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.

Fakhro House, 2016, Camille Zakharia

Siyadi Majlis, 2016, Camille Zakharia

Pearling Economy

The oyster beds on the north of Bahrain were the centre of a natural pearl fishery that dominated the Arabian Gulf from at least the 3rd century BC until the early 20th century. Exploding demand for pearls beginning in the 19th century produced a single product economy in Bahrain, centred in its then capital and the capital of Arabian Gulf pearling, Muharraq.

 

Pearl exports contributed three quarters of Bahrain’s total exports in 1877, with most destined for Bombay, Persia and Turkey. Europe emerged as a major direct market for Bahrain’s pearl exports following the turn of the century, and by 1904-05 an estimated 97.3 per cent of the Gulf’s turnover in pearls was traded through Bahrain. The value of Bahrain’s pearl exports increased six fold between 1900 and 1912, when Indian merchants were joined in Bahrain by others from Paris, London and New York, all vying to secure the finest pearls at source.

 

Bahrain’s annual pearl fishery was a community-wide endeavour: from pearling merchants, divers and dhow captains to boat builders, timber merchants and general goods suppliers, nearly every profession found in Muharraq city existed to serve the pearling economy.

 

The pearling economy reached its apex in 1911-12, after which a series of catastrophes including wars, price crashes, the arrival of cheap cultivated pearls, the Wall Street crash and its impact on the market for luxury goods, and riots by divers aggrieved at the loss of income, all led to the decline in the 1930s and ultimately total collapse of the industry by 1950.

Traditional Dhow, 1967, Abdulla Al Khan

Pearling Society

For millennia, pearling and its associated trades shaped the economy and culture of Bahrain’s island society.  As a centre for pearling, Bahrain was the regional economic hub where pearl divers and other crew from across the Gulf arrived to test their fate on board the dhows. The outcome of the pearling season provided the livelihood of many local residents and their trades, amongst them: merchants, creditors, boat owners and makers, captains, divers, haulers, and sail-makers. Pearls collected in Bahrain were sent to Europe and India where they were refined and traded to larger markets.

 

Even though the pearl collection industry became exhausted as a result of irreversible economic change in the 20th century, many of its features and practices survive, and it remains the major factor in Bahraini cultural identity. The surviving traces of Bahrain’s tangible and intangible pearling heritage are rare testaments to the Gulf’s trans-regional, socio-economic connections before the discovery of oil.

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