This is a place where the new stares the ancient squarely in the face.
The Qal’at al-Bahrain—also known as the Fort of Bahrain—is a cavernous complex of ruins layered one on top of the other. Its cross-sections display some 4,000 years of the island’s history, from the early Dilmun civilization to the Islamic and modern periods. Various invaders, from the Portuguese to the Persians, have also left their traces.
The UNESCO-recognized site sits within walking distance of a large shopping mall and the glass towers of central Manama. It’s a perfect symbol of an ongoing tussle between archaeological heritage and infrastructural development across much of the Gulf.
In this contest, history usually takes second place. But Bahrain now has a relatively rigorous system to give archaeology a fighting chance, leaving experts to wonder if other countries in the region should follow suit to save what hasn’t already given way to skyscrapers.
“The government in Bahrain is driving through a priority for preservation,” says Robert Carter, professor of Arabian and Middle Eastern archaeology at UCL Qatar. “It’s not clear if there’s an equivalent drive here, but all Gulf economies are trying to diversify, and they see the potential of cultural tourism.”
Across town in the ultra-modern Bahrain National Museum, some of the artifacts extracted from the Qal’at al-Bahrain and other sites on the island are on display. On its website the museum proudly claims to be “the crowning achievement of the Kingdom of Bahrain’s ongoing efforts to preserve the nation’s heritage.” In an office down a corridor behind the exhibits is where the chief of heritage preservation at the Ministry of Culture, Salman Almahari, works with this mission in mind.
“Development is a must for our economy,” he concedes. “But we have to find a balance. We don’t want development to destroy 4,000 years of heritage.”
Almahari and his team are compiling a list of national heritage sites. They constantly update this list with lot numbers and geotagging data, which they share with the Ministry of Municipalities and Urban Planning. “Based on the law in Bahrain, if the ministry has a development request on a site, near a site or even in an area of potential archaeological interest, then they must come to us before issuing a permit,” he explains.
These requests are then reviewed by Almahari—without his approval, it would be illegal for any developer to break ground and build. “If there’s no archaeology then it’s not our concern and we’ll grant permission. If it’s close to a site then we will approve it but with certain conditions on the height, color and design of the building to maintain the site’s visual integrity,” says Almahari. “If there is a request for development in a known site then we don’t even review it, we just directly say no.”
In other parts of the Gulf the situation is different. In Qatar, for example, many of the country’s older buildings and districts have already been replaced by modern developments. “The old city center is gone, with the exception of just a few houses,” says Yasser Mahgoub, the chair of Qatar University’s department of architecture and urban planning.
The pace of the loss in Qatar has concerned researchers so much that instead of attempting to stop it, they are racing to document what is left so that future reconstructions will be accurate.[See related story: Researcher in Qatar Scrambles to Document Early Doha]
But authorities in Qatar are beginning to value heritage more seriously—one of Doha’s main tourist attractions, Souq Waqif, is in fact a reconstructed version of its original self. “A sense of regret is starting to emerge here in Qatar,” says Mahgoub.
Almahari says it’s not his place to tell other countries how to conduct their preservation and heritage policies, but he stresses that Bahrain’s approach is seeing results. “Building without permission is not allowed, and we have the right to call the police and stop it.”
While Carter agrees that Bahrain seems to be taking the issue more seriously than its neighbors, things still aren’t perfect. “There are significant pressures between the economics of development over heritage, which is why the economic argument for heritage must be made,” he says. “Naturally I think there’s value in preservation, but there are some people who will only see the economic argument.”
That’s something that Almahari is acutely concerned about too—he worries that his department risks a backlash from land owners who have been refused permission to build. From their point of view his department has devalued their once-valuable asset. “Now we are trying to push the government to buy their land and register it as an archaeological site that can’t be touched. But the problem here is obviously one of money,” he says.
As researchers and academics across the Arab world and beyond know only too well, convincing governments to part with their cash is a challenging task. Still, Carter of UCL Qatar thinks there’s an argument that could persuade them that archaeology is worth worrying about.
“There are questions of identity here in the Gulf,” he says. “Governments are aware that people don’t necessarily put their national identity before their family or tribe.” Through education and the celebration of national days, authorities are trying to promote a sense of national pride. “They can also do this through shared history,” Carter says. “It’s about finding out what Qataris or Bahrainis or Emiratis have in common, beyond living in the same geographical boundaries. As a historian, I can help provide some of that identity. That’s what museums here are all about.”