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Bahrain, State of

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The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture What is This? Provides in-depth historical and cultural information on over a thousand years of Islamic art and architecture

Bahrain, State of

[Arab. Dawlat al-Baḥrayn; anc. Dilmun, Tilmun, Gr. Tylos].

Independent state in the Persian/Arabian Gulf, comprising an archipelago of low-lying islands. The capital, Manama, is on the main island, also known as Bahrain. Bahrain Island is c. 586 sq. km in area and consists mostly of sand-covered limestone, with a fertile strip in the north and oases fed by natural springs. The discovery of oil in 1932 transformed Bahrain’s revenues, replacing pearls as its main export. Many of the islands are linked by causeways, including one between Bahrain Island and Muharraq Island, and a major causeway (1986) links Bahrain with Saudi Arabia. The indigenous population (c. 500,000) consists mainly of Shi῾a and Sunni Muslims. From the 3rd millennium BCE to the mid-1st Bahrain can be identified as Dilmun, a powerful trading center between the east (e.g. Iran, the Indus Valley) and Mesopotamia, with a colony on Failaka Island (Kuwait) from c.2000 BCE. Islam came to Bahrain c.630 CE. Occupied by the Portuguese in the 16th century, it was under Iranian rule until 1783, when the Arab al-Khalifa dynasty was established. In 1861 Bahrain came under British protection. It declared independence in 1971 as a constitutional monarchy. (This article covers the art and architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries, which also covers the modern period in a more general context.)

Modern Bahrain has been rapidly urbanized, with old buildings and souks destroyed and air- conditioned buildings in Western styles constructed. However, in the 1970s the preservation and restoration of historic buildings began. In Manama and Muharraq there are houses built in the traditional manner with gypsum, coral stones, palm trunks and branches, bamboo and woven palm-matting. The early 19th-century palace known as the House of Shaykh ῾Isa, in the old quarter of Muharraq, was built by an ancestor of the al-Khalifa family and restored after 1976. It is rectilinear in shape with four courtyards of different sizes. The design is uncluttered with an inventive use of wood for such features as beams, gratings and ceilings; it has a wind-tower added in the 20th century. Wind-towers still exist elsewhere in the old district of Muharraq and in Manama, where houses with wind-towers and carved wooden balconies are preserved in the ῾Awadiya Conservation Area. Also in Muharraq is the restored House of Ahmad Siyadi, a 19th-century pearl merchant, which has a three-tiered carved wooden balcony over the main entrance, wooden ceilings and fine plasterwork. The house that Shaykh Hamad ibn ῾Abdullah al-Khalifa built in 1907 in the village of al-Jasra was restored in 1986. It is known as Jasra House and is part of the Bahrain National Museum. It is a traditional patrician courtyard house with separate sitting rooms for men and women, and winter- and summer-rooms. Some fine modern buildings have been erected. Bahrain University in the south of the island, with a spacious, central plaza and simple, white buildings, was designed by the Japanese architect Kenzō Tange (1913–2005). The Bahrain National Museum (designed by Cowiconsult and the Danish architects Rasmussen, Krohn and Hartvig) opened in 1988.

Bahrain’s modern-art movement began c.1952 with the departure of Ahmad Qassim Sinni (b. 1933) on a scholarship to England and the formation of the Arts and Literature Club. The club preceded other artistic societies that encouraged amateur painters, actors and musicians, and in 1956 the first group exhibition in Manama displayed works by amateur artists. The Bahrain Art Society, founded in 1983, sponsors exhibitions inside and outside the island-state, and offers courses in painting, interior design, pottery, sculpture, Arabic calligraphy and photography. Among the older Bahraini artists are Abdul Aziz bin Muhammad al-Khalifa, Ahmad Qassim Sinni, Abdul Karim Orayid (b. 1936), Rashid Oraifi (b. 1949), Nasser Youssef (b. 1940), Rashid Swar (b. 1940) and Abdullah al-Muharraqi (b. 1939). All of them adopt a realistic style, depicting local scenes and portraits as a means of cultural identification. Most Bahraini artists were trained in Cairo or Baghdad, and in their illustrative, realistic style, they eschew Expressionism and Surrealism. In contrast, ῾Abd al-Latif Mufiz (b. 1950) is an Abstract Expressionist painter who represents the new modernistic trend in Bahraini contemporary painting. Badie al-Sheikh (b. 1955) and Abdul Elah al-Arab (b. 1954) are representatives of calligraphic art; the former employs Arabic characters within an abstract composition, while the latter, himself a calligrapher, uses a legible geometric kufic.

