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Antiquity to Institutionalization of al-Khalifa Rule

Bahrain Fort
Bahrain Fort


Rise and Fall of Dilmun
Hellenization and Sassanids
Coming of Islam and Qarmati rule
Twelver Shiites and Jabrids
Portuguese and Safavids
The British-Al Khalifa Alliance
Institutionalization of Al Khalifa Rule

The Tree of Life, Photo Shutterstock.

Bahrain has long been identified by archaeologists as the ancient island-state of Dilmun where, according to a famous Sumerian epic of the second millennium BCE, King Gilgamesh of Uruk discovered ‘the flower of eternal youth’. Ancient Mesopotamian mythology describes Dilmun as a pure and holy place. Its sweet-water wells and lush vegetation were said to have been a paradise on earth, a happy place where mortals could escape sickness and death. It was in this island-garden, according to one of Sumer’s creation myths, that Enki, the great God of Wisdom and The Sweet Waters under the Earth, impregnated the goddess Ninhursag.

In the past, some Western scholars have even identified Dilmun/Bahrain with the biblical Garden of Eden. They claim confirmation in the lonely old tree that has somehow survived in the desert plain in the centre of the main island. Its local name, ‘The Tree of Life’, has helped fuel scriptural speculation.

Tree of Life – On the Map.

Modern scholars dismiss these speculations. The name ‘Dilmun’ may, at an early time, have meant merely ‘lands far away to the south’. It may later have been used also as a Mesopotamian designation for al-Ahsa, in present-day Saudi Arabia. This group of oases has always been geologically and culturally akin to Bahrain and was presumably once part of ‘the greater Dilmun trading empire’. Likewise, Failaka Island, off the coast of Kuwait, almost certainly fell under the influence of Dilmun during part of the second millennium BCE and may therefore also have temporarily borrowed its illustrious name.


Rise and fall of Dilmun

The present archipelago has been inhabited since at least the seventh millennium BCE, when most of its islands were probably still connected to the Arabian mainland. In the late fifth and early fourth millennia BCE – after Bahrain had been separated from the Arabian Peninsula – the main islands were inhabited by small communities that traded, probably through intermediaries, with settlements in southern Mesopotamia. During that era the climate of the Gulf gradually turned more arid, making the Bahrain islands, with their sweet-water springs and extensive palm groves, stand out from the surrounding area. The origins of the Dilmun-paradise myth may therefore be found in much older stories about the lush greenery of these islands. These could have been transmitted by the traders who plied the coastal routes between the settlements of southern Mesopotamia and the Bahrain archipelago

At the end of the fourth millennium BCE the islanders’ trade with southern Mesopotamia appears to have ceased. This was when mysterious ‘Dilmun’ is first mentioned in the Mesopotamian records as a source for copper. But archaeological evidence indicates that by about 3200 BCE Bahrain was inhabited only by small fishing and farming communities. Only around 2500 BCE did more substantial settlements begin to appear on the north-western coast of the main island. It seems that Bahrain had by then established itself as a regional entrepôt for commodities such as timber, dates, and pearls. Because of its convenient location and fresh-water springs, it might well have become the commercial centre of what archaeologists call ‘the greater Dilmun trading empire’.

Hellenization and Sassanids

The empire of Alexander The Great - 330 BCE
The empire of Alexander The Great – 330 BCE

The first European conqueror to reach the waters of the Gulf was the Macedonian King Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). After he had defeated the Achaemenids in 331 BCE, Alexander sent out several expeditions to explore the Gulf. In 323 BCE, the year Alexander died, two of his ships reached the coast of Bahrain Island. The Greeks named the archipelago Tylos. Some Hellenistic ruins survive in the north-western part of the island, indicating that a layer of Greek culture was added to the island’s already intricate mixture of Sumerian, Arab, and Persian cultural elements, among others. The Hellenization of Bahrain continued under Alexander’s successors, the Seleucid kings, and their successors, the Iranian Parthians. The Parthians had crushed the Seleucid armies in the second half of the 2nd century BCE and presented themselves as the rightful heirs of Alexander, passing on the flame of eastern Hellenistic culture.


The Sassanids - 4th Century
The Sassanids – 4th Century

Under Parthian rule Tylos retained its Greek name, which was used alongside its later Persian designation ‘Mishmahig’. Tylos/Mishmahig appears to have been prosperous. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder, writing in the 1st century CE, noted that the islands were famous for the quality of their pearls. In the 4th century the Parthians were conquered by another Iranian dynasty, the Sassanids. The Sassanids were interested primarily in trade, and they controlled the southern coast of the Gulf through proxies among local Arab tribes. The reticence of the Zoroastrian Sassanids about the direct exercise of local power explains why Christian Nestorian communities blossomed in eastern Arabia, while their co-religionists in Persia were being persecuted.

By the early 5th century CE many of Tylos’ inhabitants seem to have been Christians, while others probably continued to worship ancient local deities. Present-day Muharraq and Manama, then known as Samahij and Tilwun respectively, were the seats of Nestorian bishops until at least 835 CE. There was a Nestorian monastery at Samahij, and the Arab governor of Tylos seems to have been Christian. It was one of these Christian governors of Tylos who, according to Muslim tradition, accepted Islam after the Prophet Muhammad invited him to join the Muslim umma (community) in the early 7th century. Christianity in Tylos was only gradually submerged by Islam. Nestorian Christianity may have remained the dominant religion on the islands for a century or more. There is now only a tiny community of indigenous Christians in Bahrain.

Coming of Islam and Qarmati Rule

The Umayyads.

Little is known of the early Islamic history of Bahrain. The Arab dynasty of the Umayyads in Damascus (661-750 AD) probably exerted only indirect control over what was then called Iqlim al-Bahrayn (Province of the Two Seas). This Umayyad governorate, which gave the present state of Bahrain its name, covered the entire southern Gulf littoral, including its islands, from southern Iraq to the Strait of Hormuz. The area prospered particularly under the early Abbasids, the Muslim Arab dynasty that succeeded the Umayyads in 750 and transferred the empire’s capital to purpose-built Baghdad, in central Iraq. Because of the more eastward orientation of the partly Persianized Abbasids, the ancient trade routes from Iraq to the Indian subcontinent regained their importance. The inhabitants of the Bahrain archipelago, then known as al-Awal, could not help but profit from this commercial revival.

Qarmati rule

Trade in the Gulf was disrupted again after social unrest broke out on a large scale in southern Iraq, in the second half of the 9th century. Black slaves on the Iraqi plantations rose in violent revolts. Indigenous opposition groups expressed their defiance of the Sunni orthodox rulers in Baghdad through the language of heretical religious groups, among whom were the Carmathians (Qarmatis or Qaramita), an Ismaili Shiite offshoot whose adherents claimed to follow the teachings of the semi-legendary Hamdan Qarmat of Iraq. In the 890s Abu Said al-Jannabi, the mahdi of the Qarmati community of al-Awal, established an independent state that comprised al-Awal and parts of the eastern Arabian mainland.

Qarmati rule was characterized by a general absence of taxes and a generous welfare system. The Qarmati state could therefore be viewed as a forerunner to the ‘welfare states’ in the Gulf that have developed during the present oil era: its social dependence on a servile underclass, mostly of black African slaves, parallels contemporary dependence on foreign labour. The Carmathians even enslaved fellow Muslims who rejected the Qarmati creed. In the 10th century they ravaged eastern Arabia and attacked Mecca, removing the Kaaba’s holy Black Stone and enslaving many of its inhabitants. The Carmathian state finally succumbed in 1077, under the raids of Sunni Bedouin tribes loyal to the Turkish Seljuks of Anatolia, although some regional tribes continued to cling to the Carmathian doctrines until at least the 15th century.

Twelver Shiites and Jabrids


During the later Middle Ages many Bahraini traded their radical Ismaili confession for the more quietist Twelver branch of Shiite Islam, an orientation that was less likely to provoke the orthodox Sunni powers of the time. During the 13th century, Bahrain Island became an intellectual centre for Twelver theology, although the majority of the island’s inhabitants were probably still Ismaili. On the outskirts of modern Manama, one can still visit the tomb and mosque of Maitham bin Ali al-Bahrani, a famous Twelver cleric who lived and taught in Bahrain until his death in 1280 AD.

