Oyster Beds

For centuries, the oyster beds located off the northern shores of Bahrain were described in superlative terms for the quality of their pearls, the density of their oysters, and the high ratio of pearl discoveries made during the pearl collecting season. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder (23/24–79 AD) named the island (then Tylos) as “extremely famous for its numerous pearls”.

The reputation of Bahrain’s oyster beds as the richest in the Arabian Gulf meant that in the season, pearling dhows from Qatar, Kuwait and the South Persian coast sailed to join pearling fleets from Muharraq and the main island of Bahrain in the quest for the prized natural treasures. They were able to do so because the waters of the Arabian Gulf were considered the common property of all its coastal dwellers.

The Bahraini oyster beds proposed for World Heritage nomination are Hayr Shtayyah, Hayr Bu ‘Amamah and Hayr Bu-I-Thamah. Occupying nearly 35 thousand hectares and populated by well over a billion oysters, the beds are also home to diverse marine species such as corals, anemones, sea stars and fish. They have been selected to represent the distinctive qualities of the Bahraini oyster beds and their popularity as a pearl diving location among the Arabian Gulf’s pearling fleets.

 

— HaBū-l-Thāmah

Of the three Bahraini oyster beds proposed for nomination, Hayr Bu-I-Thamah has the strongest reputation among former divers and dhow captains as a source of real treasures. With an average depth of 20 metres, it is the deepest of the three beds, and may also have the highest density of oysters in the Arabian Gulf. Its reputation for producing large and beautiful pearls (Arabic: danat; sing. danah) may have given divers the courage to dive to the bottom of this deepest of beds. It may also have motivated captains to head to the bed, 65km from the northern shores of Muharraq Island, as soon as the divers were up to the water depth.

 

— Hayr Bū ‘Amāmah Oyster bed

Known during the pearling era for its extremely high density of pearl finds to oysters, Hayr Bu ‘Amamah was probably the most popular oyster bed during the main pearling season and was frequented by pearling dhows from ports around the Arabian Gulf. With its extremely high density of pearl finds to oysters, Hayr Bu ‘Amamah promised the divers good finds even with an average underwater density of oysters (4-20 per square metre). Located 63km northwest of Muharraq Island, it has an area of around 4.8 thousand hectare and is the most western of the important oyster beds. Its water depth is a fairly constant 15 metres, with visibility averaging around 10 metres. Previous surveys have estimated the number of oysters on the bed at 482 million, and the surveyors have found the oysters in a healthy condition. The sea anemones, sea urchins, sea stars and a colourful variety of fish, molluscs, corals and sponges found at Hayr Bu ‘Amamah make it a fascinating place of discovery for scuba divers.

Included as a marine protected area since 2007, Hayr Bu-I-Thamah is in excellent environmental condition and enjoys a high degree of control over fishing and trawling. Although the water quality is also excellent, with the oyster bed demonstrating a high species diversity, especially in its range of living corals, visibility is limited to about 7 metres. This could result from the additional water depth and resulting stronger current, or from the movement of the inhabitants of the coral reef.

 

— Hayr Shtayyah Oyster beds

Located 24 nautical miles (44km) off the northern shores of Muharraq Island, and with an area greater than 24 thousand hectare, Hayr Shtayyah, was a popular anchorage at the opening of the pearling season. Importantly, it is one of the shallowest oyster beds, with high visibility, making it a favoured location at the start of the season when pearl divers had to rebuild their form after eight months onshore. Second, the water temperature of Hayr Shtayyah is some three degrees warmer than the temperature of deeper oyster beds, a significant difference, particularly during the colder first and last weeks of the season, for divers who had to spend up to two hours in the water without a break. Finally, the cluster formation of Hayr Shtayyah’s oysters made them easier and faster to collect. Oyster clusters were also believed to be a good source of pearls. A 2008 survey of Hayr Shtayyah found that the oyster bed remains in good condition, with a pearl oyster density varying from 4-30 oysters per square metre, and a rich habitation by fish, echinoderms, molluscs,corals and sponges.

