Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 islands. The country was once named Dilmun by ancient Sumerians, considered an island paradise in which there was no disease, death or suffering, and where gods resided. Although modern Bahrain has not retained such mythical status, many still flock to frolic in its heavenly shoreline, and many still perceive the country as blissful respite from less lenient Islamic countries.
However, Bahrain is still imbued with Islamic tradition. Manama, the capital, is jam-packed with majestic mosques and minarets. Some females dress in western-style clothing but immodesty is still frowned upon. It is a symbolic bridge that connects the archipelago to Saudi Arabia’s mainland.
Nevertheless, Bahrain is a wealthy country that has been unafraid to distinguish itself from other Islamic Gulf countries. Under Portuguese rule between 1521 and 1622, attacked by various tribes and groups for more than 100 years, and willingly becoming a British Protectorate between 1861 and 1971, Bahrain was ecstatic when it discovered oil in 1931. In just four decades, Bahrain’s protectorate status was relinquished and Bahrain became one of the world�s most affluent countries. Bahrain’s first independent ruler, Sheikh Isa al-Khalifa, caused controversy by bolstering Bahrain’s relationship with western countries: both British and US military forces were granted use of Bahraini ports and airfields, vital to the prosecution of the two Iraq wars and the 2002 Afghan war.
Despite the Islamic presence, about one-third of Bahrain’s population are foreign expatriates who seek that ideal blend of stability and prosperity. Perhaps this influence has shaped modern Bahrain, now rapidly modernising, full of shopping malls and restaurants. Many argue, however, that the supposed liberal outlook of the country is a sham: alcohol and casinos cannot disguise that the country is an absolute monarchy in which dissent is barely tolerated.
Regardless, visitors to Bahrain are more likely to want to revel in its antiquity, anyway. During construction of Bahrain’s causeway, thousands of burial mounds were disinterred, dating back to the third millennium BC. Bahrain is now the proud owner of the largest ancient necropolis in the world, and its foundations still rest upon the ancient city of Dilmun and the ancient civilisation that resided there. It is exactly this blend of eastern and western cultures, this commingling of mosque and skyscraper, which draws so many to Bahrain. Perhaps its famous Tree of Life � a verdant tree blooming out of arid desert � says it all: Bahrain is full of surprises and contradictions.