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Pearls of Great Price

Bahrain’s UNESCO-crowned Pearling Trail celebrates the city-state’s past and present.

Divers return their nets full of clams to the dhow during Bahrain’s pearling heyday.
ABDULLA MOHAMMED AL KHAN / BAHRAIN HOUSE OF PHOTOGRAPHY

The Bahrain pearl is the stuff of legend. Gilgamesh discovered them. The Queen of Sheba wore them. Monsieur Cartier bought them. Widely considered to be the best in the world, the city-state’s pearls boast an illustrious history that trails back for many millennia. Indeed, Assyrian texts from 2000 B.C. referred to “fish eyes” from Dilmun (the ancient name of Bahrain), and Roman naturalist Pliny later described Tylos (Bahrain’s Greek name) as a place “famous for the vast number of its pearls.”

Yet it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that pearling in Bahrain truly hit its golden age. At the time, the nation supplied 80 percent of the world’s pearl market with pearls then considered more precious than diamonds. Top jewelers worldwide flocked to Bahrain’s shores to source pearls of perfection, whose superior quality is said to result from the unique mix of the nation’s freshwater springs and salty seawater (Bahrain means “two seas” in Arabic) combined with the warmth and high salinity of the pearl banks’ shallow water.

Merchants used a series of traditional sieves to size pearls for sale.
ABDULLA MOHAMMED AL KHAN / BAHRAIN HOUSE OF PHOTOGRAPHY

Like all proverbial pearls of great price, Bahrain’s gems share a history of blood, sweat and tears. Around 30,000 pearl divers in Bahrain’s then capital, Muharraq, devoted their lives to the industry during its heyday. For four months each year, they would bid their loved ones goodbye for the oyster beds that lie off the coast. Illness was widespread, food in short supply, and burst ear drums a given. The strongest men would dive 20 times a day, collecting an average of eight to 12 oysters per go — the majority of which would be pearl-less. Their only diving equipment: a turtle-shell nose clip, leather gloves for protecting fingers from the spines of sea urchins, a weighted rope, and a small bag in which to collect the mollusks. 

Since the work was so tough, divers were prepared in a traditional method before the start of each summer. A minor cut was made in the neck or shoulder to remove the diver’s “bad blood” and make him more tolerant to pain. Chalk or ash would then be applied to the cut as an antiseptic. Once the men headed offshore, the women were left in charge — leading prayers in the mosque, undertaking burial ceremonies, and running day-to-day activities of the city.

A worker repairs a sambūk, a traditional Bahraini pearling vessel, in the harbor.
ABDULLA MOHAMMED AL KHAN / BAHRAIN HOUSE OF PHOTOGRAPHY

This life in pearling’s prime time was not to last. In 1929, the Great Depression took hold, tightening purse strings and stifling spending. Japan began to create cultured — and consequently cheaper — pearls in freshwater mussels. And, in 1932, Bahrain became the first country in the Gulf to discover oil, leading divers to quickly abandon ship in favor of working in the newly-founded oil sector. The songs and dances associated with the rukba farewell and qiffal return ceremonies faded away, and the large pearling houses that once buzzed with life gradually emptied, falling deeper and deeper into disrepair. 

Workers weave fishing nets with the development of Muharraq in the background.
ABDULLA MOHAMMED AL KHAN / BAHRAIN HOUSE OF PHOTOGRAPHY

However, in 2002, fortunes changed. Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al-Khalifa, a pioneering figure in the region’s conservation movement and president of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, spearheaded the old capital’s first major restoration: the Shaikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa Center for Culture and Research, which she named after her grandfather, a great intellectual who worked tirelessly to improve Bahrain’s education system. The space quickly became a venue for artists, speakers, philosophers and poets to share their thoughts and ideas and — in the process — act as a catalyst for a new Muharraq. 

As the demand for cultural activities grew along with the need for conserving Bahrain’s heritage, the Center decided to restore the traditional houses of the nation’s bejeweled past. Fifteen years later, “the Pearling Trail” is now a well-trodden success: a 3.5-kilometer trail that winds its way around the Center’s 17 restored buildings in Muharraq, taking in residences and majlises (“sitting places”) of rich pearl merchants, along with shopping establishments, storage houses and the like. Three offshore oyster beds, built in 1840, are included in the trail, too, along with the Qal’at Bu Mahir Fort on the island’s southern tip, from which pearling dhow vessels departed and returned many months later.

Each space has been transformed with a new purpose. A simple pearl diver’s house, Bait al-Ghus, for example, now serves as a small museum displaying the basic tools of the trade. The walls of a coffee shop where pearl traders used to chat and play carom, a traditional board game, now tell of the history of qahwah, or Arabic coffee. Then there’s the Muhammed Bin Faris Music Hall, a space restored to its tuneful prime with free Friday night concerts, commemorating its namesake and the hall’s former owner, one of the most important and earliest musicians of the traditional sawt music. 

Rope-pullers haul in loads of clams onto the deck, where they will be shucked to find and collect any pearls.
ABDULLA MOHAMMED AL KHAN / BAHRAIN HOUSE OF PHOTOGRAPHY

The recently developed Kurar House provides a meeting place for elderly Bahraini ladies to pass on the unique art of Kurar embroidery to younger generations. And the Abdullah Al Zayed House for Bahraini Press Heritage provides an archive of the Gulf’s first newspaper, lending detailed insights into the nation’s pearling history. Further along the narrow lanes of Muharraq lies a small guesthouse for those in the arts industry, converted from the home of a merchant who traded in ropes and wood used to construct dhows. One of the largest and most elaborate buildings on the trail, the two-story Bin Matar House — once the grand residence of renowned pearl merchant Salman Hussein Bin Matar — now operates as an art gallery space for temporary exhibitions. 

On June 30, 2012, these efforts to restore bits of the city-state’s former glory were justly rewarded, as the Bahrain Pearling Trail was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List — taking its place behind Qal’at Al Bahrain (Bahrain Fort) as Bahrain’s second such heritage site. 

A pearl diver repairs a diving basket, worn around the neck while deep underwater to retrieve clams.
ABDULLA MOHAMMED AL KHAN / BAHRAIN HOUSE OF PHOTOGRAPHY

“The site constitutes an outstanding example of traditional utilization of the sea’s resources and human interaction with the environment, which shaped both the economy and cultural identity of the island’s society,” said UNESCO. The accolade became a springboard for the restoration of the entire old city of Muharraq — now one of the best-preserved historic cities in the Gulf region, with another 600 buildings currently slated for restoration. According to Noura Al-Sayegh, a Lebanese architect who works closely with Shaikha Mai on the restorations, the importance of the creation of the Pearling Trail is twofold: “We hope to improve the economy by creating cultural tourism as well as make Muharraq a more pleasant place in which to live.”

Though the only pearl divers nowadays are a few fishermen and hobby divers, Bahrain nevertheless remains inextricably linked to the sea. Most recently, the city-state began celebrating its maritime connection with the annual Bahrain Sea Festival, devoted to spotlighting the traditions of dhow-making, pearling and fishing. And so, the pearl legend continues. Visitors now discover them. The Duchess of Cambridge wears them. Christie’s New York celebrates them. Long may the legacy last. 

Modern-day Muharraq. The city served as Bahrain’s capital from 1810 until 1923.
PHILIP LANGE / SHUTTERSTOCK