The Dilmun Civilisation: Archaeological Sites of Bahrain

Ancient street in Saar
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Bahrain might be a modern oil state, but it is also home to one of the oldest civilisations in the world. The Dilmun kingdom flourished here more than 4,000 years ago, and there are several archaeological sites around the island. Here you can see the places where these ancient people lived, worshipped and were buried. Two of Bahrain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites are remains from the Dilmun era.

The Dilmun Civilisation

Dilmun was an important trading centre that existed at the same time as the Sumerian civilisation of Mesopotamia. The exact boundaries are unclear, but the island of Bahrain was the most important part of the kingdom.

Steps at the Temple of Barbar
Steps down to the well at the Temple of Barbar

Dilmun is sometimes known as the “Land of the Living”. In mythological terms it is likely to have been the place where the hero Gilgamesh travelled to find the secret of eternal life (the Epic of Gilgamesh is the world’s oldest written story). Dilmun has also been proposed as the location of the Garden of Eden.

The Discovery of Dilmun

Remarkably, until the 20th century the Dilmun civilisation was virtually unknown. The ancient burial mounds that cover Bahrain were thought to have been offshore graves for people from the Arabian mainland, and no evidence of human settlement had been discovered. The discovery and excavation of towns and temples was largely the work of a Danish archaeological team who worked in Bahrain (and subsequently elsewhere on the Arabian peninsula) in the 1950s and 60s. It was this team that first connected their discoveries with the “lost” Dilmun civilisation.

If you are planning to visit Bahrain, or are just interested in ancient history, I recommend that you read Looking for Dilmun by Geoffrey Bibby, one of the leaders of the Danish team. Although the book was written in 1969, it is still the definitive work on Bahrain and the Dilmun civilisation (it is also very readable and gives an insight into the changes to Middle Eastern society in the second half of the 20th century).

UNESCO World Heritage

Two of Bahrain’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Burial Mounds and Qal’at al‑Bahrain – are from the Dilmun era (the third is the Pearling Heritage of Muharraq). A further site – the town and burial chambers of Saar – is on the UNESCO Tentative List.

Cylindrical burial mound
A reconstructed burial mound at Saar

Dilmun Sites in Bahrain

There are several archaological sites around the island. There are also museums where you can learn more about the sites and their history.

I have marked the places mentioned on this map. Note that it does not include Diraz, a minor site that I didn’t manage to visit. And that new excavations and discoveries are being made all the time, such as the recent discovery of a Dilmun Garden near Maqabah.

Museums

The Bahrain National Museum in Manama has lots of information about the archaeological sites and about the Dilmun culture and society. It has artefacts recovered during excavations, and reconstructions of burial chambers.

The Bahrain Fort Museum includes information about the different phases of Dilmun civilisation.

Dilmun Burial Mounds

There are more than 11,000 burial mounds on Bahrain, spread over 21 different sites. A mixture of mass graves and individual tombs, the mounds date back as far as 2200 BC. Typically they consisted of low cylindrical towers with separate chambers inside. The chambers were filled with rubble and over time the brickwork has been damaged and plundered, so that the graves degenerated into the rubble mounds that you see today.

Burial mounds
Burial mounds at Aali

You are likely to see burial mounds as you drive around Bahrain or visit the archaeological sites. One of the best places to see a large concentration of graves is beside the Shaikh Khalifa Bin Salman Highway in Aali.

Bahrain Fort (Qal’at al-Bahrain)

Qal’at al-Bahrain was the major city of the Dilmun era, and included a trading port as well as public and religious buildings. However, the site was subsequently occupied by the Babylonians and the Persians, and eventually the Portuguese built the massive Bahrain Fort on top of the Dilmun town, meaning that much of it is now lost.

Bahrain Fort and Dilmun remains
The remains of the Dilmun town outside the walls of the more modern Bahrain Fort

There are different periods of excavations around the Fort, but the area adjoining the walls is from the Dilmun period. I also found another partially excavated site not far from the fort (see map). The existence of mounds showed that this site was also Dilmun, and possibly associated with Qal’at al-Bahrain, but I haven’t been able to find any further information.

Saar

Saar is one of the best places to explore the Dilmun civilisation. There are two separate parts to this site. The first is the remains of the town, with a street, houses and a temple. A short walk from the town is the burial area. One of the mounds has been reconstructed to show how it would originally have looked.

Interior of burial mound
Inside a reconstructed burial mound at Saar

At present there are no information boards or visitor centre at Saar. This is likely to change if it becomes a World Heritage Site but for now visitors can enjoy the isolation and the ability to wander around as they please.

Barbar

Barbar is a complex of three different temples, centred around a fresh water spring. It is not known for certain which god was worshipped here, but Inzak (local equivalent of the Sumerian Enki, god of wisdom and fresh water) is a strong contender.

There is a visitor centre at Barbar with more information about the site.

Dilmun site at Saar
Pinnable image of the ancient town of Saar

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