The region remained politically unstable after the fall of the Carmathians. Local power reverted to the Banu Jarwan, when the Jarwanid dynasty conquered present-day Bahrain, Qatif, and al-Ahsa in 1305-1306 AD. The Ismaili Jarwanid rulers appointed Twelver imams to pivotal administrative and legal positions. Apart from their ‘official’ incomes, these clerics acquired substantial wealth and social power through the extensive date plantations they controlled and from their financing of the pearl trade. The Banu Jarwan/Jarwanids were defeated in 1330 AD by the troops of Qutb al-Din Tahamtam of the Kingdom of Hormuz and were forced to accept their Sunni kings as overlords, but the Twelver clerics retained their positions, and Bahrain continued to be an important intellectual centre for Twelver Shiism.


The Jabrids.

Around 1460 the Banu Jarwan/Jarwanids were overrun by the Sunni Bedouin Jabrid dynasty, from Najd, in the central Arabian Peninsula. The new Jabrid rulers frequently refused to pay tribute to the kings of Hormuz, resulting in clashes with this regional power. The Jabrids also appointed Sunni Maliki judges in their territories and forced leading Twelver clerics to convert to Sunnism. In the end, however, the Jabrids failed to eradicate Shiism from Bahrain. During their seventy-year rule most common people – peasants, pearl divers, and weavers – held on to their faith under persecution. Likewise, some Twelver clerics with independent sources of income continued to study and teach Twelver Shiite theology.

Portuguese and Safavids

Portuguese in the Gulf, the strait of Hormuz
The Strait of Hormuz

The Kingdom of Hormuz and its dependencies had thrived on the spice trade from Asia to the late medieval Christian states of Mediterranean Europe, but the resurgent European polities of the early Renaissance would no longer be content to have luxury goods delivered to their doorsteps by Italian, Arab, and Jewish intermediaries.

Starting with the Portuguese seafarer Vasco da Gama in 1498, European explorers, traders, and soldiers (often working together) sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in search of adventure and profit. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to build a network of trading posts and military strongholds in southern Asia and the Far East. From their base in Goa, they soon turned their attention to the Gulf. In 1515 they took Hormuz and in 1521 Bahrain, which they partly fortified but ruled only indirectly, through Hormuzi governors.

Portugese rule

Bahrain Fort, partly built by the Portugese, Photo Shutterstock.

Under Portuguese-Hormuzi rule the people of al-Awal/Bahrain – from about this time the whole of the archipelago would be named ‘Bahrayn’, while ‘al-Awal’ became the designation for its main island – suffered economically. The Portuguese demanded high tribute and tariffs and attempted, with little success, to divert the spice trade away from the Gulf to their own sea route around Africa. They also took over Bahrain’s lucrative pearl trade with India by using their own vessels and merchants, thereby circumventing local traders. In 1602, however, the Portuguese were ousted from Bahrain by the Twelver Shiite Safavids of Persia. Under a Safavid governor, Twelver Shiite religious institutions were resurrected. The Safavids even persecuted Sunnis in their territories. Consequently, a substantial number of local Sunnis left the island or converted – or, in some cases, reverted – to Shiism.

The Safavids ruled until 1717, when they were chased from the islands by invading Omanis. Thus began a period of political turmoil, intrigue, invasions, and destruction. The German explorer Carsten Niebuhr, who visited Bahrain in 1763, when it was temporarily back in Persian hands, recorded in his journals that only 60 of the original 360 towns and villages of the islands were still inhabited. Out of the political violence and confusion of the 18th century emerged two unevenly matched powers: the Al Khalifa and the British. Together they would shape most of the modern history of Bahrain.

The British-Al Khalifa Alliance

Bani Utba, Bahrain, 1782-1783
Bani Utba, Bahrain

The ancestors of the present ruling family of Bahrain, the Al Khalifa, were among the Sunni Bedouin tribes, known collectively as the Bani Utba/the Utub, who migrated from central Arabia to Kuwait in the early 18th century. In 1766 the Al Khalifa were among the group of Utub that sailed from Kuwait to the Qatar promontory, settling on its north-western shore. This location was convenient to the rich pearl banks of Bahrain, where these Utub clans had commercial interests while they resided in Kuwait.

