Qal-at al-Bahrain

Trip Start Apr 03, 2010
Trip End Apr 11, 2010

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Flag of Bahrain  ,
Friday, April 9, 2010

Woke as we were approaching the port. Sat outside on the balcony and watched as we docked next to a US Navy ship. Had two patrol boats circling us the entire time -- what were they waiting for? Someone to jump overboard? A rocket launcher attack from a balcony position? Or are they there to help protect us?

We had breakfast in the dining room then started to try to take care of logistics for the day. We decided (and, it in the event, we were right) that, given the distance from the port to the town, it was a good idea to buy the shuttle-to-town tickets, rather than take the free shuttle and then a taxi. But the automatic kiosks, which sell the shuttle tickets, were not working. Keegan and I waited in the tour desk line, while Paul and Kyla went to take care of early-disembarkation details, but Keegan almost fainted, so I rushed him upstairs before we were able to purchase the tickets. We had to decide whether Keegan should remain behind; he wanted to come (how many chances does one have to see Bahrain?) so we bought four tickets and finally were ready to leave the ship.

The shuttle indeed was a long way to town, but it dropped us off conveniently at the central souk. The ride passes through the huge port, then through the "diplomatic area" with its modern hotels and high-rises (we particularly liked one building, split in half, that had three giant windmills in the center), to the Bab al-Bahrain. We wandered through the narrow alleys of the souk, giving a cursory glance to the merchandise. Like all markets, this one was central place theory run amok: all electronics shops sold the same goods on the same display stands; cloth sellers were all in one alley. Most of the sellers seemed to be Indian, but that was hard to judge.

The plan had been to visit the souk, then seek out the tourist office, supposedly in the area. We knew it was Friday but still hoped that the tourist office would be open. Tourist office, however, not only was not open, it did not even seem to exist. So, when a taxi stopped to ask if we wanted to lift, we took it. We asked to go to Fort Bahrain, and if we could pay in currency other than Bahrain Dinar. “No problem,” said the cab driver, “All currencies work in Bahrain -- dollar, Euro, Indian rupees.” I asked Keegan if he still had any rupees with him, but he didn't. Too bad; but we had dollars, so that was great.

It was not a long ride out to the Fort -- but still cost about $15 (the driver used the meter and gave us a decent exchange rate, all things considered). The driver said we would have difficulties finding a cab back, but he did point out a mall, not too distant (under normal weather circumstances), where taxis come for fares.

We thought the fort fascinating. The fort sits on a tell -- created over the millennia through the deposits of various civilizations -- overlooking the harbour to one side and the greenbelt to the other. It has been partially reconstructed, using materials found on site and traditional techniques. A few excavations into the tell have been made, but most of the mound remains untouched. It was overcast, so a good day to visit the fort (although it makes for flat photography), and the tour takes one around the exterior of the fort, along the inner wall, where you view the different towers and casements, then into the interior, with the living spaces and keep. A few archways have been rebuilt, but, mostly, it is exposed to sun and air … but also sea breezes. We were at the fort at noon, so the sound of the call to prayers in the distance added to the sense of atmosphere.

We began at the museum, which was nicely done. We particularly liked the opening kiosk, which showed, through animation, how the fort and surrounding communities grew and shrank over time, and how the harbour changed shape. It was a good overview. The museum displays seals, examples of carvings, a reconstructed reed boat, evidence from burials, jewelry, and, of course, the usual pots … but with good narration that help explain the complexity of the different cultures that inhabited the region for the last 5000 years. One of the more interesting displays, in my mind, at least, was of evidence for a snake cult. Buried in the houses, archŠologists found bowls with cloth residue and snake skeletons. They suspect that snakes were placed into cloth bags, maybe while still alive, then into clay pots, and buried beneath the floorboards, in a domestic fertility ritual. Snake sacrifice is apparently otherwise unknown on the Arabian peninsula, so this is a unique finding.

