The real Garden of Eden
Updated: Apr 7
Is actually located on a small desert island in the Persian Gulf.
On the northern tip of the island of Bahrain, in a natural cove that looks towards the newly built city scrapers, sit a collection of ruins generally labelled as the Bahrain Fort. It is a simplistically deceiving name to describe this complex and pivotal venue in human history. The site is so much more than a single fort. There are in fact eight separate archeological layers which reveal human settlement from the Bronze Age (2200 BC) to the 17th century AD. But to put this place into context, we need to go further north to ancient Mesopotamia where the world’s first written texts appear about 5,000 years ago.
Written on clay tablets, those texts ranged from laws to personal letters and financial transactions. One of the more puzzling things to appear on those ancient tablets is reference to Dilmun, a place that until recently no one could identify. The world’s first great piece of literature, the poem called the Epic of Gilgamesh, tells of how the hero travels to Dilmun to obtain eternal life from Ziusudra who had survived an epic flood. Many think this story was the inspiration for Noah’s Ark. Others link it to the Garden of Eden tale. Another ancient poem reads:
The land of Dilmun is holy, the land of Dilmun is pure. In Dilmun no cry the raven utters, Nor does the bird of ill-omen foretell calamity…. No one here says, ''My eyes are sick,'' No one here says, ''My head is sick,'' No one here says, ''I am an old woman,'' No one here says, ''I am an old man.'
Other, more practical texts, list the trade that occurred between Sumer, in ancient Mesopotamia, and Dilmun. This trade network provided vital supplies for the Sumerian civilization and described Dilmun as a rich and flourishing land.
But the location of Dilmun remained a mystery for thousands of years after those texts were written. As with all such stories, the tales traversed into the domain of legend and myth. With the decline of Mesopotamia, people forgot how to read cuneiform and even the name Dilmun disappeared from history. When those ancient texts were finally deciphered in the mid 19th century, the name came to light once more but without anything else it would be impossible to tie it to any particular location.
Finally, some curious Danish archeologists decided to dig around in Bahrain. Their excavations, in the mid 20th century, revealed enough material to definitively link ancient Bahrain with the legendary Dilmun civilization, and the modern fort site as its capital.
But the dig revealed a lot more than just ancient Dilmun. Several periods in human history were layered like a rich cake, waiting to be devoured.
A large “Second City” phase occurred in Dilmun between 2020 and 1750 BC during which the city occupied an area of about 12-15 hectares. It was surrounded by a large thick wall, had a main street 12 meters wide and several monumental buildings likely belonging to a palace complex. This palace complex was later restored and modified by the Kassites, a Mesopotamian dynasty in 1500 BC. For the next 400 years, the Kassites amassed great wealthy by trading date molasses which they manufactured in the old Dilmun capital. Bags of dates would be placed into rooms called madbasas, the depression channels in the floors would allow the juices of the dates run out and accumulate to be collected and sold as molasses. Over 100 cuneiform tablets have been recovered at the site which attest to the extensive trade during the Kassite rule. Then, for reasons unknown, the busy port was abandoned.
Centuries late, in 900 BC, life returned to the old city. This next period, known as the Late Dilmun, lasted to 300 BC. A local Bahrain ruler, King Uperi, built new palace structures on top of the ancient city. Later, an Achaemenid inspired building phase introduced public and private areas, large courtyards and a sophisticated sanitation system resembling those in the courts of Persia and Assyria. Inexplicable snake offerings were buried under room floors during this time. Curled up inside lidded round clay vessels, these snake remains continue to puzzle historians.
In 300 BC the face of the city changed forever. Alexander the Great's army landed on the island and renamed the city Tylos. A new Hellenistic phase took over during which the city prospered even further as a trading post in the vast Greek empire. Tylos flourished until the 2nd century AD and became one of the world's first multi-cultural cities. Greek, Arabic, Persian, Eastern European and Dilmun people all lived together in a large urban sprawl.
Glass and gold was imported into Bahrain and date molasses and other riches travelled from the East to the West side of the Hellenised world. How and why this busy trading port became deserted once again remains a mystery. The city lay dormant during the first two centuries of the new millennium.
In the early 3rd century AD someone elected to build another fortress there. Shaped as a square, it has a strikingly symmetrical design. Some coins and pottery provide dates for its construction but beyond that there are no texts deciphering its existence. It is possible that it formed part of the Sassanid dynasty’s administration network to control local tribes. But once again, the city and fortress fell into obscurity for several centuries.
When Islam came to the region, Bahrain’s new capital was placed further out on the coast and the old Dilmun capital functioned as nothing more than a fishing village. Yet, in 1250 it was unexpectedly resuscitated yet again. During the time of the Mongol empire, Salgharid Atabaks of Fars converted the old palaces into molasses producing madbasas.
A madbasa is a room with grooved floors where bags of dates were deposited and fermented, allowing the juices to run and accumulate in the grooves to become molasses.
Bahrain became a major molasses exporter. 15,000 kilograms of molasses were shipped to China every year. Payment in the form of Indian spices and Chinese coins returned in exchange and some of those buried themselves in the sands to be found centuries later. Wealth beckoned a new population influx into the old city.
Bahrain enjoys a naturally strategic position in the Persian Gulf. Whoever controlled it, would be able to control the shipping trade moving from Asia to the Arabic Peninsula and Mediterranean and thereby collect all the taxes payable on the products. The port city became a major prize for many enterprising empires. The Princes of Hormuz took control of the port city in the late 13th century and reinforced it with a new fortress to protect their trade route to the East. The Portugese were also very active in the waters during this period and after winning major naval battle they took control of the fort in the 16th century. Despite many attempts by various actors, the Portugese held on to it for 100 years. It was they who reinforced with the thicker walls, artillery and bastions we see today.
The Portugese construction effort proved to be in vain however. The coral passage towards the harbour eventually became too filled in with silt to allow ships to dock and vessels started unloading further up the coast in present day Manama. The ancient capital of Dilmun, port city known as Tylos and famous trading centre was abandoned with finality and forgotten in the 17th century.
MAP OF THE FORT AND ANCIENT CITY
The large red area on the bottom left is the Bahraini/Portugese fort which visitors can enter. The smaller red area below it are the remains of the ancient Dilmun city.
The red square is the Hellenistic fort.
The light grey is the natural harbour.
The dark grey are present day houses.
Visiting the Bahrain Fort is a very unique experience as so many facets its long history remain exposed. The foundation walls of the square fort house numerous madbases that were built into the floors centuries later. Remains of the old Dilmun capital are visible south of the main fortress walls and have only been partially excavated. The fortress itself seems to breathe with a life of its own. Ancient corals can be seen in the very rocks used to construct it and centuries old palm trees support every ceiling throughout the complex.
Standing on the top of the Portugese bastions, one has a high vantage point to see the old harbour and the new city of Manama in the distance. But this elevation is man made, an artificial hill created by thousands of years of human occupation. Perhaps the Sumerian texts were right, this is the land of immortality.