Excavations at an archaeological site in Bahrain are shedding light on one of the oldest trading civilisations.
Despite its antiquity, comparatively little is known about the advanced culture represented at Saar.
The site in Bahrain, thought to be the location of the enigmatic Dilmun civilisation, was recently discussed at a conference in Manama, the Gulf nation’s capital, organised by the UN’s educational, scientific and cultural body (Unesco).
The meeting was devoted to wide-ranging debate on heritage tourism; Bahrain is a Unesco regional headquarters and one of its key attractions is an abundance of ancient sites.
At Saar (named after the closest modern village), with the scorching sun rising ever higher in the sky, a Bahraini archaeologist patiently explained to a group of workers how to re-point a low wall in a state of near collapse.
This meticulous maintenance of the archaeological settlement marks a turning point in the way Bahraini specialists are dealing with the vast store of historical remains on the island.
According to Salman al-Mahari, the Bahraini archaeologist in charge, the Saar settlement divides into two: a residential zone and, at a small distance, the cemetery where the inhabitants buried their dead.
“This site has provided a lot of information about daily life,” he explains. “This has enabled us to compare finds made here with objects unearthed at other locations on the island. It is evident that this city and graveyard date back to the early Dilmun period.”
Dilmun, one of most important ancient civilisations of the region and said to date to the third millennium BC, was a hub on a major trading route between Mesopotamia – the world’s oldest civilisation – and the Indus Valley in South Asia.
It is also believed that Dilmun had commercial ties with ancient sites at Elam in Oman, Alba in Syria and Haittan in Turkey.
As Salman al-Mahari confirms, the team is now preserving what has been found to ensure that the historical findings are made accessible.
“For 4,000 years this site was underground so it was sheltered,” he says. “Now after excavation, it is exposed to the elements. We have no immediate plans to carry out further excavations. We want to protect the site and to interpret what we have unearthed for visitors.”
The Saar site is far from being the most significant relic of the Dilmun era. On the northern tip of the island, archaeological expeditions have uncovered seven successive levels of settlements at the Qal’at al Bahrain (the fort of Bahrain). Under the oldest and most extensive fort, three consecutive Dilmun cities as well as a Greek city dating back to 200 BC have been unearthed.
The site is impressive: the outer walls enclose an area of several hundred square metres. At its centre lie massive carved stones marking the entrance and walls of a chamber containing an altar once flanked by copper-faced pillars.
Next to it is another structure where the presence of blackened animal bones and charred earth suggest a chamber for sacrifices to the gods.
On the other side of the central altar, a flight of carved steps leads down to a pool, a deep, stone-walled well built over one of the numerous underground springs where one of three principal Sumerian deities – Enki, the water-dwelling god of wisdom – supposedly lived.
The abundance of sweet water flowing from springs which still supply the island with much of its drinking water was one of the cornerstones of Dilmun. The island was an oasis of fertility in ancient times in a mainly desolate region. This could have given rise to a legend that Bahrain may even have been the biblical Garden of Eden.