Manon Mollard

The pearling season would begin once the shimal wind stopped blowing. Every year at the end of spring, Bahrainis would gather on Bu Mahir seashore (today the only remaining natural coastline on the island of Muharraq) and bid farewell to the thousands of men boarding the dhows.

Bahrain means ‘two seas’ in Arabic, referring to both its salty waters and its submarine freshwater springs – one possible explanation behind the fact that the quality of Bahraini pearls is unrivalled and their appeal universal. Before the age of air travel, jeweller Jacques Cartier visited Bahrain to source gems himself. Since the second century, the exploitation of pearls has sustained the livelihood of all strands of society: divers, crew members and captains, boat owners and builders, suppliers, sail makers, creditors, merchants and brokers.

At the pinnacle of pearl hunting, from the 1850s to the 1930s, Bahrain’s prosperous capital Muharraq was also the pearling capital of the Arabian Gulf. Unlike the temporary barasti houses of most settlements and pearling centres in the region (put together with palm leaves and trunks), Muharraq was largely constructed out of coral stone fetched from the shallow seas. This small Middle Eastern country built itself and its reputation around the pursuit of pearls, powering the country’s economy and shaping its culture, social structures and national identity.

By the 1930s, the world economy was facing irreversible changes, cheap competition was introduced by cultured pearls in Japan, and oil was discovered in Bahrain. By the 1950s, the pearling industry was decimated. Muharraq lost its intimate connection with the water as vast swathes of land were reclaimed. But although the old city suffered from negligence and many of its properties were destroyed over the years (only around 20 per cent still stand today), its warren of narrow alleys typical of Islamic cities escaped development pressures and, almost miraculously, remains nearly untouched – attention and activities shifted instead to the other side of the harbour to the district of Manama, the current capital. From modest divers’ houses to opulent courtyard residences to commercial warehouses, the traditional family ownership of Muharraq’s properties fortuitously also helped protect and preserve the built evidence of the city’s former glory.

On the brink of irreversible damage, the Gulf’s sole surviving pearling centre is now being looked after: its layered history inherited and appropriated, its residual traces rediscovered, exposed and recomposed into a meandering 3.5km pearling pathway snaking its way through the lanes of the old city. Sixteen structures are opening their doors to both locals and visitors, and 400 houses along the route are having their facades restored. As the past is uncovered – literally, by peeling away the skim coat of lime and clay plasters to expose the coral stone – new structures are being commissioned to hold remnants of crumbling walls and ancestors’ stories. Without threatening the existing, the future is being constructed atop the legacy of the old.

Softer interventions include the necessary consolidation of precarious structures, and the removal of hazardous and incongruous street paraphernalia – from electrical cables to shop signs to air-conditioning units – in an attempt to decrease acoustic and visual pollution. More daring are the bold commissions for new buildings by both local and foreign architects. On the southern tip of the island, a visitor centre by PAD Architects juts out onto Bu Mahir’s narrow strip of white sand, housing a permanent exhibition about the points of interest punctuating the pearling pathway. A pedestrian bridge by OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen will depart from the seashore and fly above the new neighbourhoods on reclaimed land to re-establish the original connection between old Muharraq and the water. Also by the Belgian practice are street lights that resemble large floating pearls and 16 pockets of public space designed in association with Bureau Bas Smets. Cars, which have become a scourge in recent years suffocating the donkey-cart alleys, will be accommodated in four multistorey car parks by Christian Kerez, the last structures to be built and due to complete in 2021.

Valerio Olgiati’s Brutalist concrete canopy, the colour of burnt coral, and a second visitor centre within the dense urban fabric, hovers above the old city’s rooftops.Studio Anne Holtrop’s contribution includes the redevelopment of the oldest market in town, Suq Al Qaysariyyah (AR February 2020), where wood was stored to build dhows and pearls traded in coffee shops. Exhibitions will be dotted along the route – one on women’s role in the pearling society at the Jalahma House, one on folkloric medicine at the Badr Ghulum House, and the Fakhro House will look back at the personal history and influence of the Fakhro family – while a new pavilion will host a museum of pearls.

Welcoming contemporary architectural languages is seen as carrying a ‘political message’ by Noura Al Sayeh, Head of Architectural Affairs at the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities (BACA, which replaced the Ministry of Culture in 2015). ‘It means that we, as a society, can also create buildings of value’, she explains. Following BACA’s delineation of the old Muharraq district, the site was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2012 – unusually, ‘Pearling: Testimony of an Island Economy’ (its full name) recognises the role played by the sea and includes the Bu Mahir seashore and three hayrs (offshore oyster beds) on its listing. While the classification of a site can, even unintentionally, kindle a fear of innovation and produce congealed heritage and cities frozen in aspic, Bahrain’s pearling pathway proves that neither the recognition of what is at risk of being lost nor the aspiration to transmit past traditions are incompatible with the introduction of new ideas, materials and aesthetics.

