Qal’At Al Bahrain

In the desert, the sand is in permanent motion. As the wind blows, a song emerges. In interaction with the sand, the wind constantly creates and destroys its work like a sculptor with self-iconoclastic tendencies. The shape of the dunes is as if they were drawn up with a ruler. The distances on the carpet-like ground of the desert allude to a calculated design since the relations of the valleys and peaks are almost identical. In this slight differentiation lies, however, the power and movement of sand as matter in terms of the Lucretian Clinamen. 

It is in this way that a vast part of the Arabian Peninsula is moulded. Crafted forms and hence objects or artefacts cannot endure in this hostile climate. Their memories seem to have been permeated by the sand. Mnemosyne on those sites is transmitted in the “longue durée” by intangible practices such as falconry.

A counter-example to this situation is Qal´At. Have you ever heard of it? Or, perhaps, of Dilmun? They are in fact one and the same. They are situated in today’s Bahrain. But where actually is Bahrain? Is it in the Emirates, somewhere between Abu D(h)ubai? Indeed, Bahrain is a small island in the Persian, or should we rather say in this case Arabian Gulf, between Doha and Saudi Arabia, even though it is surrounded by Saudi Arabia alone. It is also the only country on the Arabian Peninsula that has a considerable number of Shiites as well as Sunnis. 

But this short text is not about Bahrain as such. It is rather about Qal’At/Dilmun and its visual history through time, about the site as a whole, a museum-object. Its opening took place in 2008 after excavations undertaken during the last five decades by Danish, French and Bahraini archaeologists. 

Qal’At Al Bahrain is one of the most ancient places in the Gulf. The city’s beginnings date back to 2200 BC and it remained active up until the seventeenth century, when the site gradually started to lose in importance. It is a UNESCO world heritage site since 2005. The site is surrounded by palm groves, though the vicinity to the skyline of Manama (Bahrain’s capital) also provides a remarkable visual backdrop. 

Its strategic position, more or less in the middle of the Arabian Gulf, was quite important through the ages as a kind of economic trade hub. This becomes clear by visiting the site. In the context of the Bilderfahrzeuge project, those trade exchanges on the island through the centuries were intercultural interactions where the question of movement was a crucial one at the level of language and, most of all, at the level of the artefacts that were exchanged in the harbour or even remained there, no matter how low or high their value was. What emerges is a kind of unreflected, inherent globalism, very different from the conceptual bon mots of contemporary scholarly discourse, where everything is, necessarily, global.

View of the site of Qal’At Al Bahrain with the museum building (centre). Image: Qal´At Al Bahrain. Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun, The Site Museum, ed. by Pierre Lombard, Manama 2008.

The nationalisation of a, from its very beginnings, deeply international monument is given by a discrete Bedouin-like architecture (it is the museum building of the site, emerging in the background of the photograph shown here, surrounded by palm trees), also found elsewhere in the Gulf and carried out by Danish architects. As the catalogue of the site underlines (Qal´At Al Bahrain. Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun, The Site Museum, ed. by Pierre Lombard, Manama 2008, p. 22) there are several affinities between Nordic and Gulf architecture, so that the global character of the site is transported within contemporary interactions of an architectural kind by underlining simultaneously the respective traditions that are involved in its making.

In the early city of Dilmun, the Sumerian and Indus Valley civilizations coexisted, while artefacts deriving from Mesopotamia were also circulating. Late Dilmun potters incorporated neo-Babylonian as well as Achaemenid forms, blending the “form vehicles” they were experiencing as they moved around in their city. This mercantile crossroads between the regions mentioned above also included Central Asia. But also during the Hellenistic period, among the epigones of Alexander the Great, it became an important financial hub after maritime expeditions of the Seleucid and Characene kingdoms, which extended up to modern Iraq. Glassware and gold objects were imported from Dilmun. Moreover, languages such as Greek, Arabic (south Arabic), and Aramaic were also blending with each other on the island at that time. Even imitations of Egyptian jewelry were found at Dilmun. Coins showing Alexander the Great with Zeus on the reverse travelled in many different empires and continents but showed a local affinity in the case of Dilmun. Zeus was replaced with Shams or Shamash, who was worshipped in Eastern Arabia, hence a kind of adapted image vehicle in the respective cultural and religious contexts it was moving around.

After a long period of silence, there is again evidence of trade that continues to a greater or lesser degree with the places already mentioned like India and Africa, but also with China (9th and 10th century). This is referred to in the museum as the “Islamic Period”, which actually does not really do justice to the very complex and interwoven cross cultural phenomenon (of course this is no different from the periodization of Early or Late Christianity). The fortress of Tylos was even re-converted into a commercial warehouse during the Mongol dynasty of the Khans. In the 14th century, the Persian dynasty of the Hormuz took control of the region and built the fortress that is still visible now, until, in 1507, Portuguese traders took over the settlement in pursuit of their maritime empire. Constant battles between the Portuguese, the Ottomans and the rulers of Hormuz followed. It is interesting in terms of the melting pot Qal’At Al Bahrain that the fortress also shows evidence of Genoese expertise concerning the construction of its bastions. Fire bombs or grenades found there are identical to those in another Hormuzi fort, built in Sohar in Oman, that shows that these weapons too were truly vehicles in themselves. Shipments of date honey were exported annually to China along routes that were taken up again in 1561, continuing the relations with the so-called “Middle Empire”. Pottery, as well as spices and currency were in return also imported from the southern Song emperor Ningzog. Chinese porcelain brought Persian craftsmen to imitate its blue-white so that Chinese and Persian-Chinese porcelain coexisted at Dilmun as surviving objects manifest.

How many of these invisible hubs are still to be found is not only a matter of archaeology but also, and most of all, of an art-historical stance in widening the canon not only in matters of aesthetics but also in matters of geography, where the West is only a small agent among many others and more important ones, as the story of Qal’At Al Bahrain eloquently tells. 


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