December for me was the month of the Middle East. It started from the (re)discovery of the Turkish low cost airline Pegasus Airlines. I’d already flown them before, yet somehow never considered it as a workable option – and for any movements around the Middle East, it is certainly a great one. It is in the same price category as Ryanair, however it is much more human in the way it is organised and treats its passengers. This time I used it to the limit. The ticket from Brussels to Bahrain changing planes in Istanbul cost me around €100 – and it is quite a distance, almost half the world! Playing around with their website produces quite amazing options. An important advantage is that they have a base in the Sabiha Gökcen airport in Istanbul, which is linked with a strong network of frequent flights with all kinds of destinations, allowing a convenient way to connect very unusual points. For example you could fly from Skopje to Kutaisi or as I did, from Brussels to Bahrain – all for a very reasonable amount.
As I departed from Bahrain, my knowledge of this country was rather limited. I initially envisaged heading for Dubai, and I added Bahrain only when I realised that I could easily visit one more country in combination with the Emirates. For the holders of Estonian passport like myself there was a mini-diplomatic breakthrough in the beginning of 2014 – at that time almost all of the Gulf countries changed the entry rules for the “new” EU countries, making the entrance either visa-free or visa-on-arrival. I’d read in the press about the changes introduced by the UAE, but as I was checking the visa rules, suddenly I realised that Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait had followed suit! And only Qatar is lagging behind. I did try to include Qatar this time around, by applying for its visa the old fashioned way, but the procedure turned out to be quite kafkaesque without any clear rules or deadlines – and so I dropped it. My guess is that their visa rules will change soon too.
In a paradoxical way Bahrain is just the right country to start your Gulf visit. The whole history of the Gulf in a way starts right here, on this tiny island. We’ve all heard of the great Mesopotamian civilisation. The great epic poem of that civilisation was the famous Epos of Gilgamesh, in which King Gilgamesh among many other things visits the fairytale land of Dilmun, a paradise on Earth and the source of eternal life. The prototype for the mythical Dilmun was the island of Bahrain. At the time – we’re talking 5000 years ago – it was the economic centre of the whole Arabic peninsula, thanks to its location at the crossroads of trade routes.
This favourable location was at the same time its undoing. Being at the crossroads of the empires, it changed hands between them innumerable times. To this day it is an apple of discord between Iran and the Arabs. Iran considers Bahrain its property and supports the local majority Shiite population, which protested very loudly against the ruling Sunni elite during the Arab Spring. As the Emir of Bahrain is a close ally of both Saudi Arabia and USA, the protests were put down by force and their spacial focus, the so-called Pearl Roundabout, a local equivalent of the Cairo’s Tahrir Square, was destroyed with bulldozers.
Bahrain is the key detail in the big puzzle of the Gulf, due to the fact that it is the base of the American Fifth fleet. Whenever an American aircraft carrier parades along the coast of Iran, it is in Bahrain that it will dock.
The Gulf starts out of Bahrain in one other key aspect. In the old days it was the economic centre of the Gulf due to it being at the centre of the pearl trade. Cartier would buy his pearls right here in 1920s. The pearl trade in the Gulf collapsed in 1930s after the invention of cultured pearl farming in Japan. And then Bahrain gave the Gulf yet another gift of immense wealth. It was right here that the oil was found and the first oil well in the Gulf was dug in 1932.
My plane landed in Manama at 3am at night. It turned out the visa free regime is not quite visa free – I had to buy a visa, and it seemed the cost was at the mercy of the immigration worker – each new visitor would be quoted a different amount. I had arranged an airport pickup with my hotel, although my actual reservation allowed me to check in only at 14:00. I wasn’t sure the plane would be on time, and so decided I’d wait in the lobby working at the computer. This didn’t quite go according to the plan – the hotel manager just could not tolerate a guest sitting all night long in his lobby. When I opted not to pay for an additional night, he checked me in for free at 7:00. If only all hotels managers in the world were as welcoming! I therefore heartily recommend the Bahrain Ramada hotel. My first look out the hotel window, which seemed very exotic on that first morning:
I started my walk around Manama in this very Western neighbourhood right by my hotel, where I could satisfy my craving for coffee and even visit a contemporary art gallery.
Al Riwaq Art Space – a very pleasant space indeed:
From there on I set out on foot for the major Mosque, which was very close. This is Bahrain:
Along with the Bahrain Museum, the Mosque is considered the main attraction of Manama.
Non-believers are welcome to visit the Mosque between the prayer times. At the main entrance you are assigned a free guide who walks you around and will answer all your questions about Islam.
Islamic books are also distributed. I took some books to read, but the style of the books seemed very authoritative and absolute, not allowing for any doubt or questioning, so I quite soon I stopped reading.
The internal courtyard:
The main hall:
Wonderful drawings explaining the exact order of the ablution ritual and the meaning of each action.
Together with my guide, we climbed the balcony around the main hall:
After visiting the Mosque I headed in the direction of the city centre and the Bahrain Museum. The locals looked at me with some bewilderement – apparently “walking” here is considered a strange idea. The taxi drivers would not stop honking, despite the earplugs I had put in my ears.
The Bahrain Museum is probably the most impressive of all historic museums in the Gulf, and also the very first one. I suspect the rest of the museums in the neighbouring countries, which lately have been popping like mushrooms, are modelled and outright copied after this one. The entrance:
The walk around the exposition starts from this drawing illustrating Bahrain’s ancient role as the trade centre of the Gulf. (Interestingly, no-one in the Arab states would ever call the Gulf Persian. For them it is the Arab Gulf, of course.)
Very impressive exposition:
You feel touched by the spirit of ancient times:
The floor of the main hall is very creatively laid out as the map of Bahrain. As you walk around the hall, you explore the map and you find information about each landmark right where it actually is on the map.
I was pleasantly surprised by a wing devoted to contemporary art. This artwork requires no comments.
After visiting the Museum I walked around the central Manama – the financial district. The buildings here mostly date from 1970s and are no match for the ultramodern giants of Dubai. At the time however Bahrain was the financial capital of the Gulf – after the destruction of Beirut and before the ascent of Dubai.
Manama’s status as a capital is relatively recent. For centuries it was Muharraq where the centre of Bahrain’s life lay. Muharraq is a small island today connected to Bahrain with a ramp bridge. When Muharraq run out of space, Manama became the capital.
The main square of central Manama – the Bab al-Bahrain gate.
I decided to venture out to Muharraq as I was told it’s the only place in Bahrain where some old buildings remain. There is public transport in Manama, but it was quite impossible at first to identify the bus stops, plus there was no information on the routes anywhere. So I decided to take a taxi. The taxi drivers in Bahrain are notorious for being some of the least scrupulous in the world. My experience supported that assessment! I specifically looked for a taxi at a taxi stop and agreed several times with the driver that we will use the meter. I asked him to switch the meter on, which he did. And yet as we arrived, he started to demand a fantasy price from me. Good that I had the exact fare shown on the meter – I just placed it and left the car, despite his loud protestations! On the way back I did come across a bus station which was marked on my map, and took a bus to the centre. The rest of the passengers of the bus were Indians and Pakistanis obviously working here.
A self-portrait in a rather trendy women’s clothes shop.
First thing I visited the so-called Beit Sheikh Isa bin Ali – a residence of a local ruler built around 1800. A deserted and yet a fascinating place. As you walk around, you can’t help imaging the lives and the complicated destinies of the erstwhile residents. There is some helpful signage in English.
The wind tower, one of the most characteristic aspects of the building. I would later notice these wind towers in many old buildings in other places.
This is how it looks from the inside. A rather creative construction meant to catch the wind in the hot times and to direct it inside the building, thus creating a refreshing draft – a kind of medieval ventilation.
Old wooden doors:
The main courtyard – reserved for the family:
What a sky!
After the sunset I took some time to wander around Muharraq. This ice cream parlour is closed – note the reason! Indeed the loud chants of muezzins would come from all directions at that moment.
On my wanderings I came across an almost incredibly nice museum which no map mentioned. It is situated in the house belonging to the heir to one of the richest men in Bahrain who made his fortune in the peral trade:
The view over Bahrain out the airplane window as I was leaving:
And the view over my next destination. You can see which country that is: