Qal’at al-Bahrain: Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun

From the World Heritage inscription for Qal’at al-Bahrain: Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun:

Qal’at al-Bahrain: Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun is an archaeological site comprising four main elements: an archaeological tell (an artificial hill formed over time by successive occupations) of over 16 hectares, immediately adjacent to the northern coast of Bahrain; a sea tower about 1600m North-West of the tell; a sea channel of just under 16 hectares through the reef near the sea tower, and palm-groves. The palm-groves and traditional agricultural gardens surround the site within the whole area of the land component of the buffer zone, being particularly noticeable on the Western and Northern sides, but also occurring on the Eastern and South-Eastern sides. The property is situated in the Northern Governorate, in Al Qalah village district on the northern coast about 5.5 km West of Manama, the present capital of Bahrain.

Qal’at al-Bahrain is an exceptional example of more or less unbroken continuity of occupation over a period of almost 4500 years, from about 2300 BC to the present, on the island of Bahrain. The archaeological tell, the largest known in Bahrain, is unique within the entire region of Eastern Arabia and the Persian Gulf as the most complete example currently known of a deep and intact stratigraphic sequence covering the majority of time periods in Bahrain and the Persian Gulf. It provides an outstanding example of the might of Dilmun, and its successors during the Tylos and Islamic periods, as expressed by their control of trade through the Persian Gulf. These qualities are manifested in the monumental and defensive architecture of the site, the wonderfully preserved urban fabric and the outstandingly significant finds made by archaeologists excavating the tell. The sea tower, probably an ancient lighthouse, is unique in the region as an example of ancient maritime architecture and the adjacent sea channel demonstrates the tremendous importance of this city in maritime trade routes throughout antiquity. Qal’at al-Bahrain, considered as the capital of the ancient Dilmun Empire and the original harbour of this long since disappeared civilisation, was the centre of commercial activities linking the traditional agriculture of the land (represented by the traditional palm-groves and gardens which date back to antiquity and still exist around the site) with maritime trade between such diverse areas as the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia in the early period (from the 3rd millennium BC to the 1st millennium BC) and China and the Mediterranean in the later period (from the 3rd to the 16th century AD). Acting as the hub for economic exchange, Qal’at al-Bahrain had a very active commercial and political presence throughout the entire region. The meeting of different cultures which resulted is expressed in the testimony of the successive monumental and defensive architecture of the site including an excavated coastal fortress dating from around the 3rd century AD and the large fortress on the tell itself dating from the 16th century which gives the site its name as Qal’at al-Bahrain, together with the wonderfully preserved urban fabric and the outstandingly significant and diverse finds demonstrating a mélange of languages, cultures and beliefs. For example, a madbasa (an architectural element used to produce date syrup) within the tell is one of the oldest in the world and reflects a link to the surrounding date palm-groves, demonstrating the continuity of traditional agricultural practices from the 1st millennium BC. The site, situated in a very strategic location, was an extremely significant part of the regional Gulf political network, playing a very active political role through many different time periods, which left traces throughout the different strata of the tell. Qal’at al-Bahrain is a unique example of a surviving ancient landscape with cultural and natural elements.

Qal’at al-Bahrain

Bahrain isn’t a very big country. You could probably drive from end-to-end the long way in an hour. Despite its size, it has been a historically significant port. The image above is of the old ruins of the Qal’at al-Bahrain: Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun. Just on the other side of these ruins, not in camera, are the ruins of an old Portuguese fort which was on the site. There is also a museum on the site which is the best cultural center I’ve seen in the Gulf.


Qal’at al-Bahrain

Qal’at al-Bahrain is a ruin of a Portuguese fort in Bahrain. It is also known as Bahrain Fort or Portugal Fort. This is also an archaeological site, hence it was named as a culturally important site as part of the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bahrain in 2005. Since 1954, there have been plenty of archaeological excavations at the site through artificial mounds that measure up to 12 meters in height. Each mound contains up to 7 stratified layers that unearthed various antiquities beneath them as part of the excavation works.

These mounds were believed to have been created by the former settlers on the site. These settlements were dated back to 2300 BC until the 18th century. The various settlers in the area included Greeks, Persians, and Portuguese. The site also served as part of the capital of the Dilmun Civilization during this prehistoric era.

History of Qal’at al-Bahrain

The Portuguese Fort or Qal’at al-Bahrain was built in the 16th century. There are three strongholds that make up this fort along with two towers in the middle (or what is left of it). The fort is surrounded by walls that link these strongholds together. Meanwhile, the fort is also surrounded by a trench.

Qal’at al-Bahrain

The fort is located along the northern coast in the city of Manana within an open gulf. This fort was created during the time of the Portuguese invasion of Bahrain in the 16th century. The main base of the Portuguese at that time was located in Hormuz. However, they built this fort after taking control of the islands of Bahrain to dominate trade activity within the Persian Gulf.

The fort served as a reminder of how the Portuguese occupied Bahrain under the command of D. Antao de Noronha. It was in 1602 when the Portuguese were driven out of Bahrain by the forces of Shah Abbas.

Excavations and Archaeological Interest

Qal’at al-Bahrain is made of artificial mounds that have built up over the years and years of human occupation on the site. For this reason, it has been the site of archaeological interest, especially after it was named as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bahrain. It is believed that only about 25% of the entire site has been successfully excavated and different types of structures could still be unearthed. In fact, archaeologists have been able to recover a wide range of structures and materials from the site which varies in terms of use including military, residential, public and religious applications.

One of the most distinctive objects that had been unearthed in one of the walls of the fort is Barbar pottery. These pottery items date back to the same time as the Barbar temples. However, there are also other pottery objects that had been dated to originate way before the temples. There are also copper and ivory items that were excavated that point to a potential ancient trade link. Other items that had been found so far include fishing tools, copper pieces, mirror, sarcophagi and more.

View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bahrain.

Gary Arndt
Gary Arndt

Gary began traveling the world in 2007. His travels have taken him to over 200 countries and territories and 400 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

He is a 3x Lowell Thomas Award winner and a 3x North American Travel Photographer of the Year.