More than 4,000 years ago, Dilmun merchants traveled from Mesopotamia to the Indus River, titans of trade and culture before the rise of the empires of the Persians or the Ottomans
Over a millennia, the civilization that the Dilmun created on the back of trading in pearls, copper and dates as far as South Asia faded into the encroaching sands. It was not until an excavation by Danish archeologists in the 1950s that its past was rediscovered.
Now, with Bahrain in a deepening political crisis between its Sunni rulers and majority Shiite population, the connection to ancient Dilmun is one of the few unifying symbols on the island.
It is also provides a rare and vivid look at pre-Islamic life in a region with few sites celebrating cultures before the time of the Prophet Mohammed.
A distinguishing feature of Dilmun civilization was extensive burial mounds, which are still visible today — but under threat.
In the ancient settlement of Saar, about 10km southwest of Bahrain’s capital, Manama, archeologist and researcher Abdul Aziz Suwalih worries about modern developments that have chipped away at the honeycomb-patterned burial mounds. The mounds have been proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage site to join Bahrain’s ancient Dilmun harbor on the list.
“Bahrain was famous for holding the largest cemetery in the world by having more than 100,000 burial mounds. Now we have around 60,000 burial mounds. There are threats,” Suwalih told reporters. “Protecting the archeological sites in Bahrain is a big issue.”
In May, Bahrain hosted a conference by UNESCO — the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — that included discussions about preserving the burial mounds and other remnants of Dilmun civilization, as well as prospects for future digs and explorations.
The Saar settlement was excavated between 1990 and 1999 by the London-Bahrain Archaeological Expedition, though more work remains.
“It is the only Dilmun settlement that has been extensively investigated by archeologists,” Suwalih said.
There are more than 70 buildings in the settlement, some of which were extraordinarily well-preserved and showcase domestic life and worship in a society that followed the rhythms of the moon.