The Seashore

The seashore had key cultural and strategic functions in the pearling economy. It was the point of the pearling fleet’s departure for the annual diving season (Ghus al-Kabir), and its return some four months later. These occasions were the most important in Bahrain’s pearling calendar, marked not only by farewells and reunions (or, alternately, by scenes of tragedy when a father or son did not return) among loved ones, but also by large festivals held on the shore.

 

The seashore was also pivotal to the island society’s relations with the wider world. It was here that visitors arrived and departed outside the pearling season, where international traders unloaded goods shipped from India or other parts of the Arabian Gulf, and where diplomatic visitors were officially received.

 

A third role was the seashore’s strategic defensive function: it protected the Muharraq settlement largely due to inaccessibility. Most of Muharraq’s seashore was extremely shallow as a result of shallow, offshore coral reefs, most of which have now been converted into land through successive land reclamation programs. Muharraq’s harbour was an open area of deeper water at the very southern tip of the island. From there, passengers and goods would be transferred into rowboats, and landed at the island’s southernmost shore of Bu Mahir.

 

Bū Māhir Seashore

Bu Mahir Seashore is located at the southernmost tip of Muharraq Island, on what was formerly a tidal island. Largely unchanged since the decline of the pearling economy in the 1930s, it is the only remaining authentic beach where the pearling season’s festivals were celebrated.

 

A sandy point jutting into Bahrain’s main harbour, Bu Mahir Seashore was the last solid ground many pearl divers stood on before they embarked for the main pearling season (Ghus al-Kabir), and the first they set foot on after several months at sea. These twice-yearly rites of passage, involving crossing from a life on the land to a very different one at sea and back again, made Bu Mahir a very special place.

 

Festivals marking the departure (al-rakbah) and the return (al-quffal) of the pearling fleet were the most important ceremonies held along the seashore, but by no means the only ones. Boat construction (usually carried out north of Bu Mahir Seashore), the launching of new boats and the re-launching of repaired vessels were all accompanied by beachfront celebrations.

 

Bu Mahir beach also served as a playground for youngsters, a site of folkloric beliefs and rituals, a place for playing folk music, and an open-air gathering place (majlis) where traditional food was served.

 

Larger vessels visiting Muharraq anchored in the deeper waters of the harbour basin off Bu Mahir Seashore. Visitors, diplomatic missions and goods alike had to be transferred into smaller rowboats and landed at the seashore.

 

Departure and Landing of the Fleet

The first day of the pearl diving season, the day of departure (al-rakbah), was one of great excitement in which Muharraq’s entire population gathered along the shore for final farewells and festivities with many of the women and children dressed in special costumes. The head of state (amir) announced the departure about 10 days ahead, to allow the pearling fleet time to finalise preparation of the dhows and ensure provisions for families left behind.

 

On the departure day, usually in early June, the captain called his crew together to haul the boat from dry land, where it had wintered. They heaved the dhow to the sea, accompanied by the women singing Mrad songs expressing the hope for a safe return. Their voices mixed with the drum beats and diving songs from crew on-board hundreds of pearling dhows as they set sail.

 

Similar festivities awaited the crews upon the annual return from the main diving season (al-quffal) in mid-September or early October. The quffal was the most important day in Bahrain during the pearling era, a day of both tragedy and celebration. The announcement of the close of the season on the oyster beds was followed by an almost immediate return to the island. Women and children assembled on the shore at the first sight of the fleet, watching in trepidation for the black flags that indicated a death. As the fleet landed, songs of thanks mingled with mourning for those who would not return.

 

 

Qal‘at Bū Māhir

Al-Ghūṣ House

Badr Ghulum and Turabi Houses

Shaheen bin Saqir bin Mohammed Al-Jalahma House

Al Alawi House

Fakhro House

Murad House

Murad Majlis

Siyadi shops Block A and B

‘Amārat Yousif A. Fakhro

‘Amārat Ali Rashed Fakhro I

‘Amārat Ali Rashed Fakhro II

Nūkhidhah House

Siyadi House

Siyadi Majlis

Siyadi Mosque

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