One of the smallest countries to have Arabic as its official language is Bahrain. Officially known as the Kingdom of Bahrain, in Arabic the name translates literally to the “Kingdom of the Two Seas.” After the rise of Islam up until the 16th Century CE, Bahrain was the name for the area stretching from Basrah to the Strait of Hormuz. Today, Bahrain is the small island country just to the east of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf. Between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is a smaller and shallower section of the Persian Gulf, known as the Gulf of Bahrain. The country itself is an archipelago, consisting of thirty-two islands. The islands cover an area of about 400 square miles. The largest among these islands is known as Bahrain Island, covering almost 83% of the country’s entire landmass. It is home to the country’s capital, Manama, and is also home to the majority of the population. In fact, Barhrain is one of the most densely populated countries on Earth with nearly 89% of its population living in either the city of Manama or Al Muharraq.
The geography of Bahrain Island, as well as the rest of the islands on the archipelago, consists almost entirely of desert. Across most of the landmass only very sparse vegetation exists, such as brush and small trees. However, along the northern coast of Bahrain Island lies a fertile strip of land where some vegetation is able to be cultivated. Among which are pomegranate, almond, fig, and date trees. Most of the territory of Bahrain is relatively flat. However, the country is home to one mountain, Jabal ad Dukhan, located in almost the exact center of Bahrain Island. The Arabic name translates literally to “mountain of smoke,” due to the constant presence of misty clouds about the summit. This area is also where most of the country’s oil is located.
Most of this oil is refined in the capital city of Manama. The city sits on a peninsula in the north-eastern corner of Bahrain. The city also is connected to the smaller island of Al Muharraq via the Sheikh Hamad Causeway and is home to the country’s main airport, the Bahrain International Airport. Also in the city are several famous examples of modern architecture. Among these are the 22-story Zamil Tower, finished in 2005, and the Bahrain World Trade Centre, a 50-floor structure finished in 2008. The city has a distinctive cultural flavor in its architecture that blends both traditional Islamic influences with more streamlined, modern influences. However, there are still excellent examples of pure traditional Islamic architecture, such as the Manama Old Palace. It is considered a masterpiece of the city and is where the royal family still greets foreign dignitaries and other important officials.
This more traditional architectural style is derived from both Bahrain’s modern culture, as well as its history. Much like many of the Arabic-speaking countries, Bahrain has a past that was greatly influenced by the Arabic empires, and therefore the religion of Islam. However, like most Arabic countries, Bahrain also had an earlier history, that began before the rise of Islam.
Burial mounds on the Bahrain Island suggest that people have been settling on the archipelago since at least the 3rd millennium BCE. There are several thousand of these mounds (about 170,000) that came about during the Sumerian period, and at one time was the largest prehistoric cemetery in the world. There is also proof of pre-historic nomads that lived on the islands, as evidenced by early tools found by archaeologists. One of the earliest references of Bahrain from the point of view of people living outside of the archipelago may be found in the trade partner of the ancient Iraqi civilizations from the time period around 2000 BCE. It was known by the name of Dilmun and was a significant provider of copper to these early people. Dilmun is the fabled location of the Garden of Eden and is also depicted as paradise in the Epic of Gilgamesh. However, scholars debate whether Dilmun was in Bahrain or if it was actually in other nearby areas such as present-day Qatar. It is known that from 707 to 681 BCE, the area of Bahrain was captured by the Assyrian, King Sennacherib. Under the Assyrians, Bahrain became and important seaport between Mesopotamia and the Indus valley.
One of the first definitive references of the archipelago comes from around the 6th century BCE, by the Persians. The Greeks and Romans also appear to have been aware of the region in their writings. In fact the Greeks dubbed the islands as Tylos, for the abundance of pearls found there, during the time of Alexander the Great. However, Alexander’s successors did not retain control of the Persian Gulf for very long after his death. The territory fell into the hands of the Parthians, one of the Persian dynasties. Following the Parthians, Bahrain was controlled by the Sassanids. The two dynasties were based out of what is today the region known as Iran. Bahrain would remain under control of the Persian Empire until the rise of Islam in the 7th Century CE.
As with most Arabic-speaking countries, Islam has been a key factor in the development of Bahrain’s history. Roughly 80% of the country is Muslim today. However with the influx of immigrants since the late 20th Century, this percentage has dropped over the past decade. The majority of the Muslims in the country follow Shia Islam, while there is also a strong presence of Sunni Muslims. Prior to the Rise of Islam in the 7th Century, the majority of the population on the archipelago practiced Arabic paganism. The country fell under the rule of the Prophet Muhammad in 628 CE. He sent an envoy to the region in order to convert the ruler Munzir ibn Sawa Al Tamimi to Islam, after which he publically announced that all of his people were converted. This conversion is evidenced in one of the earliest mosques to be built, and perhaps the first in Bahrain, called the Khamis Mosque. It was begun as early as 692 and has been rebuilt twice since then in the 14th Century and the 15th Century, when minarets were added.
Under the new influence of Islam, the historical region of Bahrain became one of the most powerful countries in the Middle East. The economy, which relied heavily on trade still, and with the growth of the Islamic Empire was able to profit from the expanding global market. Trade remained strong with the Mesopotamia region, but countries such as China and South Asia provided ample opportunity for growth.