The museum also provides a free audiotour for the fort -- good to get, because the fort itself contains no displays or descriptions of what one is viewing. The audiotour, on the other hand, was very complete and informative. Here’s what we learned:

  • The fort and surrounding communities have many different levels, dating back to over 3000 BCE
  • The Portuguese were the last to occupy the fort, but the harbour had silted in by the time they had finished their construction (which used rocks from previous civilizations, discovered as they excavated the moat), so they considered the fort useless for protection from invasions from the sea … but it did provide protection from invasion from the colonized populations inland
  • ArchŠological excavations indicate extensive settlements around the fort. Plans are underway to excavate in the next decade
  • Dilmun culture was mentioned in Sumerian texts, including the Gilgamesh, but it was long considered to be a mythical civilization … until the discovery of the artifacts around the fort
  • Cannons are faced into the moat, to fire along the wall, attacking any invaders that make it to the walls of the fort
  • The moat never was filled with water
  • After the fort was abandoned, many of the rooms were used to produce date syrup (which probably smelled really bad). The floors in many rooms are carved into a washboard pattern; the dates were pressed in bags, as we saw in Oman, and the juice ran down into the local minima, then off to a central cistern. The resulting syrup was collected and traded as far away as China.
  • Date palms were used for many things: the dates for eating and syrup, the fronds for roofing; the strands for rope-making; the trunks for building.
  • Two casements, built by the Portuguese, by the same architect had different solutions to the same engineering problem: the rooms of the casements were square, but the roofs were bowl-shaped. In one casement, he filled the corners with a concave structure; in the other, it was with a triangular shape.
  • It is not known if the fort ever had a permanent water source, but there is a big cistern in the central area, near the keep, suggesting that they had to store water
When we finished the tour of the fort (which Keegan managed to do), we walked over to the mall, pointed out to us by the taxi driver. We were so grateful -- both at the fort and along the walk -- that the day was overcast, and cooler, and that we had a breeze. The walk had some amusing aspects: near the fort is a collection of houses that we walked through. The houses are all huge, with surrounding walls and large gates. The first set of houses are new-ish, and in good condition. Then, we crossed a small road, and the houses, while still huge, look run-down: plaster and paint peeling, rips in window screens, rooms partially dismantled. One house has a dark gray-greenish exterior, with vines growing across the windows -- clearly haunted, probably abandoned.

Stranger still, just past the collection of mansions, is an open dirt lot, in a crescent shape. Beyond this, are two major roads, running perpendicular to each other. And, on both roads, tangent to the crescent-shaped dirt lot, were two police vehicles, facing inwards, towards the collection of houses. Near the police vehicles were two armed policemen, on patrol duty. Expecting a riot of rich people? Or had gypsies moved into the second set of houses? or maybe they’re just really, really serious about preventing jay-walking.

We finally found our way over to the mall, and were very happy to be inside an air-conditioned building again. Near the taxi queue was a Starbucks, so we took that as a sign to have an iced coffee before returning to the Bab ah-Bahrain. Besides, people watching in the mall was fun. We saw more women here fully veiled (with only eyes showing) than we’ve seen elsewhere … but we also saw more women, and women on their own, than we’ve seen elsewhere. Saw a couple -- both in tradition clothing -- holding hands, so the khalwat laws here must be more relaxed than elsewhere, too.

Jumped in a cab at the taxi queue -- this one also accepted US Dollars, but had no idea the exchange rate, so we gave him a good rate, plus a tip, which saved us the trouble of changing money. A shuttle bus was almost ready to go, so we climbed in, and said good-bye to Bahrain.

Back on board, we went up to the pool for drinks … but it was cool enough that none of us felt like swimming. Keegan, who had been feeling better, began to feel lousy again, so we sent him off to sleep. After a bit, we all went back to our cabins, to read. Later, Paul and I did a promenade before sail-away. We heard an announcement, calling a missing couple, who showed up five minutes later in the shuttle van, lights flashing. They were waved in through the gate and driven all the way to the gangway, instead of being left off at the customs house. (We wondered if they had not realized that ship’s time was an hour ahead of Bahrain time…on the other hand, it seems as if someone is missing at every port when we depart). We did another promenade or two, then saw the pilot and shore crew arrive, and the ship cast off moments later.

We then went upstairs for cocktails, and to enjoy the breeze … both of which made us very sleepy. So we went to the show, to help keep us awake (it worked for me but not for Paul, who nodded off a few times.) The show was singing and dancing and acrobatics -- many different costume changes and elaborate sets. Quite the production. Dinner was another gala dinner. Keegan slept, and the other three of us were so tired that we didn’t linger after the celebration of crew and the presentation of dessert (a spumoni cake, first paraded around in a semi-darkened dining room, then presented, standing still, with sparkling flares).
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