When we travel, we really enjoy adventures off the beaten path. That’s why we thought that a visit to Bahrain would be a great side trip when we were last in Dubai.
But…what is there to do in Bahrain?
Officially called the “Kingdom of Bahrain”, the country consists of a small collection of islands (33 to be exact!) that is situated just east of the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf. The main island of Bahrain, which is only 55km wide and 18km long, is actually connected to Saudi Arabia by a very long highway called the King Fahd Causeway. This four-lane highway is a very impressive series of bridges and causeways that spans around 25 km in length over the Persian Gulf.
We didn’t leave the main island and based ourselves out of the capital, Manama. There for only three days, we decided to see as much as possible so we rented a car to get us around the island easily. You don’t really need a car and can easily rely on taxis to take you around the capital. But if you want to head to more rural attractions, like the middle of the desert, you will need a car…don’t worry, being a nation that is rich in oil, gasoline is really cheap!
Here’s are some of the “highlights” from the three days we spent in Bahrain:
1. (Ahmed) Al Fateh Mosque – The Great Mosque
Opened in 1988, the Al Fateh Mosque is the main mosque in Manama and the largest in Bahrain, in which the official religion is Islam. The mosque is a very large and beautiful structure comprising 6,500 square meters and is able to accommodate 7,000 worshippers. The structure is quite magnificent to tour, with endless Italian marble floors and beautiful chandeliers. We were told that some of the lighting in the mosque came from the mosque in Cairo where the infamous photo of Malcolm X was taken.
To enter the mosque as a visitor, you must be accompanied by a guide. Women must wear an abaya which covers almost all of the body. For those (like us!) who are unfamiliar with the religion of Islam, the guide provided some good background education on the religion.
Here are some photographs of the interior of the mosque:
A window looking outside from the mosque
One of the many ornate chandeliers in the mosque (this one is imported from France)
Marble walkway, Al Fateh Mosque
2. The Tree of Life
Around 30km south of Manama, a 30-foot tree that is approximately 400 years old is (miraculously) growing in the middle of the desert, where no other vegetation is able to survive. We spent half a day driving through the desolate desert looking for this (darned) tree, which is supposedly one of the main attractions of Bahrain. As there are very few roads in the “outback” of Bahrain and they are poorly signed, finding this tree took us much longer than anticipated because we actually ended up taking a wrong turn, ending up in an oil company barracks.
The majestic tree of life!
When we finally found the tree (…and it is not difficult to find it once you are within a mile, since it really is the only visible ‘landmark’ in the middle of nowhere!), we were surprised at how poorly treated this tree was — there were bullet marks dotting the trunk of the tree and graffiti carelessly scribbled all over the tree.
In hindsight, we would have skipped this part of our Bahrain adventure. It definitely wasn’t worth a half a day’s drive in the hot, desolate desert. It is a tree growing in the middle of the desert, but beyond the fascination of its ability to thrive and survive, we’ve seen far more beautiful trees in other parts of the world.
Graffiti and bullet holes on the Tree of Life
What we encountered when we got lost driving in the desert – evidence of oil (everywhere in the desert!)
3. Qal’at al Bahrain – Bahrain Fort
The Bahrain Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage site and rightly so, as the structure is quite beautiful and it has revealed much about the history of Bahrain. It is known as the most important archaeological site in the country. It is believed that fort dates back to the sixth century AD and was occupied until 1800 BC when it was deserted and the town was subsequently covered with drift sand from the sea.
The first excavations of the fort started only in the 1950s and were carried out until the 1970s. What was uncovered was a massive site that visitors can now tour around and explore.
View of one entrance to the Fort.
Walkway through the Fort
View of the sea from the Bahrain Fort
4. Barbar Temple
Perhaps the most amusing part of our visit in Bahrain was the Barbar Temple. When we read about this archaeological discovery, we were pretty excited. We thought that it would be similar to the Bahrain Fort that we visited earlier in our journey, which was quite spectacular in size and very rich in history. When we finally arrived to the “temple”, our enthusiasm quickly faded as this is what we saw…
The Barbar temple…or rather a small excavation site of what was once a temple…
Admittedly, we hadn’t done much pre-reading about what we were to see at the Barbar Temple site, so we didn’t anticipate seeing just a small area of ruins. It was very quiet at the site and there was nobody around to ask questions, but at least there was a sign that gave a bit of history about the temple. Apparently there were three temples, but it was difficult to make much out from the archaeological excavation site!
Sign detailing the history of the Barbar Temple
Some parting thoughts…
One of the reasons that most visitors come to Bahrain is for the annual Formula One car racing that happens every April (we weren’t here for the race, unfortunately!). If you’re in Bahrain for the F1 and you want to experience a bit of the country’s culture, we recommend taking a visit to Al Fateh Mosque and the Bahrain Fort if you’re wondering “what to do in Bahrain”. Otherwise, in our opinion, Bahrain falls pretty low on the list of our favorite and memorable places to visit in the world.
One positive thing to note is that the dining options in Manama are actually quite extensive and the food is of world-class caliber. We were impressed with the many international cuisines represented here — in fact, some of the best Japanese food we’ve eaten was in Manama of all places! So, if you do end up here, you will definitely be well fed.
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