Visitors lucky enough to explore Muharraq with a local such as Adel Hassani will discover architectural treasures off the beaten track, all of which contribute to the story of this old, still vibrant place
For all the polish of the beautifully restored pearling houses of Muharraq, the old capital of Bahrain is not preserved in aspic but a living, breathing entity. Even without the airport and its associated road network, Muharraq is densely built and feels densely atmospheric, its narrow lanes busy with shops and schools, people and merchants’ houses. Central to this dynamic is the local population.
Adel Hassani, like his forefathers, was born in this place. Which part of this serried city, which he knows intimately, is his favourite? Is it the old souq, damaged by fire decades ago and now undergoing restoration, or the ravishing Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa House, with its wind tower and lavish gypsum work? “All of Muharraq is my favourite,” he says. “Muharraq is like my mother, or like a tree with many branches. A single morning is not sufficient time to uncover all its treasures.”
As a young man, Adel left Muharraq to study mechanical engineering in the UK, returning to Bahrain to work for the Ministry of Interior. Today retired, he spends most mornings in a café in Muharraq, meeting friends such as Ali Othman, who has created an extraordinary private museum of local artefacts. According to Adel, “Ali’s soul is the heart of Muharraq,” and his museum is a love letter of sorts to this country, displaying myriad diverse elements, from old passports, crockery and pearling paraphernalia to radios, furniture and tools collected over 30 years.
Ali built a house for these treasures – he lives in Arad – and it reflects many traditional building practices of the district, with a private courtyard in the centre open to the sky. Architect Tameem Taqi considers the old houses brilliantly practical. “Each one was a perfect living cell, with a sleeping terrace upstairs to take advantage of the cooler night air,” he says. “You would never see inside a home directly from the door – there would always be an anteroom separating the street from the private living quarters, a membrane between the private and public space.”
All buildings reveal things about the people who shape them, the architects, patrons and men and women who inhabit them. Architectural Features of Traditional Cities in Bahrain (published by the Ministry of Housing, Municipalities & Environment, 1999) suggests that residential housing is a “real mirror” of a community, “an indicator to the level and degree of the technological and professional advancement in the community”. Walking through the streets of Muharraq, it is easy to see housing that speaks of wealth and success – finely carved timber doors and intricate gypsum work are widely in evidence – but so, too, is technological ingenuity. The enormously thick walls provided a degree of protection from the extreme summer heat, for example. The plaster which was applied annually to cover the external walls was porous, enabling the coral stone within to “breathe”. The late-twentieth-century tactic of smothering houses in non-porous concrete in place of plaster has had a ruinous effect.
The use of concrete coupled with poor maintenance explain why many houses in Muharraq are decrepit and awaiting demolition. Adel gestures to all that remains of a ravaged majlis, which is recognisable only by the characteristic rectangular recesses or niches (known as banohat) in its lone standing wall. The adjacent mosque has superimposed on to this carcass a run of basins for worshippers’ ablutions. Wrecks like these enable visitors to grasp some of what came before, and to see how it was made. Houses were typically constructed from timber, date-palm trunks and marine coral stones, with gypsum additions. Adel’s grandfather earned a living by harvesting coral stone from the seabed offshore – Adel recalls that he would travel by boat to extract the stone at low tide, working shin-deep in the shallows with a steel rod and later selling his haul on the seafront.
Today, land reclamation has obliterated the old shoreline, so that grand Muharraq houses no longer look out to sea. “Everything changes and every day I am saddened by what I see in Muharraq,” Adel says. “Today, my family lives in Janabiya. Many families have moved out, partly because there are no cars here, so it’s difficult.”
The journey to visit his family in Janabiya is manageable, but Adel recalls a time when it took a whole day to travel by donkey from Manama halfway to Durrat. He remembers when families in Muharraq kept their goats and cattle inside their houses, and how his grandfather would take him to the souq, where a lady called Shaika gave him toffee freckled with sesame seeds. Shaika and the original shoreline might have gone, but the souq and streets remain alive nevertheless, and not only with tourists come to gawp at the pristinely restored pearling houses.
“When something falls, something else still fills its space,” says Tameem. “A building collapses and a tree rises up, and someone puts out a bench and then local people start to congregate here. The whole of Muharraq is a mosaic of old and new. For all the restoration work undertaken, the city is not a pastiche; it has not been fossilised.”
At a glance
A visitors’ guide to Muharraq’s traditional architecture
The fundamental materials used in traditional construction in Bahrain were gypsum, rocks and marine coral stones. The last, porous and relatively light, were harvested locally and used to fill the spaces between the beams (spaces or openings were left for ventilation and to reduce weight).
Timber and date-palm trunks and woven mangrove were used for the ceilings, often weatherproofed with tar or grease and sometimes painted red (see Ali Othman’s museum house on the previous page for a modern example). Roofs in the Gulf were generally plain and stretched – in general, houses here did not feature domes, sloping roofs or cellars.
Arches (both pointed and composed of semicircles) were introduced to reduce the burden on columns and props, as well as for aesthetic appeal – they often incorporated engraved gypsum decorations (1).
Wall cladding or panelling (banohat) was used internally and externally to mitigate the flat, vertical areas and for the solid areas between props (see the blank pointed recesses in the wall of the house opposite, 3). They were usually projected from the level of the wall and thus became more apparent with the reflection of sunlight and shadows.
Corner and “pigeon” form decorations (hamaem) are used throughout Muharraq, especially on the upper storeys (2). Made from moulded gypsum, they broke up the monotony of horizontal rooflines (corners also have a constructional role, lightening the burden on joists).
Gypsum, a type of plaster, was made from the raw material found in Hawar. Archaeological excavation has shown that ancient graves were coated with gypsum. In Muharraq, you can see it engraved or moulded to frame windows, openings, arches, doors (1), banohat and joints, on internal and external facades.
Wooden doors featured varying decorative elements, including domed nails and a wooden or copper latch. Traditional old doors were made of two large shutters, each composed of upright timber panels. Some had a small door set within the large shutter.
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