Bahrain's third largest city
Pearling, Testimony of an Island Economy
Economic and cultural
Location and site
The site consists of seventeen buildings in Muharraq City, three offshore oyster beds, part of the seashore and the Qal’at Bu Mahir fortress on the southern tip of Muharraq Island, from where boats used to set off for the oyster beds. The listed buildings include residences of wealthy merchants, shops, storehouses and a mosque. The site is the last remaining complete example of the cultural tradition of pearling and the wealth it generated at a time when the trade dominated the Gulf economy (2nd century to the 1930s, when Japan developed cultured pearls). It also constitutes an outstanding example of traditional utilization of the sea’s resources and human interaction with the environment, which shaped both the economy and the cultural identity of the island’s society.
The property includes seventeen buildings embedded in the urban fabric of Muharraq city, three off shore oyster beds, and a part of the seashore at the southern tip of Muharraq Island, from where the boats set off for the oyster beds.
The architectural testimony comprises residential and commercial structures that are tangible manifestations of the major social and economic roles and institutions associated with the pearling society. Most of the structures have survived relatively unaltered since the collapse of the pearl industry in the early 20th century and bear witness to distinctive building traditions that the industry fostered, and particularly their high standard of craftsmanship in timber and plaster. These buildings evoke memories of that industry, its supporting social and economic structures, and of the cultural identity it produced.
Criterion (iii): The ensemble of urban properties, fort, seashore and oyster beds is an exceptional testimony to the final flourishing of the cultural tradition of pearling which dominated the Persian Gulf between the 2nd and early 20th centuries. Although the pearling industry has died, these sites carry the memory of its prosperity and the building traditions that it fostered.
The traditional sea-use of harvesting pearls from oyster beds in the Persian Gulf shaped the island of Bahrain’s economy for millennia. As the best-known source of pearls since ancient times, the Gulf industry reached the apex of its prosperity at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. The wealth of what had become a global trade is reflected in the development of the merchant quarters of Muharraq city. A few distinctive commercial and residential buildings remain as a testimony to this proud but dangerous and demanding economic activity which suffered a sudden and catastrophic demise in the 1930s as a result of the development in Japan of cultured pearls from freshwater mussels.