By the year 899 CE, the area fell under a new group’s power. This group, known as the Qarmatians, was considered a utopian republic. Perhaps the Qarmatians are most known for their raid on Mecca and Medina in 930, where they desecrated the Well of Zamzam, which housed deceased Muslim pilgrims. Also on this raid, the group stole the sacred Black Stone and brought it back to Al-Hasa, where it remained for twenty years. Needless to say, the Abbasids were infuriated at the sacrilege that occurred to their holy relics and retaliated. The Qarmatians were defeated in 976 CE and by 1058, were replaced in Bahrain with the Uyunids. The Uyunids ruled until 1253, when the Usfurids gained control over Eastern Arabia.
It was not until 1330, that the archipelago itself was separated from the rest of the historical region of Bahrain as an isolated territory of the Usfurids under control of the rulers of the Hormuz Kingdom. It is unknown as to when the term “Bahrain” came to refer solely to the archipelago. It is believed that the change came about some time in the late Middle Ages.
The 16th Century, is home to another major force in Bahrain’s history. Portugal, interested in possessing the vast wealth of the pearl industry in Bahrain, attacked the islands in 1521. Their rule lasted for eighty years and did not end until an uprising of the natives against the governor of the island, who had ordered the execution of all of the prominent traders on the island. The result of the Portuguese fleeing the country was a very unstable government. The Persian ruler, Shah Abbas I took advantage of this fact and incorporated Bahrain within the Safavid Empire.
Unlike the Portuguese, the Persians under the Safavid Empire ruled through intellectual and ideological tactics. Under this new system, sciences and the arts, as well as other schools of thought prevailed. This rule of Bahrain continued for about 100 years until the fall of the Safavid Empire in 1717, due to Afghan invasions in Iran. A period of unstable rule fell upon Bahrain that lasted about another 100 years. During this time, the islands were under constant attack by independent tribes from within the area, as well as some from the mainland of the Arabian Peninsula. At one point, the islands were even under the control of a twelve-year-old boy. The main power struggle over the area was primarily between two key groups: the Bani Utbah tribe, and the Al Kalifa family.
After several years, the Al Kalifa family was able to secure their claim to power in Bahrain through negotiations with the British in 1820. The British, at this point in time, were one of the strongest military forces in the Arabian Gulf. The treaty that was signed between the two countries allowed the Al Kalifas to remain the rulers of the country, with the support of the British. Another treaty was signed in 1861, known as the Perpetual Truce of Peace and Friendship. As protectorate of the British, the country was independent except for matters of foreign relations and security. During the late 19th Century, Bahrain was brought under the protection of the Ottoman Empire as well, with negotiations by the British. In 1913, this relationship was officially signed into being.
The global influence that Bahrain experienced under the British and the Ottomans, allowed its trade and its economy to prosper greatly, making it one of the most successful countries in the world during that time. In the 1930’s oil was discovered on the Islands. And Bahrain was the first location in the Arabian Gulf to set up oil wells. This find would help to shape the economic stability of Bahrain throughout the rest of the 20th century, up until today. It also gained the role of the central location for trading throughout the Persian Gulf. During this period of increased trade, the country experienced cultural changes as well. The Bahrainis developed a culture that had several Indian characteristics. Food, dress, and education came to be markedly similar to those in India during the time. The result of Bahrain’s new status as a center for trading also brought many other immigrants, who came to the country looking for better pay and more liberties. This resulted in a cultural demographic within the country that was a lot more varied than other countries in the Arabian Gulf.
During World War II, Bahrain played a key role in the global theater, fighting alongside the allies. It was a key base, due to its oil reserves. The country was bombed several times by Italy, due to this fact. In 1971, Bahrain was released from the British treaty that held it within protectorate status. Originally, Bahrain meant to join with the seven other independent states that would eventually create the United Arab Emirates. However, negotiations between the groups failed and Bahrain decided to go through with the proceedings to become entirely independent. On 16 December 1971, Bahrain became officially independent.
After Bahrain became independent, the country began to focus its efforts upon strengthening its oil economy. They took advantage of several wars in the area during the time, including the Arab-Israeli War, which created high gas prices. It was important for the country to increase its oil production, due to the fact that the pearl industry, which they had relied on for several centuries was lacking. This was due to the Japanese creating cultivated pearls, therefore reducing the need for Bahrain’s more expensive natural pearls in the world market.
Throughout the 20th Century, Bahrain’s level of religious tolerance was much higher than its Arab neighbors. However, after the Iranian revolution, a growing trend of dissent arose within the boarders. In the 1990’s an Islamic front was the main source for most opposition in Bahrain. Their passionate protests, resulted in violent riots and even an attempted coup d’état. These oppositions to the ruling family continued until reforms were made under Shaykh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in 1999. Shaykh Hamad bin Isa was put in place after the death of his father Shaykh Isa bin Salman Al Kalifa. The reforms included steps to return to a more constitutional government, through such means as releasing political prisoners and giving women the right to vote.
Today, Bahrain remains a constitutional hereditary monarchy that is still headed by the Al Kalifa family. There is a bicameral parliament, which consists of a 40-member Council of Representative along with a 40-member Shurah. The Shurah is a council appointed by the king that is in charge of consultation with the head of state. There is also a judicial body, called the High Civic Appeals Court.
Despite recent developments in the country’s government and its rise to an economic powerhouse, Bahrain retains its traditional Islamic character. Bahrain’s cultural arts exemplify this distinction. Artistic readings of the Qur’an and Islamic poetry are especially common practices. Music and dance reflect Arabic culture through traditional sword dances and the elaborate and repetitive musical qualities found throughout the Arab world.