and natural heritage.

Official facts

  • Official title: Qal’at al-Bahrain – Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun
  • Country: Bahrain
  • Date of Inscription: 2005
  • Category: Cultural

UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre’s short description of site no. 1192:

Qal’at al-Bahrain is a typical tell – an artificial mound created by many successive layers of human occupation. The strata of the 300 × 600 m tell testify to continuous human presence from about 2300 BC to the 16th century AD. About 25% of the site has been excavated, revealing structures of different types: residential, public, commercial, religious and military. They testify to the importance of the site, a trading port, over the centuries. On the top of the 12 m mound there is the impressive Portuguese fort, which gave the whole site its name, qal’a (fort). The site was the capital of the Dilmun, one of the most important ancient civilizations of the region. It contains the richest remains inventoried of this civilization, which was hitherto only known from written Sumerian references.

About it

Dilmun, an ancient civilization in Eastern Arabia, flourished from the 3rd millennium BC onward. Positioned in the Persian Gulf, it served as a crucial trade hub between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, covering modern Bahrain, Kuwait, and eastern Saudi Arabia. Mentioned in Sumerian mythology, Dilmun was depicted as a utopian realm. It controlled Persian Gulf trade routes and was a significant source of copper. The Sumerian tale of Dilmun’s paradise may have inspired the Garden of Eden story. UNESCO writes that the Qal’at al-Bahrain is an exceptional example of more or less unbroken continuity of occupation over a period of almost 4500 years, from about 2300 BC to the present, on the island of Bahrain. I might add that the Greeks were here too, in the times of Alexander the Great.

Much later the Portuguese arrived and managed to rule the country from 1521 until 1602. During these years they built a massive fort on top of the mound. Later the fort was expanded and taken over by subsequent rulers of Bahrain.

My visit

I was on a guided tour to what this site has become, the most popular tourist destination in Bahrain. Busloads of cruise tourists and others were fed into the large car park and released on a walk past the apparently quite modest archaeological site and up to the fortress. Unlike most others, our group walked around it, it is massive, and returned to the bus.

I must admit, and agree with other commentaries that the fort looks very much restored and even reconstructed. Therefore it might come as a surprise that it actually won the reward of becoming a UNESCO site. Nonetheless, it enjoys a very fine location right on a shallow beach. I trust UNESCO that the result we may explore today is actually as authentic as it can be. One might wonder however how it was able to function as a port, given the shallow sea.

There is a small museum, closed on our visit. In addition there is an excellent pathway around the fortress with universal access to even wheelchairs. It is possible to get inside the fortress, and I am very sorry that we didn’t. Arriving here during the month of Ramadan turns everything upside down when it comes to opening hours etc.

Possible fun facts: There is a cannon near the path when you leave the car park. It is used when it is time for the afternoon prayer (at least during Ramadan). There are fresh water springs bubbling up on the sandy beach between the museum and the fortress/excavation area.

Getting there: If you are on your own, walk from Seef Mall or Bahrain Mall, depending on time of year, beware of the summer heat. Driving yourself is easy in Bahrain.

There is more to learn about the Dilmun civilisation in the National museum in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. Also, read more in Sandalsand’s article from a second World Heritage Site in Bahrain, the Dilmun burial mounds.

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