The small island nation of Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf is home to one of the world’s largest ancient cemeteries, dating back to the 4,000-year-old Dilmun civilisation.
Dilmun is one of the oldest trading civilisations in the eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula and occupies a significant place in the mythology of Mesopotamia, featuring in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has long been regarded as the first great work of literature. Dilmun is believed to be the residence of the immortal Ut-napishtim whom Gilgamesh seeks in search of the secret of immortality. Dilmun was also mentioned in the saga of Enki and Ninhursag where it was portrayed as an earthly paradise and a land of purity.
In Dilmun the raven was not yet cawing, the partridge not cackling. The lion did not slay, the wolf was not carrying off lambs, the dog had not been taught to make kids curl up, the pig had not learned that grain was to be eaten.
Due to its strategic position in the Gulf, Dilmun developed into a trade hub linking the Middle East and South Asia. This granted the region at that time an economic prominence which led to population growth and a sophisticated and diverse social fabric.
The Kingdom of Bahrain’s third World Heritage Site, designated as such in 2019, comprises some 170,000 ancient burial mounds originally constructed as cylindrical low towers over a period of 450 years between 2,200 and 1,750 BCE.
The prehistoric mounds reflect the burial tradition and architecture of the early Dilmun culture, and although they may not be as aesthetically striking as Bahrain’s many skyscrapers or even its many other ancient sites such as Qal’at Al-Bahrain or Riffa Fort, the remarkable number and scale of these mounds lends the kingdom a distinctive landscape and a unique place boasting some of the ancient world’s most enduring cultural heritage.
The mounds are spread over 30 square kilometres across the main island of Bahrain, equivalent to five per cent of its overall area, and vary in size. The oldest and largest mounds are the ‘Royal Tombs’ constructed as two-storeyed sepulchral towers measuring up to 15 metres high and 45 metres in diameter. The royal tombs are characterised by elaborate burial chambers laced with valuables and artifacts, in contrast with many of the smaller mounds made up of mostly empty chambers.
The mounds have been under constant threat posed by the mounting pressures of residential and infrastructure development, particularly given the island’s small size and high population density. Many of the mounds have in fact been demolished to make way for the construction of causeways and new residential estates.