Bahrain Celebrates Its History as a Pearling Center

Along the teeming narrow streets of this centuries-old trading port, and among the modern-day merchants of the old souk who have immigrated from across the Middle East, South Asia and beyond, an urban project is paying homage to 5,000 years of pearling history in Bahrain.

The newest part of the project is the Pearling Path, which opened in February. The urban trail can be followed as a free, self-guided tour that rolls its way through 3.5-kilometers, or just over two miles, of commercial and residential neighborhoods in Muharraq, a centuries-old city across the water from the modern capital, Manama.

The trail is part of the kingdom’s efforts to celebrate the rich history of this nation of small islands, which since the Bronze Age has harvested what many consider to be the world’s finest natural pearls. Oil has dominated here since it was discovered in the early 1930s but, as those reserves are being depleted, the country is trying to widen its focus to include the history of pearling.

The archipelago has natural underground freshwater springs that feed the land — which has nurtured farming for centuries in the unforgiving Gulf heat — and mix with the Persian Gulf saltwater, creating conditions considered ideal for nurturing the perfect pearl. Natural pearls, which oysters form inside them as a defense against irritants that invade its shell, often have irregularities in shape and color.

Walkers can follow the path by checking maps posted on billboards at the 17 stopping points in small public squares with seating shaded by flame trees. Lamps with pearl-shaped lightbulbs serve as signposts. Flecks of oyster shell known as mother-of-pearl embedded in the benches and the lampposts catch the sunlight.

On a recent spring day, with the Gulf temperatures still manageable, children played ball and old men gathered on benches in one of several small parks that dot the Pearling Path. Two representatives of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities accompanied this reporter along the route, now part of the Pearling, Testimony of an Island Economy UNESCO World Heritage Site. The cost of the project, financed by the government and a loan from the Islamic Development Bank, as well as private and corporate donations, was not publicly disclosed.

“The Pearling Path is a project that really celebrates not just the pearling history of Bahrain but the architecture heritage of the country,” said Sheikh Khalifa Ahmed Al-Khalifa, president of the culture authority. “It’s a testament to the pearling industry, and it was important for us to demonstrate that pearling has never ceased to exist in Bahrain.”

The tour meanders through the highs and lows of Muharraq’s history. The pearl industry collapsed almost overnight in the early 1930s, largely because of three factors: the creation by the Japanese of perfectly round and less expensive cultured pearls made in labs with human intervention; the global financial crisis of 1929; and the discovery of oil in Bahrain in 1932. But after decades of wealth generated by the oil boom, the government is moving to celebrate its ancient roots.

“In this region, there has been a renewed interest in reconnecting with a natural identity with cultural heritage, so pearls have come back to the forefront,” said Noura Al-Sayeh, the adviser for heritage projects for the cultural authority. “Until 10 or 15 years ago, most pearl merchants were still dealing with the pearls they had amassed during the 1930s. The demand was no longer there. But it is now.”

That sense of a rich past is evident on the trail. We stepped first into the mostly limestone former home of a wealthy merchant family, the Siyadis, and its majlis, or central meeting room. Much of the house dates to the 1850s, and elaborate flourishes inside and outside have been restored, such as stained glass and etchings on the edifice, which displayed the family’s wealth. The ground-level rooms of the home now exhibit some of Bahrain’s oldest jewelry, including pearls from 2000 B.C. that were uncovered from archaeological digs over the past few decades (there is a small admission price for exhibitions). Some of the tiny pearls almost look shriveled and, as Ms. Al-Sayeh described, “Flintstoney.”

One room contains a glass case of Cartier Art Deco jewelry from the 1920s (Jacques Cartier came to Bahrain in 1912, and a picture of him with four local merchants hangs nearby). Another glass case contains a scarf made of hundreds of tiny pearls, and a necklace of yellowish pearls that Ms. Al-Sayeh said was among the finest examples anywhere of matching pearls.

“We have an agreement with Cartier to have a rotating exhibition each year,” Ms. Al-Sayeh added. “And we have several pieces on loan from Mattar Jewelers, a seventh-generation family of pearl merchants in Bahrain, as well as Al Mahmood Pearls, another local merchant.”

As the Muslim call to prayer filled the air in the late afternoon, the path took us past dozens of small shops in the souk, from food stalls to jewelers to clothing stores, many catering to Bahrain’s large immigrant population.

These are juxtaposed by four almost-Brutalist gray parking structures, designed as part of the Pearling Path project, by the Swiss architect Christian Kerez, sprinkled throughout the old city like pieces of urban artwork.

“The biggest challenge in any sort of urban setting is parking garages,” Sheikh Khalifa said. “We want to balance their contemporary design with the surrounding historic design. We believe that any city is a living reflection of architecture, both old and new.”

Another structure, the dramatic visitors center, was designed by the Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati, with a soaring ceiling and pentagonal skylights notched randomly to allow in flecks of sunlight. It was built in 2019 over a former warehouse where the pearling boats would return with their bounty and visitors can still see the nearly century-old ruins of shops and work areas.

“This ceiling creates this very large room canopy which bridges the more contemporary side of Muharraq to the heart of the souk, creating this very large, shaded gathering space,” Ms. Al-Sayeh said. “For us, it was important to preserve these opened and unplanned public spaces in the city. We have music festivals here, and events during Ramadan and so on.”

Other stops on the path include a small restored mosque, the palm-lined courtyard of what had been a wealthy boat merchant’s home and the more modest home of a folk-medicine doctor who used medicinal herbs to treat eye, skin and lung infections among divers, as well as the homes of a pearl diver and the captain of a pearling boat. Another option for the truly pearl obsessed is a pearl-diving excursion, after which participants can keep any pearls they find, Sheikh Khalifa said.

But the Pearling Path offers something more than just the precious gem that has been sought for millenniums.

“Our first motivation is to preserve and conserve both our oyster beds, as well as all of these historic buildings,” Sheikh Khalifa said. “You don’t have to be a pearl diver to experience pearling. You can do it through the many stories that are being told every day on this path through our rich pearling history.”

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