Bahrain was home to the Dilmun civilisation, a major Bronze Age trade hub that connected Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. The Assyrians and Babylonians subsequently controlled Bahrain.
Bahrain was a component of the Persian Empire governed by the Achaemenid dynasty from the sixth to the third centuries BC. Around 250 BC, Parthia conquered the Persian Gulf and expanded its power to include Oman. To control trade routes, the Parthians built garrisons along the Persian Gulf’s southern shore.
When the Greek naval Nearchus served under Alexander the Great in Bahrain during the classical period, the ancient Greeks referred to it as Tylos, the hub of the pearl trade. Nearchus is thought to have been the first of Alejandro’s commanders to visit the island, where he discovered a lush green land that was part of a vast commercial network; he wrote: “On the island of Tylos, located in the Persian Gulf, there are large plantations of cotton trees, from which sindones are made, of varying degrees of value, some expensive, others less expensive.” According to Theophrastus, a Greek historian, these cotton trees covered most of Bahrain, and Bahrain was known for exporting sticks with emblems that were often worn in Babylon.
Although it is unclear if Alexander’s intention to colonize the Greek immigrants in Bahrain was carried out, Bahrain became part of the Hellenized world: the higher classes spoke Greek (though Aramaic was still used on a daily basis), and Zeus was worshipped in the guise of the Arabian deity Shams. Even Greek sporting contests were held in Bahrain.
Strabo, a Greek historian, said the Phoenicians came from Bahrain. The Phoenicians’ homeland, according to Herodotus, was Bahrain. “In Greek geographers, for example, we hear about two islands, named Tyrus or Tylos, and Arad, Bahrain, which claimed of being the homeland of the Phoenicians, and displayed remains of Phoenician temples,” stated nineteenth-century German classicist Arnold Heeren. The inhabitants of Tire, in particular, have long believed in the Persian Gulf’s origins, and the similarities between the terms “Tylos” and “Tire” have been noted. However, there is scant evidence of human settlement in Bahrain at the period when the supposed migration took place.
The name Tylos is said to be a Hellenization of the Semitic Tilmun (of Dilmun). The islands were known as Tylos until Ptolemy’s Geography, when the people were referred to as ‘Thilouanoi.’ Some Bahraini place names trace back to the Tylos period; for example, Arad, a Muharraq residential neighborhood, is said to be derived from “Arados,” Muharraq’s ancient Greek name.
Ardashir I, the first king of the Sassanid dynasty, marched into Oman and Bahrain in the third century, defeating the ruler of Bahrain, Sanatruq. Mishmahig (which means “sheep fish” in Middle Persian / Pahlavi) was Bahrain’s name during the time.
Bahrain was also home to the cult of Awal, a shark god. In Muharraq, the devout erected a huge statue of Awal, which has since vanished. Bahrain was known as Awal for many centuries after Tylos. Bahrain became the hub of Nestorian Christianity in the fifth century, with the Samahij hamlet serving as the seat of bishops. According to the Eastern Syriac Church’s synodal records, a bishop called Batai was excommunicated from the church in Bahrain in 410. Nestorians were often punished as heretics by the Byzantine Empire, although Bahrain was outside the Empire’s authority, providing some protection. Several settlements in Muharraq have names that reflect Bahrain’s Christian heritage, such as Al Dair, which means “monastery.”
Christian Arabs (mostly Abd al-Qays), Persians (Zoroastrians), Jews, and Aramaic-speaking farmers made up Bahrain’s pre-Islamic population. The Baharna may be “descendants of the converts of the original population of Christians (Arameans), Jews, and Persians who inhabited the island and cultivated the coastal regions of eastern Arabia at the time of the Muslim conquest,” according to Robert Bertram Serjeant. The sedentary inhabitants of pre-Islamic Bahrain spoke Aramaic and, to a lesser degree, Persian, with the Syriac language serving as a liturgical language.
Time of Muhammad
The invasion of Al Kudr was Muhammad’s first encounter with Bahraini people. Muhammad launched an ambush on the Banu Salim tribe, accusing them of plotting an assault on Medina. He’d heard that certain tribes were assembling an army in Bahrain and planning an assault on Africa. When the tribal members learned that Muhammad was heading an army to battle against them, they retreated.
According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad dispatched Al-‘Al ‘Al-Harami as an envoy to the Bahrain region during the Zaid ibn Haritha (Hisma) Expedition in 628, and the local king, Munzir ibn-Sawa al-Tamimi, replied to his mission and converted the whole territory.
The qarmatianos, a millenarian Ismaili Muslim sect, invaded Bahrain in 899 to establish a utopian society based on reason and property redistribution among initiates. The Qarmatians began demanding payment from Baghdad’s caliph, and in 930, they destroyed Mecca and Medina, taking the holy black stone to their stronghold in Ahsa, medieval Bahrain, to demand a ransom. The stone was returned 22 years later, in 951, under strange circumstances, according to historian Al-Juwayni. He was tossed inside the Great Mosque of Kufa in Iraq, wrapped in a bag and accompanied by a letter reading, “We stole it by command, and we have returned it back in order.” The Black Stone was broken into seven pieces as a result of its theft and removal.
The Qarmations were toppled in 1076 by the Arab Uyunid dynasty of al-Hasa, who took over the whole Bahrain area after defeating the Abbasids in 976. The Uyunids ruled Bahrain until 1235, when the Persian king of Fars temporarily conquered the archipelago. The Bedouin Usfurids overthrew the Uyunid dynasty in 1253, taking control of eastern Arabia, including Bahrain’s islands. Although the islands were ruled locally by the Shiite Jarwanid dynasty of Qatif, the archipelago became a vassal state to the rulers of Hormuz in 1330. The archipelago was controlled by the Jabrids, a Bedouin dynasty headquartered in Al-Ahsa that dominated much of eastern Arabia in the mid-15th century.
The Portuguese united with Hormuz in 1521 and seized Bahrain from Jabrid Migrin ibn Zamil, who was slain during the takeover. The Portuguese administration lasted about 80 years, during which time they were mostly dependent on Sunni Persian administrators. In 1602 Abbas I of the Safavid dynasty of Persia drove the Portuguese from the islands, giving rise to Shia Islam. The Persian kings maintained control of the archipelago for the following two centuries, broken only by the Ibadhis of Oman’s invasions in 1717 and 1738. They governed Bahrain indirectly throughout the most of this time, either via the city of Bushehr or through immigrant Sunni Arab tribes. The latter were Huwala tribes who returned to the Arab side of the Persian Gulf from their Huwala homelands in the north (literally: those who have changed or moved). On behalf of Iranian Zand commander Karim Khan Zand, the Huwala tribe of Nasr Al-Madhkur invaded Bahrain in 1753 and reinstated the direct Iranian authority.
After being defeated by the Bani Utbahtribe in the Battle of Zubarah in 1782, Al-Madhkur lost the islands of Bahrain in 1783. For the Bani Utbah, Bahrain was not a new area; they had been there since the 17th century. During this time, they started purchasing date palm farms in Bahrain; according to a record, one of the shaikhs of the Al Bin Ali tribe (a branch of the Bani Utbah) bought a palm grove from Mariam bint Ahmed Al Sanadi on the island of Sitra 81 years before Al-Khalifa arrived.
Al Bin Ali was the main clan in possession of Zubarah, a city on the Qatari peninsula that was formerly the Bani Utbah’s power center. Al Bin Ali held a quasi-independent status as an autonomous tribe in Bahrain after the Bani Utbah took control of the country. In Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s eastern region, they used the Al-Sulami flag, which had four crimson and three white stripes. Following the collapse of Nasr Al-Madhkur of Bushehr, many clans and tribes of Arab families from Qatar came to Bahrain to reside. Al Khalifa, Al-Ma’awdah, Al-Fadhil, Al-Mannai, Al-Noaimi, Al-Sulaiti, Al-Sadah, Al-Thawadi, and other families and tribes were among these families.
In 1799, the Al Khalifa family relocated from Qatar to Bahrain. Their forefathers were originally driven from Umm Qasr in central Arabia by the Ottomans owing to their predatory tendencies of preying on caravans in Basra and trade boats in the Shatt al-Arabwaterway until they were evicted by the Turks. They moved to Kuwait in 1716 and stayed there till 1766.