Such traditional crafts as embroidery, pottery, basket-weaving and cloth-weaving are practiced. Some jewelry is still made; it exhibits strong Indian influence in its patterns and styles, as well as in the technique of beaten gold and the use of multicolored stones and pearls. Pottery is a specialty in ῾Ali village; basket-weaving in Budayya and Karbabad; cloth-weaving in Bani Jamra; goldsmiths operate in the Manama souk; rush mats used in mosques and homes are made on Sitra Island.

Archaeological activities began with Captain E. L. Durand, who undertook a survey for the Indian Foreign Service in 1879 as a cover for a secret report on the economic and political situation of Bahrain. The first modern, scientific excavations began in 1953 with a Danish team led by Peter Glob (see Bibby). In 1970 the Third International Conference of Asian Archaeology was held in Bahrain. A Directorate of Antiquities was established, and an Antiquities Law was passed to regulate excavations and protect sites and monuments of historical value. Bahrain’s first museum was opened, and its collection grew, to be transferred in 1988 into the specially designed National Museum in Manama. Rescue archaeological work has also been undertaken.

The government is an active art patron, and oil revenues have also enabled a number of individuals to invest in particular in Islamic art; Arab and Islamic works of art have been imported to meet this demand. An important collection of Korans and Islamic manuscripts made by ῾Abd al-Latif Kanu formed the nucleus of the Bayt al Qur῾an, a museum and cultural center in Manama devoted to the Koran, which opened in 1990. It also contains bindings and examples of calligraphy, some by modern calligraphers and painters. The Bahrain National Museum is the focus for archaeological work, the restoration and preservation of old buildings and the promotion and exhibition of modern art. It also collects selected works by modern Bahraini artists. The museum contains objects from the archaeological sites and the Islamic period as well as traditional dress and crafts, which are also displayed in the Heritage Center (housed in the old court-house buildings in Manama).

Bibliography

  • Beit al Quran, Manama, http://www.beitalquran.com (accessed June 11, 2008)
  • G. Bibby: Looking for Dilmun (London, 1970)
  • G. King: “Bayt al-Muayyad: A Late 19th Century House of al-Baḥrayn,” J. Arab. Stud., iv (1977), pp. 27–45
  • R. al-Oraifi: Architecture of Bahrain/Al-῾imārat al-Baḥrayniyya, Bahrain Heritage (Bahrain, 1978, 2/1989) [bilingual text]
  • C. Hardy-Guilbert and C. Lalande: La Maison de Shaykh ῾Īsā à Baḥrayn/The House of Shaykh ῾Īsā in Baḥrain (Paris, 1981) [bilingual text]
  • A. Salman: Al-tashkīl al-mu῾āṣir fī duwal majlis al-ta῾āwun al- khalījī [Contemporary art in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council] (Kuwait, 1984)
  • A. Clarke: Bahrain: A Heritage Explored (London, 1986)
  • W. Ali, ed.: Contemporary Art from the Islamic World (London, 1989)
  • K. al-Muraikhi: Glimpses of Bahrain from its Past (Bahrain, 1991)
  • T. Waly: Private Skies: The Courtyard Pattern in the Architecture of the House, Bahrain/Nahj al-bawāṭin fī ῾imārat al-masākin, al- Baḥrayn (Bahrain, 1992) [bilingual text]
  • P. Vine: Bahrain National Museum (London, 1993)
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