City of Muharraq

Muharraq is the predominate city of Bahrain’s second largest island, located east of Manama. The capital of Bahrain from 1810 to 1923, the peak years of the pearling economy, the city sits just above sea level over an area of about seven square miles. Muharraq literally means “the place of burning”. Muharraq exhibits an underlying settlement pattern unique to Islamic cities consisting of tribal zones, each identifying with their mosque sited at the centre. The streets are often merely small alleyways. Muharraq has existed since the Dilmun era some five thousand years ago (Larsen, 1983), but came to prominence in historical records only during the era of Tylos (ca. 250 BC.–250 AD.), when Bahrain came under the domination of the Seleucid Greeks. The town’s geographical position, abundant supply of underground water and convenient anchorage for ships made it an important natural gateway to Bahrain.

Muharraq: The Pearling City

For centuries, Muharraq was the Arabian Gulf’s pearling capital: it was the Gulf’s most active and prosperous pearling city; the largest number of pearl divers lived here; virtually everybody was involved directly in pearling activities or its supply industries; and Muharraq boasted the largest fleet of pearling vessels.

Muharraq can be distinguished from many other Arabian Gulf settlements in that, by the last decades of the pearling economy, the city was built largely of coral stone. In contrast, around the turn of the twentieth century several of the Gulf’s smaller pearling centres, such as Dubai, were almost entirely barasti settlements (temporary houses made of palm material). This stone construction ensured the survival of significant elements in Muharraq that now constitute a unique testimony of the pearling societies not only of Bahrain but of the Arabian Gulf region.

The decline of the pearling economy and the almost simultaneous discovery of oil and gas resources in Bahrain saw Muharraq’s role diminish, and that of the city of Manama, located just across the harbour on the main island of Bahrain, expand. The development pressures on the new capital helped Muharraq retain much of its atmosphere. Despite a great deal of modern construction, in most parts of Muharraq city, the street pattern remains the same as in the pearling era, characterised by a maze of narrow, often picturesque alleyways.

Places to visit in Muharraq: