The tiny Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain is home to one of the most mysterious ancient civilizations of the Middle East.
Archaeologists have long known about a civilization called Dilmun. It’s mentioned in many Mesopotamian texts as a wealthy place of “sweet water.” Even the Epic of Gilgamesh mentions it, but all the sources were vague about its location.
It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that excavations in Bahrain uncovered impressive cities and temples and proved that Dilmun was located there. Archaeologists found that Dilmun had been an important center for the Persian Gulf trade route that flourished between the Mesopotamian civilizations in what is now Iraq and the Indus Valley in southern Asia around 2000 B.C. Dilmun’s trade connections also extended to civilizations in Oman, Turkey, and Syria.
Dilmun owed its importance for being one of the few spots to get fresh water along the route. Ships would stop there to rest and fill up on supplies, and Dilmun became an important player in world trade.
Now the Bahraini government is looking to make Bahrain a destination for heritage tourism. Of the two UNESCO World Heritage and five tentative sites in Bahrain, five belong to the Dilmun civilization. One of the most important, the ancient city of Saar, is now undergoing restoration after a recent excavation. The BBC reports that Bahraini archaeologists have shifted their efforts from excavating more of the site to developing it for tourism and exhibiting the many artifacts they’ve uncovered, such as this seal dug up near Saar.
%Gallery-188932%Saar is remarkably well preserved. The site is encircled by thick stone walls that in parts still stand as high as ten feet, and there are well-preserved foundations of temples, homes with intact ovens, shops, and even restaurants.
The capital of Dilmun was the even more impressive Qal’at al-Bahrain, a town that was occupied from 2300 B.C. to the 16th century A.D. Remains of the city and its port can still be seen today. The most striking building at the site is actually the latest, a fort the Portuguese erected when they were trying to control trade in the Gulf.
Other sites include the Barbar Temple, which dates back to the earliest period of Dilmun and was rebuilt on the same site over several centuries. Bahrain is also home to some 170,000 burial mounds, some of which date back to the Dilmun period. These are collected in what are called “tumuli fields”, where hundreds of artificial mounds cover the remains of this ancient people.
Despite all the excavations, we still don’t know several basic facts about Dilmun, such as when the civilization started and ended, or what language the people spoke. Its borders are equally unclear. It appears that at time Dilmun controlled more than just Bahrain, extending to the eastern coast of the Saudi peninsula.
The modern Bahrain National Museum in the capital Manama has an entire hall devoted to Dilmun. There you can see maps and artifacts explaining the role this civilization played in the long-distance trade in the Persian Gulf. The museum also has exhibitions for other historical periods and a large collection of traditional costumes.