Around the 1760s, the Utub federation’s Al Jalahma and Al Khalifa clans moved to Zubarah in modern-day Qatar, leaving Al Sabah as the sole proprietor of Kuwait.
19th century and later
Bahrain was attacked by both Omanis and Al Sauds around the turn of the nineteenth century. When the Omani monarch Sayyid Sultan placed his son, Salim, as governor at Fort Arad in 1802 he was governed by a twelve-year-old child. In 1816, William Bruce, a British political resident in the Gulf, received a letter from the Bahraini Sheikh, who was worried about rumors that Britain might assist a Muscat imam assault on the island. He flew to Bahrain to reassure the sheikh that this was not the case, and negotiated an informal arrangement in which Britain pledged to be a neutral party.
After establishing a treaty agreement in 1820, the Al Khalifa tribe was acknowledged by Great Britain as the rulers (“Al-Hakim” in Arabic) of Bahrain. Despite requesting Persian and British protection, they were compelled to pay yearly fees to Egypt 10 years later.
When the British attempted to conquer Bahrain in 1860, the Al Khalifas employed the same strategy. In March, Al Khalifas decided to put Bahrain under the protection of the Ottomans after sending letters to both the Persians and the Ottomans. When the Persians declined to defend Bahrain, the British Indian government seized control. Colonel Pelly and Al Khalifas signed a new pact that puts Bahrain under British control and protection.
The British officials signed another agreement with Al Khalifas after the Qatari-Bahrain War in 1868. He stipulated that the monarch could not sell of any of his lands save the United Kingdom, and that he could not engage in international affairs without British permission. In exchange, the British pledged to defend Bahrain from any sea-based assault and to assist in the case of a land-based attack. More significantly, the British pledged to assist Bahrain’s Al Khalifa administration, securing the country’s precarious status as rulers. Other agreements, signed in 1880 and 1892, confirmed Bahrain’s position as a British protectorate.
Disturbances among Bahrain’s citizens started in 1892, when the United Kingdom declared complete control over the country. In March 1895, against Sheikh Issa bin Ali, Bahrain’s ruler at the time, the first rebellion and widespread uprising took place. Sheikh Issa was the first Al Khalifa ruler to reign without having any Persian ties. At this time, Sir Arnold Wilson, the British representative in the Persian Gulf and author of The Persian Gulf, arrived in Bahrain from Muscat. Some demonstrators were slain by British troops as the rebellion progressed.
Prior to the discovery of oil, the island’s main industry was pearl fishing, and it was regarded as the finest in the world even in the nineteenth century. Hermann Burchardt, a German adventurer, visited Bahrain in 1903 and photographed numerous historical locations, including the old Qar es-Sheikh, which are now in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. Prior to the First World War, there were about 400 pearl-hunting boats with an annual export of more than £ 30,000.
A group of Bahraini businessmen requested that British influence in the nation be limited in 1911. The group’s leaders were eventually apprehended and deported to India. The British instituted administrative changes in 1923, and Sheikh Issa bin Ali was succeeded by his son. Some clerics and their families, such as al Dossari, fled to Saudi Arabia or were exiled to Iran. The British put the nation under the de facto administration of Charles Belgrave three years later, who remained as the ruler’s advisor until 1957. Belgrave instituted a number of changes, including the country’s first modern school in 1919, the first girls’ school in the Persian Gulf in 1928, and the abolishment of slavery in 1937. Simultaneously, the pearl diving business grew at a breakneck rate.
In a letter to the League of Nations in 1927, Rez Shh, then Shah of Iran, sought sovereignty over Bahrain, prompting Belgrave to adopt harsh steps, including fostering disputes between Shiites and Sunni Muslims to put down uprisings and restrict Iranian influence. Belgrave even proposed renaming the Persian Gulf the “Arabian Gulf,” but the British government rejected the idea. Concerns over Saudi and Iranian aspirations in the area drove Britain’s interest in Bahrain’s growth.