In 1782, restless Utub tribesmen moved onto the Bahrain islands – then controlled by the Persians through an Omani governor – provoking an unsuccessful Persian-Omani attempt to expel the Utub from the area in 1783. In the wake of their surprising victory, more Utub settled on the overwhelmingly Shiite Bahrain islands.[/two_third]

The British East India Company
The British East India Company

As a result of the victory of the Utub over the Persians, the Al Khalifa clan gained political supremacy on the archipelago. The present dynasty’s founding father, Ahmed bin Khalifa (known as al-Fatih, the Conqueror), who ruled until 1794, successfully thwarted Omani and Persian attempts to re-establish their authority. But Ahmed’s jointly ruling sons, Salman and Abdullah, were less successful and were temporarily reduced to the status of vassal of the Al Saud of Najd and the ruler of Oman respectively. On the death of Salman in 1825 the ruling family split into two competing branches. Each of the feuding sub-clans, one based in Manama and the other in Qatar, was supported by foreign allies. From time to time the islands were engulfed by violence, with the members of the wealthy local Indian merchant community – protected subjects of the British Raj in India – as typical targets.

The British East India Company had been present in the Gulf since the early 17th century. In 1816 the Company’s representative in Persia – the so-called Resident, in Bushehr (Bushire) – had visited Bahrain at the invitation of co-ruler Abdullah. They had signed an agreement of friendship which, in addition to encouraging peaceful mutual trade, allowed for the establishment of a company agency in Bahrain. The first ‘native’ company agent, a local Hindu merchant, was soon installed. This appointment marks the beginning of British-Indian political influence on Bahraini domestic and foreign affairs. The Political Resident of the Government of India, which had replaced the disbanded East India Company in 1858, would become kingmaker in Bahrain from his residence in Bushehr.

Institutionalization of Al Khalifa rule

In 1861 the Political Resident installed the 21-year-old Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa (‘Isa the Great’) as the new ruler of Bahrain, thereby effectively ending decades of internal strife. Sheikh Isa ruled peacefully under British supervision until 1923, when his former benefactors replaced him with his more malleable eldest son, Hamad. At that time British-Indian power in the Gulf – and Bahrain especially – had reached its zenith. In 1900 the ‘native’ agents in the Gulf sheikhdoms had been replaced by British agents from the Indian Political Service, who tended to rule the sheikhdoms as their personal fiefs. When oil was found in the Jabal al-Dukhan in 1932, the British designated part of these revenues for the construction of a colonial administration on which the modern state of Bahrain has been built. By creating a strong police force and exiling political dissidents to India, the British also drew the blueprint for the repressive political system on which the Al Khalifa rulers would come to rely after independence.

Charles D. Belgrave

For some thirty years the British ‘advisor’ Charles D. Belgrave was de facto ruler of Bahrain. The British Government of India had appointed him in 1926 as ‘personal secretary’ to Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, with the aim of further strengthening British control of Bahrain’s internal affairs. It was Belgrave who laid the foundations of the modern state’s administration, physical infrastructure, and security apparatus. In 1957 he had to leave Bahrain after becoming the focus of pan-Arab, anti-British demonstrations.

In 1942 Salman bin Hamad succeeded his father. He might have realized – from the fact that the British-Indian Raj had come to a sudden end in 1947 – that British support for his family’s authority might no longer be counted on. In 1948 Salman signed an accord with Saudi Arabia, thereby acknowledging the rising power of his ambitious neighbour. When Salman died in 1961, the authority of his successor, Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, was propped up by Saudi financial and military assistance. When the British announced in 1968 their political withdrawal from the region ‘east of Suez’, Isa bin Salman had not only embedded Bahrain in regional power structures but had also inherited a modern state with a distinct identity. There was therefore no pressing need for Bahrain to join the Lower Gulf sheikhdoms in what was to become the United Arab Emirates. On 11 August 1971 Bahrain became an independent emirate.

Further Reading

Fanack’s Bahrain country file provides a comprehensive overview about Bahrain, its history, politics, culture, economy...
Bahrain joined the Gulf Cooperation Council in May 1981, which also includes Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the ...
An overview of Bahrain's population, including a description of its ethnicities and other demographics.

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