What lies beneath ... An ancient skeleton in a prehistoric grave that has been reconstructed at the Bahrain National Museum

 

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The old gentleman lies with his legs and arms drawn to his chest. A position which makes him look like an embryo in a womb despite his 6 ft height. On his right just inches away from his hands, lies a small bronze spear. Clearly he had not had the time to use it, but it shows that this is a man not to be trifled with. Or at least he was, in his time. You see, the man whose face is now inches from my own has been dead for over 4,000 years.

In Hamad Town, one of the main archaeological sites in Bahrain, I gaze at the intact remains of the skeleton, then shift my eyes to the surroundings: an impressive landscape of thousands of domed burial mounds - standing like huge ant-hills. This was the resting place of the people who inhabited the island over the millennia.

Mohammed Jafar, the site director, tells me that these graveyards have bewildered academics all over the world. "Many claim that Bahrain was a sacred island where people came to bury their dead for eternal life," he says. "See the position this man lies? Like a baby? That's because these ancient people used to think that the dead will be resurrected in the same form they were born in".

Mohammed keeps on explaining but his deep voice and heavily Arabic accent is only an echo in my mind. I am busy trying to memorise the whole three kilometre square of burial mounds - in a couple of months it will all be built over. The government has plans to replace it with a new housing estate.

But the government cannot be blamed for running over these treasures - wherever one digs in Bahrain there's a strong possibility that you'll discover evidence of the island's ancient past. Bahrain, approximately twice the size of my homeland, Malta, is only an hour's flight away from Dubai. Up to a generation ago, virtually all trade came and went by sea. Its name is reminiscent of this - Bahrain means 'the two seas' - the land between the Gulf states and India. Now a spectacular 25-kilometre bridge, the King Fahad Causeway, one of the largest in the world, links it permanently to Saudi Arabia.

It is a land where petrol (gasoline) is cheaper than water. Where people do not have to declare their earnings. Where salaries are tax free. Its history of oil discovery and the subsequent infrastructural boom is fascinating. But that was not the motive of my stay in Bahrain. I was leading a team on a filming assignment: We had to see whether this place lives up to its claim: that it may have been the geographical location of the biblical Garden of Eden.

Mirza, a very slim Bahraini from the Directorate of Tourism, is our guide around the wonders of the land. Mirza is a popular guy in Bahrain, everywhere we go, everybody knows him and with his winning sense of humour, everybody is willing to accommodate him. "I am your master key," he jokes.

He tells us he had been twice to Malta on business. "I bought a couple of boat souvenirs from Malta and a mug with a plastic cockroach at the bottom - a nice shock for my guests," he chuckles. We trust him immediately.

He first takes us on the trail of Gilgamesh, the hero of the world's first written tale. "Thousands of years ago, Bahrain used to have a different name. It was known as 'Dilmun'. And in the earliest writing tablets in the world, found in Nippur, south of Iraq, Dilmun is called The Garden of Eden.

"One of these tablets tells the story of Gilgamesh - the King of Uruk (ancient Iraq). This Gilgamesh spends much of his time looking for the sacred island of Dilmun where, he was told, there is an underwater plant which gives eternal life to whoever gets hold of it.

"You know, the fabled 'plant' actually was the oyster. The ancients believed that anyone who ate the flesh of the oyster and the crushed pearl within would live forever. For example, even Cleopatra gave Marc Antony a potion of crushed Bahraini pearls so that he would never die."

Mirza says that to this day Bahraini natural pearls are considered the finest in the world.

"Cultured pearls are illegal here. We have the originals."

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The birth of Islam in Bahrain

Ancient architecture

Life before oil

Bahrain's First Family

 

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Bahrain was the first country in the Gulf where oil was discovered. The first well was dug in 1932; by contrast the first major oil strike in Saudi Arabia - now the world's largest crude producer - came only in 1938.

 

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