What are the top things to do in Bahrain?
You could be forgiven for thinking that there aren’t many things to do in Bahrain. Tripadvisor highlights both the Tree of Life and the King Fahd Causeway amongst the top twenty places to visit in Bahrain. However, before you dismiss this Middle Eastern island nation as an unappealing destination, check out our suggestions for a perfect day out as there is more to this nation than you may believe.
The Al Fatih Mosque
Having pried ourselves away from our sun beds, we hire a car for a few days and start our cultural exploration of Bahrain. We don’t have far to go as the Al Fatih mosque is just minutes from our hotel, a huge domed marble structure built on reclaimed land in 1984.
The AL Fatih Mosque is the largest in Bahrain housing over 7,000 worshippers. It is a stunning building carved from Italian marble, with gleaming Indian teak and glass blown in Austria. It’s a relative newcomer, as great architectural delights go, having been completed in only 1988.
Signs advise us to sign in at reception but there’s no clear sign of where reception is. We circle the building, gazing in awe at the huge wooden gates, the many archways and the intricate decorations carved in the stonework.
Arriving back where we started, gasping from the heat, we are merrily directed to reception (note the entrance is through the giant doors directly opposite the main car park) where I dress conservatively in a long gown and head-dress. Far from feeling oppressed, I find the black ‘abaya’ quite liberating (no worrying about those extra pounds I piled on due to my back issue or cellulite exposure in this baby!)
Visitors are accompanied into the mosque by a FREE tour guide. Our guide speaks brilliant English and seeks to dispel many of the myths surrounding Islam in the West.
Yes, men can take up to four wives but only if their existing wife agrees. Women have much greater power in Bahrain than you might believe with couples entering into a contract on marriage. The wife stipulates her terms of marriage, whether she wishes to work, study or live in a specific place. Whilst this is a novel notion, I find myself not entirely believing it to be true for all women. Maybe that is because I am subject to western brainwashing on this subject.
The inner courtyard is as fascinating as our guide’s stories. Grey marble floors gleam under the baking sun and patterns form on floors as sunlight streams through the decorative window carvings. We speak in hushed whispers as locals engage in Arabic lessons and silent prayer and we receive a brief education into the key premises of Islam. These are praying only to one God and not worshipping deities, priests or other messengers.
We are fortunate enough to be inside the main mosque when the Imam conducts his call to prayer, rather astonishingly from a microphone placed at the front of the large hall and not from the top of the tower as I had always romantically imagined. Our guide continues to explain the ritual of Muslim prayers and even demonstrates the delivery. I find it incredibly moving and have to secretly wipe away a tear.
I am intrigued to discover that praying is like a sundial of Muslims around the world. At set times, determined by your location, the five daily prayers are conducted. As one nation concludes their prayers the next nation on the sundial continues uniting Muslims around the globe. It is a cool notion even if modern-day events suggest that reality is not quite as united.
Back in reception, the guide encourages us to take away a wealth of leaflets providing insight into Islam, how the religion has shaped modern thinking and the treatment of women. Even for atheists, it is truly a worthwhile visit, as much for the building as to gain a better insight into Islamic life.
Qalat Al Bahrain (or Bahrain Fort)
Qalat Al Bahrain is an unexpected delight. We park in the shade of the scant trees lining the parking lot and gravitate towards metal sculptures of giant ants. They resemble leftovers from a ‘war of the worlds’ scene, ominous sentries intended to discourage intruders from entering the fort perhaps.
Through a Moorish courtyard offering respite from the heat, we pay 2 BHD (around £4) each to visit the museum and fort. In reality, I suspect you could get away without paying a thing. We did not see a soul during our visit, nor was there anything to prevent you walking straight from the parking lot to the fort.
It’s an impressive fort from a distance, a world heritage site dating back to 2,300 BC. Yes, as mind-boggling as that is, there has been continuous occupation on this site for over 4,000 years!
Finding myself alone
As we enter the solid wooden doors, we pause – left or right? I’m transfixed by corridors bathed in sunlight beneath dramatic arches. As though hypnotised, we follow their alluring lines and so taken am I by the shadows cast by the arches, I don’t realise my husband has wandered off leaving me alone.
I emerge to eerie silence half expecting him to jump out to scare me but my calls go unanswered. As travellers, we are so used to visiting ancient sites surrounded by crowds of tourists, it is a blissful (and slightly unnerving) sensation to have this incredible monument to myself. Excited, I take the stairs to the inner courtyard of the fort where I stand in awe of the huge site in front of me. It is amazingly empty. What a great place it is to explore too with nooks and crannies, hidden staircases and tiny chambers.
Breaking the rules
Sadly signs warn against climbing the walls. Being alone, I try to find a route to the top of the walls searching entrance after entrance and stairwell after stairwell. Sadly, all are barred or the walls are too crumbling to risk the climb. By the time my husband reappears, I’m frustrated and urging him to give me a lift up.
Less rebellious than me, he is not keen pointing out the eagle-eyed cameras surrounding us that I had entirely failed to notice. Disappointed, I admit defeat and head for the remarkably intact outer walls. We pass through a huge gateway leading to an inner walkway with chambers below. My husband urges me to descend into one and given his penchant for trying to wind me up, I suspect he is up to no good.
I descend warily finding a cool chamber lit by narrow chinks of light illuminating tiny slivers of stone. A well full to the brim beckons, a curious sight in a long abandoned fort. Even more curious is how it suddenly lights up as I approach. Arabic letters illuminate glass panels inside of the well and as I finish trying to snap pictures in the half-light, a loud rumbling starts. I panic, thinking I am about to experience an earthquake until my husband reassures me.
A booming voice suddenly fills the room with Arabic words, conveying a message I cannot understand. I am imagining witches casting spells and don’t care to hang around any longer bustling up the stairs to rejoin my husband in the sun.
By this point, I’ve lingered so long in the heat that my husband has had enough but I cannot bring myself to leave, still wanting to unleash the child within and run amok through the corridors and chambers of the site. I stay behind as he heads to the visitor centre. I circle of the walls, revelling in the solitude and the joy of having an ancient ruin to myself.
The fort is the absolute highlight of my trip and you cannot come to
Bahrain without making a trip here.
The Tree of Life
The fort and the mosque could easily take up the bulk of a day but if you do not linger too long, you can also fit in a trip into the desert. There you will see there is more to Bahrain than towering hotels, apartments and shopping malls.
Be warned, however, the tree of life is simply a lone tree in the middle of a dusty plateau. Don’t expect spiritual enlightenment, burning bushes or even a place to grab a drink. Instead, you find an unspectacular tree circled by a strange wall, like something from Star Wars.
Our visit is brief as we jump out of the car to grab a picture in the relentless heat. What makes our visit to the Tree interesting is the journey to get there. It is not a pretty route but provides a better insight into the underbelly of Bahrain.
Asphalt highways melt into roughshod dusty roads crisscrossing the desert. Not the desert of Laurence of Arabia with towering sand dunes, but rocky landscapes which would look more at home on the moon.
Long pipelines, like lines on the London Underground, snake across the barren landscape. Distant towers bellow breaths of fire and pre-fab housing lines the highway, home to oil workers presumably dying of boredom in this lunar region.
It is unlike anything I have ever seen and really drives home what the Middle East is all about! Oil is the elixir of life here thanks to the British who struck oil for the first time in 1932!)
What are your top tips for Bahrain?
So there you have it, based on my preference for buildings and scenery we managed to find three incredible places to visit in Bahrain. Maybe you have visited and have your own personal favourite in which case I would love to hear from you.
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