Could Bahrain Become The Next Big Heritage Tourism Destination?

Bahrain, Dilmun
Desert Island Boy, flickr

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.

Postcards From Carcassonne: Exploring A Medieval French Village

While on a film production in southern France (no really, for this), we were cruising along the autoroute between Toulouse and Narbonne. I was in the driver’s seat, which, for the record, is not the spot you want to be in while driving through this part of France. You get the occasional glimpse at the countryside, but as the sun shines and the southern landscape passes by, you definitely want to be a passenger so you can take it all in.

“Look… a medieval village!” I exclaimed, pointing to our left.

It was Carcassonne.

“No big deal,” one of our team members said with a bit of humor.

This had become our joke on this trip; pretending to be unimpressed. But if you’re not impressed by a road trip through France, you’ve been sleeping.

To the American eye, it’s always shocking to see historic monuments like this; on a road trip in the U.S. the oldest thing you might find is a Revolutionary War battle site. You’re hard pressed to find a cathedral or a chateau looming about.

Carcassonne rose out of the rolling landscape, its protected walls reminiscent of a time that we’d only ever read about. A road sign reminded us that we were passing a UNESCO Heritage Site – in case the medieval village to the left wasn’t sign enough.
Carcassonne is a fortified town in France’s Aude region – that’s a fancy way of saying “walled city.” With a fortified settlement existing here since the pre-Roman period, it has had UNESCO World Heritage status. Its massive walls that are a prime example of a medieval fortified town were restored in the late 1800s by Viollet-le-Duc, and the restoration itself had a large influence on conservation principles and practices.

Today you can easily explore the inner city and its Gothic cathedral. It’s a mish-mash of tiny cobblestone streets, gargoyles and quaint restaurants and wine bars. You can’t escape the feel that it’s a little touristy, but get a few meters away from the main center and wander around the outer boundaries of the walls, and you can have a few moments to yourself.

Carcassonne is stunning, both from the inside and out. One of the best views of it is from Pont Vieux, crossing the Aude River. The fortified city is well lit at night, so if you catch the view at dusk, you get an amazing look at the golden shades of the wall paired against the sky – the kind of stuff postcards are made of.

But there’s more to explore than just the fortified city. Carcassonne itself is a bustling southern French city, complete with an excellent Saturday market, plenty of restaurants that serve local bottles of Languedoc Roussillon rosé, boat tours down the Canal du Midi and stores that specialize in foie gras de canard. And then there’s always cassoulet (although be advised that it’s not really a dish you want to be eating during warmer weather). When in Carcassone, eat duck – well, unless you’re vegetarian that is.

Planning a visit to Carcassonne? Be sure to check out Adelaide and l’Artichaut, both well-priced restaurants that offer up plenty of local specialties. Adelaide is just enough off the beaten path inside the fortified city that it doesn’t feel like you’re getting a bad tourist deal on dinner, and Artichaut is a good option when you’ve spent a morning at the Saturday market and want to sit outside on a terrasse for a bit of French food and a glass of good wine. Be sure to take a walk down the banks of the Canal du Midi – it’s another place that has a spot on the World Heritage list. Stock up on local produce beforehand and turn it into a picnic.

Whatever you do, take time to be impressed by the medieval village. It’s not everyday you are walking down the exact same streets that people did in the Middle Ages.

%Gallery-186882%

Gambia And UK Open Fort Bullen Museum, A Bastion Against The Slave Trade

Gambia, Fort BullenA fort in The Gambia that was instrumental in stopping the slave trade has been given a new museum, the Daily Observer reports.

Fort Bullen was one of two forts at the mouth of the River Gambia, placed there in 1826 to stop slave ships from sailing out into the Atlantic. It stands on the north bank of the river, and along with Fort James on the south bank constitutes a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Fort Bullen has been open to visitors for some time and tourism officials hope the new museum will add to its attractiveness as a historic site.

The museum was financed by the British High Commission in The Gambia. The country used to be a British colony. The British Empire abolished slavery in 1807 and soon took steps to eradicate it throughout its domains. Of course, before that time the empire made huge profits from the slave trade, with the River Gambia being one of its major trading centers for human flesh. One hopes this aspect of British history isn’t ignored in the new museum.

[Photo courtesy Leonora Enking]

China To Demolish Ancient Temple To Bolster World Heritage Site Bid

Xingjiao Temple may soon be a World Heritage SiteChinese officials have announced a controversial plan to demolish a number of buildings at an ancient Buddhist temple located in the city of Xi’an in the province of Shaanxi. This drastic move is intended to improve the site’s possibilities for being designated a World Heritage Site, even as the inhabitants of the temple express their displeasure over the idea.

The 1300-year-old Xingjiao Temple is well known for housing the remains of a monk by the name of Xuanzang. He is credited with bringing the earliest Buddhist texts from India to China and introducing the Buddhist philosophy there. Xuanzang and his friend the Monkey King are also the main characters in the classic Chinese fable “Journey to the West,” which is one of the best know stories in all of Asian culture.

Because of his role in that tale, and in helping to bring Buddhism to China, local officials are hoping to get the temple named to the World Heritage list – a designation that generally translates to more money in the local economy. In an effort to improve their chances of earning that distinction provincial authorities have made the decision to dismantle roughly two-thirds of the buildings on the temple grounds. Most of those buildings are newer than the main compound and the feeling is that their removal will open the space to make it appear like a more natural setting.When it was first announced that the site would be nominated for World Heritage status, the monks that live in the temple were supportive of the idea. But when they were told about the demolition of the buildings, which include a dining hall and several dormitories, they withdrew their support and filed a protest. Their feeling is that the destruction of the buildings would disrupt their daily lives and diminish the temple as a whole. They also note that even with the removal of those buildings, the site may still not be accepted into the World Heritage program, which means they structures would have been eliminated for nothing.

Officials from Shaanxi have ignored those protests, however, and are preparing to move ahead as planned. They want to relocate the monks to another site and begin the demolition of the buildings by June 30 so they can proceed with the World Heritage application process.

While it isn’t exactly a new thing to exploit ancient sites for economic gain, it is sad when those sites are altered dramatically in this way. If the plan moves ahead, and the buildings are destroyed, I certainly hope that the site at least gets added to the World Heritage list. If not, this story will be even more tragic than it already is.

[Photo Credit: China.org.cn]

Industry Destroys Part Of The Nazca Lines

Nazca Lines
A limestone quarrying company operating illegally within the bounds of the Nazca Lines has destroyed some of the enigmatic figures.

The archaeology news feed Past Horizons reports that heavy machinery removing limestone from a nearby quarry has damaged 150 meters (492 feet) of lines along with completely destroying a 60-meter (197-foot) trapezoid. So far the more famous animal figures have not been affected.

The Nazca Lines are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Peru’s most visited attractions. These giant images of people, animals, plants, and geometric shapes were scratched onto the surface of the Peruvian desert by three different cultures from 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. A plane ride above them makes for an awe-inspiring experience. Sadly, tourism is also threatening the Nazca Lines.

Here’s hoping the Peruvian government will start taking notice and preserve one of its greatest national treasures.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]