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.

Tallinn’s Medieval Old Town

Tallinn
Tallinn is a medieval wonderland. The capital of Estonia isn’t on a lot of people’s bucket list but anyone at all interested in history, architecture or art will love this place.

The central attraction is Old Town, a medieval walled city filled with old buildings and fortifications. The sheltered bay and the easily defended Toompea Hill made it a natural place to settle. Sometime about 1050 A.D. a fortress was built atop the hill, the first of many. In 1219 the Danes showed up as part of the Northern Crusade to subjugate the Baltics and convert the local pagans to Christianity whether they wanted to or not.

The Danes improved the fortifications and expanded the town, which became part of the Hanseatic League, a trading organization of a hundred northern cities. The Danes sold Tallinn to the Livonan Order, a branch of the Teutonic Knights, in 1346. The Swedes came next in 1561. Tallinn weathered plague and the Great Northern War and became part of Russia in 1710. In 1918, Estonia declared independence from Russia and fought a bitter war against Bolshevik Russia. Independence didn’t last long, however, and the fledgling nation fell first to the Nazis and then the Soviets during World War II.

Despite all this conquering, Tallinn’s historic core has survived remarkably intact. It’s so well preserved that the whole Old Town has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Much of the 14th century city wall still stands, including a couple of stretches where you can climb the narrow spiral staircases of the towers and end up on the medieval catwalk. The Viru Gates, flanked by thin pointed towers from the 14th century, makes a nice entrance into Old Town.

Dominating the town atop Toompea Hill is Toompea Castle and Pikk Hermann Tower. It was used as the center of government since 1229 and is now the site of Estonia’s parliament. Nearby stands the inappropriately named Maiden’s Tower that used to house a prison for prostitutes.

%Gallery-178685%There are several interesting old houses of worship. The oldest is the atmospheric and very chilly Dominican Monastery from 1246. My favorite was the Holy Spirit Church with its colorful Renaissance clock, elaborate altar, and painted pews. The 13th century St. Nicholas got bombed in World War II but was meticulously reconstructed and now houses a display of religious art, including the freaky “Dance Macabre” of cavorting skeletons.

The photo below was taken from the spire of the Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin, one of the many towers that offer fine views of the city. Also try the Town Hall for a great view. The most visible church that seems to get on all the postcards is the Russian Orthodox St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its onion domes.

Several of the medieval buildings house museums: Epping Tower has a collection of medieval arms and armor, the 15th-century Great Guild Hall houses the Estonian History Museum, a 14th century merchant’s mansion is home to the Tallinn City Museum, and Fat Margaret’s cannon tower from 1530 is now the Maritime Museum.

One of the most popular attractions is Kiek en de Kök, an imposing tower on the slopes of Toompea Hill. Its basement connects with a network of tunnels beneath the bastions. There’s enough of interest here that I’ll be dedicating a whole post to this place later in the series.

As you can see from the photos, I visited Tallinn this February. While I only saw about five minutes of blue sky in the six days I was there, and it snowed every day, there are advantages to visiting in the dead of winter. First, prices of hotels and flights plummet and you can pick your dates without having to worry about getting a place. This makes it a good budget travel option for those who don’t mind a bit of cold.

If you’re coming from England, you’re in luck. Ryaniar flies to Tallinn from Luton, and easyJet flies from Gatwick. There are also regular connections from Munich, Helsinki, and other important cities.

Tallinn makes a good budget option whatever the season. Old Town is compact enough that you don’t need to pay for transport, and a Tallinn Card gets you free tours and free entry into all the sites. Being so compact you can see a lot of the city in one day, making the card well worth the money. The cost of the card is 24 euros for 24 hours, 32 euros for 48 hours, and 40 euros for 72 hours. Children up to 14 years get the card for half price. The card comes with a good city map and guidebook.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: A Snowy Traditional Village in Estonia!

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Tallinn

Creationist Audio Tour Removed From Giant’s Causeway

creationist, Giant's Causeway
The National Trust has removed a controversial creationist segment in their audio presentation from the visitor center at Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, the BBC reports.

The National Trust, which manages the geological marvel and UNESCO World Heritage Site, opened a new visitors center there in July. Soon there were numerous complaints about one segment of the audio tour that stated the dating of the rocks was controversial: “Young Earth Creationists believe that the Earth was created some 6000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and, in particular, the account of creation in the book of Genesis. Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.”

This segment was replaced with the statement that there was a, “clear understanding among scientists that the heat of the earth was the driving force behind the formation of the Giant’s Causeway … All the scientific evidence points to a volcanic origin for the columns of the Giant’s Causeway, around 60 million years ago. However, not everyone agrees with the scientific view. There are some people who believe – often for religious reasons – that the earth was formed more recently, thousands of years ago rather than billions. The National Trust supports the scientific view of the formation of the Giant’s Causeway.”

The exhibit is an interactive audio display. You can see the full revised transcript here, and the original transcript here.

[Photo courtesy Nuno Curado]

Video: Virtual Tour Of Maeshowe, Scotland


I recently had the good fortune to visit the Orkney Islands to the north of Scotland and saw that region’s amazing prehistoric archaeology. One of the most impressive monuments was the large vaulted burial chamber of Maeshowe. It was built around 2700 B.C., making it older than the pyramids at Giza, and is a masterpiece of stonework. Maeshowe is also famous for its much later (but still old) Viking graffiti.

Now Historic Scotland has made a virtual tour of this monument. Maeshowe was meticulously 3D-laser scanned to create this animation. The video takes place on the winter solstice, when the setting sun shines down the long, low entrance passage to illuminate the central chamber.

This video makes a good memento for me because when I visited, I was surprised and disappointed to learn that photography isn’t permitted inside Maeshowe. This video shows the tomb much more clearly than I could have ever captured on film anyway. So sit back, enjoy, and consider a trip to Orkney. It’s a magical place. Not only do you get stunning prehistoric monuments, but you can also enjoy the rugged scenery, abundant wildlife and lots of traditional Scottish music.

Amazing 3-D Laser Scan Of Lalibela Rock-Hewn Churches In Ethiopia


Of all the incredible monuments in Ethiopia, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are by far the most impressive. Starting in the 12th century A.D., Ethiopian rulers dug a series of churches out of the solid bedrock.

This architecture-in-reverse creates a bizarre and otherworldly scene. As you walk along the exposed rock, you come across giant holes in the stone filled with churches. Narrow steps take you down into the pits, where you’ll find some welcome shade from the powerful African sun. Enter the churches and you’ll come upon pilgrims and priests studying the Kebra Nagast and Bible by the dim light steaming in through stone grills high in the walls. Further in the gloom, you’ll spot the gleam of elaborate gold and silver crosses as incense wafts through the air.

Now the churches have been scanned using 3-D laser technology. The World Monuments Fund sponsored the scan along with University of Cape Town in order to better understand the layout and look for any potential problems in its preservation.

Interested in reading more about Ethiopia? It makes a great adventure travel destination. Check out my series on my Ethiopian road trip and my two months living in Harar.