Terrazzo, which became popular in Bahrain in the 1940s for flooring, is being reinvented with flecks of oyster shell as street-light posts holding bright floating pearls and to pave, finish and furnish the necklace of small public squares. Pieces of furniture and playground structures are ambiguous and light touch, almost abstract – the skeleton of an idea that remains open to the interpretation of both young and old passers-by. Commenting on how rapidly locals appropriated them, Al Sayeh says, ‘It was very beautiful to see because it was as if these spaces had always been there in the city’. Deemed structurally unsound, torn down buildings made way for welcome places of respite, unsuspected as you turn a corner and envisioned as chance encounters between residents and visitors.

While ‘culture tourism is sustainable and economically desirable as it generates more revenue, appreciation and curiosity’, BACA President and extraordinary force behind the pearling pathway Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa is quick to point out that ‘not all forms of tourism are equally desirable to an island as small as Bahrain’. Currently, Bahrain is mostly attractive as a weekend trip and for people within the region, including a popular holiday destination for its more conservative neighbours – Saudi Arabians just have to drive across the 25 kilometres of King Fahd Causeway, connecting the two countries since 1987, to indulge in pleasures forbidden at home. Al Khalifa is confident the appeal could broaden because, with its fortified cities, temples and burial mounds, with foreign powers and empires leaving their cultural traces in its strata, ‘Bahrain’s archaeological heritage is unique in the region’.

In a world without pearls or oil, Bahrain will face an inevitable re-invention. ‘Cultural tourism is the only market dependent on specific non-renewable resources, especially cultural heritage, which is unequally distributed and cannot be recreated once destroyed’, argues Al Khalifa. The country’s first UNESCO site, the former harbour and capital of Dilmun, Qal’at al-Bahrain, was listed seven years earlier while the Dilmun Burial Mounds were added last year. Recognising exceptional value and abiding by a strict list of criteria, the list of World Heritage Sites confers prestige but, diverted from its original intention, it is sought after by countries seeking to promote tourism at any cost: attracted by the associated financial windfall, they prioritise the extraction of value rather than the preservation of heritage.

Projects of rehabilitation often start with recurring moans objecting to their initiative, hammering home that the structures are derelict and do not warrant investing time or resources – and the pearling pathway is no exception. Once the ‘value’ of historic assets has been proven, which UNESCO’s seal of approval helps, the wheels turn and another, more penetrating, threat looms. Notions of ‘rehabilitation’, ‘regeneration’ and ‘revitalisation’ have been bastardised, corrupted by the exploitation of local customs, the ‘catalysts’ spearheading a transformation to the point of betrayal. Questions of authenticity rapidly rise to the surface: the risk of staged traditions, the burning question of ‘who is this for’. Touristification is guilty of the same crimes as gentrification: untouched corners of the world find themselves pressured to sell their souls to greater forces, folding in front of prospective gains.

In Muharraq, ‘the project was envisioned first of all to serve the local community and to reverse years of neglect and lack of maintenance’, insists Al Sayeh. As testified by the numerous ‘bachelor rooms’ advertised on its alleys’ walls, many migrant workers moved in, mostly single males sharing rented accommodation. The pearling project seeks to rebalance the demographic make-up through the provision of cultural programmes and community spaces, with the aim to ‘bring families back’. Long-term agreements were negotiated with property owners to protect the future use of buildings. Evening out the complex equations involving residents and visitors is a delicate operation, but they are not always incompatible. While Murad House will be rehabilitated into a guesthouse for visitors and its magaid(a room where women would gather and guests be entertained) will be a tea room open to the public, the Murad Majlis will continue to serve as the majlis(equivalent space for men) for the local Murad family. Visitors will have to pay when parking at the new multistorey car parks but residents will park for free. These small acts make a big difference in levelling and pacing the evolution of a place. It softens and prepares a transition, rather than rushing into it.

Heritage has become a strategic target in conflict, and its destruction a weapon of war and propaganda, denying communities cultural references and identities – it is true around the world, and in this region in particular. Beyond the preservation of its own history, the ambition in Muharraq is to create buildings that, in a few decades from now, will themselves be worthy of conservation and conversation. While some of the interventions along the route are less convincing than others, they form a coherent whole and expose the narrative of extraction, trade and beauty that defined Bahrain’s island society over thousands of years. Understanding its legacy will undoubtedly take time. Flocks of tourists will fortunately not turn up overnight and threaten the integrity of the old city. Awarded a prestigious and well-deserved Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2019, the project was rightfully praised for its boldness. While the attention with which it looks back at the past does not make it afraid to look at the path ahead, its strength also lies in the pace of its approach: this refreshingly daring initiative isn’t fast-forwarding to its future.