Bab Al Bahrain
The Englishman, Sir Charles Belgrave, wrote of Bahrain in 1927: The jetty is fascinating, filled with hustling and bustling and dhows. One can see the sailors from the Gulf and faraway countries, sailors from Sur and Muscat with pronounced feathers dressed in ochre robes and yellow turbans. Persian sailors with ample sleeves and shawls over their chests; Indians and Malabari selling parrots, crews and coolies sing, edging their way along the waterfront, loading and unloading cargoes in an unceasing ballet.
Bab Al Bahrain, which literally means the 'gateway to Bahrain', lies just south of Manama's main thoroughfare, Government Avenue. When it was built, Bab Al Bahrain was the Customs House, the original house of government until bureaucracy outgrew its modest proportions. Its origins go back to the days when Government Avenue was a seafront address before the surrounding land was reclaimed.
Structurally, its broad arches mark the border between old and new Manama, behind it the souk or the marketplace, which is old in atmosphere. In front, the modern buildings stretched along the reclaimed sea shore. Another landmark of old Manama is the nearby Museum of Pearl Diving on Customs Square, formerly the Law Courts.
Electronic goods, gold, and women's clothing seem to be the main stock in trade at the souk, but in the great tradition of Middle Eastern markets, almost anything can be found if you look long and hard enough. The back streets of the souk are great places to wander and stop for a chat the vendors even if you'are not the market to buy.
The souk is a warren of narrow streets crammed with tiny shops where colour and noice, scents and flavours mingle in oriental profusion. The contents of the shops spill out on to the streets - cloths, jewellery, toys, household wares, perfumes, incense, video recorders, every shop different and inviting. The cloth souk is profusion of colour from thousands of bolts of materials brought from far and wide, from the most expensive pure silks to the least expensive cottons and synthetics in every colour, pattern and texture imaginable. Much of it is on view blowing in the wind outside shops to give the impression of a hundred rainbows. Bahrain's Gold Souk is renowned among travellers in he know as a treasure trove from where to buy gold jewellery and ornaments at excellent prices. Buyers have the protection of Bahrain's hallmarking system to reassure them they are purchasing the real McCoy. Items of 18 carat and over are identified by a mark of the national flag.
Modern Manama stands in sharp contrast to its heritage. Many of the newer hotels and official buildings along the northern edge of the city sit on reclaimed land, while neighbourhoods a few blocks inland have changed little in the last 50 years. The city is located at the northeastern tip of the country. The Al-Fatih Mosque, the largest in the country, holds up to 7000 worshippers and welcomes non-Muslim visitors to take a guided tour, complete with explanations of the Islamic customs performed therein.
The Diplomatic Area
The hustle and bustle of modern Bahrain is dramatically evident upon approach to the downtown district know as the Diplomatic Area. Clustered on reclaimed land and occupying the prestigious sea frontage from the old town are the symbols of progress: Modern glass-fronted high rises housing a plethora of banks and finance companies, insurance offices, multi-national and regional corporate headquarters and government departments.
Muharraq, home of the Bahrain International Airport and related facilities, has resisted much of the modernisation that has developed Manama in recent years. Its souk is more traditional and even more interesting than Manama's souk. It is in Muharraq that one will find several well-preserved traditional houses, the Bait Shaikh Isa Bin Ali and the Bait Seyadi, both dating from the early 19th century. Bait Shaikh Isa Bin Ali features beautiful plasterwork and carved doors and has a functioning and picturesque wind tower. One wonders what genius of mankind prompted the design of the ingenious wind tower all those years ago, evidence of which still crowns ancient homes bedecked with ornate balconies.
A visit to the 16th century Abu Mahir Fort is a must, where visitors are allowed to climb the watchtower and observe the excellent view of the Manama skyline. Its sister fort, the Qal'at Arad, also dates from the Portuguese era and has been handsomely restored for all to experience what the past may have offered. The small dhow-building yard is a prime location from where to see the traditional craft of fishing boats being built or restored.
Sitra lies close off the northeast shore and is linked to Bahrain island by causeway, a quick route between Manama and the bulk of industrial plants in Bahrain. BAPCO's oil storage tanks, ALBA's aluminium terminal, a petrochemical plant, power statin, and a desalination plant are all located in Sitra. It stores oil fed by pipeline from Bahrain's mighty refinery and aluminium ore is delivered by overhead cable to the ALBA aluminium smelter.
Sitra is also a densely populated residential neighbourhood and has one of the prettiest fishing villages and dhow harbours located at Bandar Al Dar. Recreational pleasures are on offer to visitors in south Sitra; where a luxury resort and yacht club welcome all with open arms. Fish is served up on the restaurant menus and guests at the club dine in style overlooking palm-studded and sandy beaches.
In the winter at the foot of Jebel Ad-Dhukan, Bahraini families spend weekends or short vacations enjoying the cool nights in the desert, specked with tents. For a few days, these folks to back to their ancient nomadic ways of living, lighting large campfires in the evenings on which they cook and share a meal and laughter with family and friends. Hospitality is king in the desert and many a stranger has been known to be welcomed to share a meal on a given night. Even if the younger generation enjoys time off riding motor bikes and four-wheel drive vehicles across the desert sands and spending nights looking up the crystal clear skies and shining stars.
A ridge of high ground rises from the coastal plains, encircling a crater-like depression out of which rises the 122 metre central peak of Jebel Ad-Dukhan. Thus Central Bahrain offers the best views of the island as well as a mix of ancient and modern man made features. At the foot of the Jebel is the Number One Oil Well where oil first flowed in Bahrain in 1932. There is now an Oil Museum nearby. Isa Town, built in the 60's from scratch in the desert to house Bahraini families, nudges the ancient burial mounds of A'ali where potters fire their work in kilns amongst the tombs. On the edge of the rocky rim are the twin towns of Rifaa, old fortified villages, made attractive in recent years with trees and flowers.
The tiny twin Dar Islands, tucked in between Sitra and the mainland are leased to a recreational resort which boasts pristine beaches and a large marina, one of two on the island. The spot is popular for summer fun, including barbecues, swimming, boating and jet skiing and most weekends is bustling with people intent on relaxing and soaking up the sun with families and friends.
Far to the south, a group of islands, the Hawar archipelago, is home to a wide variety of wildlife and migrating birds. A popular holiday resort, daily cruises leave from Manama and allow visitors to enjoy the tranquillity of the islands and the luxury and water sports on offer at a very modern resort.
To the west are several small uninhabited islands, visible as you travel the Saudi Causeway. The largest, Umm Nasan, has natural spring water where wildlife including gazelle are allowed to roam undisturbed.