The Siyadi House, home of a 19th century pearl merchant, is an excellent example of the best architecture from that period

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For architects, Bahrain offers a truly unique experience.

Here you can see the works of the most famous architects in the world, projects where only the sky has been the limit - not the thickness of the client's wallet.

We remember the first time we arrived in the Gulf. "This must be the architect's paradise," we thought. Buildings you couldn't imagine even in your wildest dreams - and then some straight from the wildest nightmares, but which country is without those!

What makes Bahrain unique for us is also its people, who unlike most other parts of the Gulf are extremely warm, welcoming you into their homes and allowing you to take in aspects of life in the Middle East you would not otherwise have experienced.

It is as easy to approach a shaikh (member of the Ruling Family) as it is to strike up a conversation with a taxi driver, and it is this kind of friendliness that makes visiting Bahrain especially appealing.

Being able to visit Bahraini homes also helped us observe close up the finer architectural points of a country which boasts a rich cultural heritage, a strong unique character and a history dating back almost to the very beginning of time.

So let's have a look at the local architecture.

Building through the ages

While sitting inside an air-conditioned limousine, driving along the wide boulevards running between the turquoise Arabian Gulf and the modern skyscrapers of the Diplomatic Area in Manama city it is very difficult to imagine how different the townscapes of the main cities in the Gulf were just a couple of decades ago - before the oil price rise of the Seventies.

At that time many of the now powerful financial centres were just small villages with none of the luxuries of everyday life that were known to the West.

Life went on as it always had, in perfect balance with the nature.

There were no glittering skyscrapers and no air-conditioning which is now an absolute necessity in the Gulf, especially during those steamy summer months July to August when the temperatures soar above 40 C.

(A word of caution here; for people like us who are more used to the cool climes of northern Europe, visiting the Gulf in August is not the most enjoyable experience. After one experience of the lethal combination of extreme heat and humidity, we make sure we visit the Gulf only in winter, which is still like a warm summer to us!)

Considering the very difficult climate it is hard to believe how anyone could have survived here before the advent of electricity and air-conditioning. But still there have been people living in Bahrain for over 5,000 years. How did they do it?

In cold countries like Finland, where we come from, it was possible to manage without electricity - to get warm people just wore more clothes and added more wood to the fireplace.

But how can you get you and your house cooler than the surrounding air - without any modern technology and air-conditioning?

Back to the basics

Due to Bahrain's long history, local architecture has had many influences, especially from India (the fantastic woodwork!) and Portugal, which makes it somewhat different from other Gulf countries.

A typical Arabic home in ancient times was built with the need for privacy in mind - an aspect of building that has carried over into modern homes as well. Everyday life had to be concealed from the prying eyes of the neighbours and passers-by.

However the hot weather in turn meant that much of the work had to be done outside - this led to the erecting of high walls surrounding the house, and eventually the courtyard inside the house.

Equally interesting is how the houses were built. Before the Industrial Age people usually used materials that were readily available.

In Bahrain where the sea is always close, it was only natural to use coral blocks that were then set in gypsum mortar.

A stable block from these primitive bricks had to be at least three blocks - or approximately 60 cms - wide to ensure good insulation. These thick walls helped keep the heat outside the door.

Palm trees provided the material for the beams and the roofs. And just like in any other hot country all the buildings were white to reflect the warm sunshine.

The windows were kept small, not only because of the need for privacy, but also to keep as much as possible of the heat outside.

Roofs were flat so that during the summer nights it was possible to go and sleep on the roof in the cool air under the sky (the Gulf enjoys very little rainfall when compared to most other parts of the world, so there is not much need for angled roofs as in areas where heavy rains are common).

An integral part of Islamic architecture is the use of geometric and symmetrical forms and the contrast between light and shadows. Since there is plenty of sunshine in this area, it is also important to provide as much shade as possible by means of architecture.

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Take a walk through the old areas of Bahrain (start at the Manama or Muharraq souks if you don't know where to go) and take pictures of all the fabulous ancient wooden doors. No two doors are the same. Some shops in Muharraq also sell these old carved doors as souvenir items.

 

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