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.

Historic structures in Ireland may lose protection

Ireland, milestoneArchaeologists are speaking out against a plan by the government of the Republic of Ireland to “delist” historic and archaeological sites that date to after 1700.

This would mean there will be no government protection for many of Ireland’s historic homes, holy wells, and other bits of architecture, such as this funky milestone at Howth, photographed by William Murphy.

The Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland said in a public statement at the end of last year that deep cuts in heritage management threatened to undermine the government’s plan to promote tourism as part of Ireland’s economic recovery. While funding to protect historic structures has gone down, funding to promote cultural tourism is up. Not funding some of the very things that tourists come to Ireland for, the Institute says, “is akin to spending money on a new car but finding that you can’t afford to pay for the petrol.”

The economic crisis has led to belt tightening in many countries. Some Dutch museums are planning to sell part of their collections to survive, while the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum may close in Baltimore.

America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations 2007

Preserving what’s best about America’s small cities and towns is vital to ensuring a nice balance between past and present in the places we live. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is doing their part to praise “unique and lovingly preserved communities” that are setting good examples in the areas of preservation and heritage tourism. Since 2000, the Trust has selected a dozen US cities each year that do an especially good job of preserving their town’s special spirit of place. The Trust’s list of alternative vacation destinations now boasts 96 places around the country that showcase special dedication to historic preservation.

The 2007 list includes places like Chestertown, MD, Morgantown, WV, Providence, RI, Little Rock, AR and Mineral Point, WI. And this year the Trust also recognized New Orleans in a special way for its commitment to preservation-based revitalization in the midst of the city’s rebuilding challenges.

May is Preservation Month — what is your community doing to preserve it’s culture and history for future generations? In the same way that narrow cobble-stoned Mediterranean villages have endured the test of time, it would be nice to see some authentic “small town America” spots still surviving decades from now.