Oil was found in 1931 by the Bahrain Petroleum Company (Bapco), a subsidiary of the Standard Oil Company of California (Socal), and production started the following year. Bahrain was to be rapidly modernized as a result of this. The British Royal Navy moved its full command of the Middle East from Bushehr, Iran, to Bahrain in 1935, demonstrating stronger ties with the United Kingdom.
The Bahrain airport was built in the early 1930s. Imperial Airways, which included the Handley Page HP42, flew there. In the same decade, the Bahrain Maritime Airport for seaplanes and hydroplanes was built.
Bahrain fought with the Allies in World War II, entering on September 10, 1939. Four Italian bombers SM.82 attacked the Bahrain oil fields near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, on October 19, 1940, targeting the allies’ oil refineries. Despite the fact that both locations suffered little damage, the assault prompted the Allies to strengthen Bahrain’s fortifications, which boosted allied military resources.
Following World War II, anti-British feeling grew throughout the Arab world, resulting in riots in Bahrain. The Jewish community was the focus of the rioting. Following rising violence and theft in Bahrain, the bulk of the Jewish community abandoned their homes and fled to Bombay, eventually settling in Israel (Pardes Hanna-Karkur) and the United Kingdom. Only 37 Jews remained in the nation as of 2008. After the sectarian conflicts in the 1950s, reformists established the National Union Committee, which sought an elected people assembly, the removal of Belgrave, and a series of demonstrations and mass strikes. After hundreds of Bahrain Petroleum Company employees were dismissed, a month-long revolt erupted in 1965.
Bahrain gained independence on August 15, 1971, and signed a new treaty of friendship with the United Kingdom. Later in the year, Bahrain became a member of the United Nations and the Arab League. Bahrain profited greatly from the oil boom of the 1970s, but the following decline damaged the economy. The nation had already begun diversifying its economy and benefitted even more from the Lebanese Civil Conflict in the 1970s and 1980s, when Bahrain supplanted Beirut as the Middle East’s financial hub after the war wreaked havoc on the country’s banking sector.
Following Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979, Shi’a Bahá’ extremists staged a failed coup attempt in Bahrain in 1981, using the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain as a front. The coup would have placed Hujjatu l-Islm Hd al-Mudarris, a Shiite cleric exiled in Iran, as supreme leader of a theocratic country. During an international marathon in December 1994, a group of young people hurled stones at participants for going barefoot. The ensuing altercation with the police quickly escalated into civil unrest.
Between 1994 to 2000, there was a public revolt in which leftists, liberals, and Islamists joined forces. The incident claimed the lives of about forty people and concluded in 1999, when Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa became Bahrain’s Amir. He established parliamentary elections, gave women the right to vote, and freed all political prisoners. The National Action Charter received overwhelming approval in a referendum held on February 14 and 15, 2001. Bahrain changed its official name from the State (dawla) of Bahrain to the Kingdom of Bahrain on February 14, 2002, as part of the approval of the National Action Charter.
In October 2001, the nation took part in military operations against the Taliban by sending a frigate in the Arabian Sea for rescue and humanitarian missions. As a consequence, US President George W. Bush’s administration recognized Bahrain as a “important non-NATO partner” in November of that year. In the days running up to the war, Bahrain opposed the invasion of Iraq and offered Saddam Hussein refuge. After the International Court of Justice in The Hague settled the boundary dispute over the Hawar Islands in 2001, relations with neighboring Qatar improved. Bahrain signed a free trade deal with the United States in 2004 after the country’s political reform.
In early 2011, Bahrain’s Shiite majority staged massive demonstrations against its Sunni authorities, inspired by the broader Arab Spring. After a pre-dawn assault on protestors camping at Pearl Roundabout, the authorities originally permitted demonstrations. He sought security help from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council nations a month later and announced a three-month state of emergency. The government then began a campaign against the opposition, which included tens of thousands of arrests and widespread torture. Hundreds of people were killed in almost every day confrontation between protestors and security forces. Protests are still going on, sometimes coordinated by opposing groups. In March 2014, at than 80 people and 13 police officers were murdered. When compared to other Arab Spring revolts, the paucity of Arab media coverage in the Persian Gulf has generated many debates.