The Society of Antiquaries of London recently hosted the prestigious Beatrice de Cardi lectures, focusing on archaeological discoveries spanning the past 22 years in Bahrain.
In 2001, Bahrain’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, initiated the Anglo-Bahraini Early Islamic Bahrain Project. Its goal was to unravel the journey of Islam across Bahrain, a nation strategically positioned as a bridge between the Arabian Peninsula and Persia and East Asia.
Timothy Insoll, the Al-Qasimi professor of African and Islamic Archaeology at the University of Exeter, delivered the lecture and emphasized that while Bahrain’s archaeological history was rich, the Islamic period was previously neglected. Scholars and archaeologists often favored topics like early Christianity or Greco-Roman sites, overlooking the significance of Islamic archaeology.
Insoll and his teams aimed to rectify this gap in knowledge. Their investigations aimed to understand the period from the 7th to 11th centuries when the inhabitants of Bahrain predominantly transitioned from Christianity to Islam.
During the 2010s, their excavations unveiled Bilad Al Qadeem, identified as the epicenter of Islamic settlement from the 11th to 13th century AD. These findings provided insights into the diet, water storage methods, and environmental conditions of that era. The presence of mollusks suggested a wetter environment compared to the current arid desert, potentially contributing to the spread of parasites through trade routes.
Mangrove trees, imported from Madagascar and East Africa, were used to support Bilad Al Qadeem’s palace. Diseases could have arrived with these beams on the ships. The research team established a museum in 2016 to display extraordinary funerary monuments with finely carved calligraphy, showcasing the names of those interred.
Plans are underway to create a park integrating a historic canal from the Bilad Al Qadeem era to provide cooling and water circulation, demonstrating its 1,000-year-old function.
In the past two decades, Insoll noted significant changes in the field of archaeology in the Gulf region. Foreign experts who used to conduct periodic fieldwork are now being joined by local experts and students. This shift aligns with the broader trend of increased engagement with local communities in archaeological work.
For example, Salman Almahari of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities is the first Bahraini to earn a PhD in archaeology. Moreover, excavations at sites like Samahij, an ancient Nestorian Christian dwelling on the isle of Muharraq, revealed the interplay of religions in Bahrain’s history. The inclusion of local voices and their memories of historical sites have enriched the archaeological discourse and deepened our understanding of the region’s heritage.