Muharraq: The Pearling City
Old Muharraq settlement was Bahrain’s capital from 1810 to 1923, the peak years of the pearling economy, and is today the predominate city of Bahrain’s second largest island.
For centuries, Muharraq was the Arabian Gulf’s pearling capital: it was the Gulf’s most active and prosperous pearling city; the largest number of pearl divers lived here; virtually everybody was involved directly in pearling activities or its supply industries; and Muharraq boasted the largest fleet of pearling vessels.
Muharraq can be distinguished from many other Arabian Gulf settlements in that, by the last decades of the pearling economy, the city was built largely of coral stone. In contrast, around the turn of the twentieth century several of the Gulf’s smaller pearling centres, such as Dubai, were almost entirely barasti settlements (temporary houses made of palm material). This stone construction ensured the survival of significant elements in Muharraq that now constitute a unique testimony of the pearling societies not only of Bahrain but of the Arabian Gulf region.
The decline of the pearling economy and the almost simultaneous discovery of oil and gas resources in Bahrain saw Muharraq’s role diminish, and that of the city of Manama, located just across the harbour on the main island of Bahrain, expand. The development pressures on the new capital helped Muharraq retain much of its atmosphere. Despite a great deal of modern construction, in most parts of Muharraq city, the street pattern remains the same as in the pearling era, characterised by a maze of narrow, often picturesque alleyways.