Arad Fort – Qal’at al-Bahrain

When I learned that Bahrain had a 15th Century Portuguese fort, I knew that I had to make a visit.  I have visited many forts like this as there are many in the Persian Gulf, down the coast of Oman and Yemen, and even on the coast of Africa.  The Portuguese only controlled Bahrain for a little over a century until the Persians conquered in 1603.  The island was conquered back and forth between the Persians and Arabs until it was finally conquered by Shaikh Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Khalifa in 1783.

Before the Portuguese, Bahrain has an interesting history.  Excavations point to settlement in the 3rd Millenium B.C.  The area is mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh and he called the land Dilmun and sought eternal life at the islands natural fresh water springs.  The island became an important trading center between Mesopotamia and India and a city called Qalat Al Bahrain was founded at the current site where the fort now stands.

Aryan forces who destroyed the Indus Valley from 1800 to 1600 B.C. decimated the trade that once flowed past this island.  By 600 B.C. Greeks settled the Island and named it Tylos.  I visited a similar Greek settlement on the southern coast of Iran in 2002.  Bahrain then turned to its own resources and again flourished in fishing and by harvesting pearls from the ocean.  After Babylon fell to the Persians, Bahrain once again capitalized on the trade that made its way past the island and down the Persian Gulf.  By 323 B.C. Bahrain gained its independence again until it was conquered by the Portuguese in the late 1400′s.

The island has abundant natural fresh water springs allowing for irrigation and cultivation.  It really is like an oasis on the hot ocean of the Persian Gulf.  I also learned that the flag – Red and White – symbolizes the color of a white pearl on red silk.  The pearl traders and vendors did, and still do, showcase the beautiful pearls on red silk to highlight their natural white lustre.

Like a big kid, I was able to climb around and explore all through out the fort.  Up on the ramparts I shot a photo down inside of the main courtyard:

The rest of my time in Bahrain was spent at the mall shopping, going out to eat and catching a movie at the theaer – not much that was blog worthy.  Outside of the fort I shot this photo of the Manama skyline.  It doesn’t have too many skyscrapers, yet, but it is growing…


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The Sultan’s Visitors’ Book

Inside of the Muscat military harbor the sailors of visiting ships have taken to writing the name of their ship on the hillsides – in my guidebook I read that this tradition dates back decades and each year subsequent ships’ names are carved or painted into the sides of the hill.  As this harbor is the entrance to the Sultan’s palace the nickname for these ships’ paintings is the Sultan’s Visitors’ Book.   Some descriptions of the painted rocks date back several hundred years and are described in some some old texts.

I could tell that some of the sailors either had more time than other ships crews or else they just wanted to make a bigger statement as some of the letters were big enough to be read without magnification even from a mile away.  In the photo below you can clearly make out the marking left by the crew of the British ship Resume; this ship’s name was above and below a 16th Century Portuguese fort & I couldn’t help but wonder if the Omanis didn’t mind the tradition or if these sailors snuck in under the cover of darkness and painted this huge placard.

Further inside the harbor I could see a road or trail that leads up from the ocean to the top of the hill where yet another Portuguese fort rests.  The HMS Falmouth has the largest ship name on this hill and as it is painted above the crisscrossing trail I can only imagine that the sailors had easy access to paint this name.  All along the side of the hill I saw hundreds of ship’s names as each subsequent crew adds to this interesting tradition.  I read in my Lonely Planet guidebook that one of the names on the wall, the HMS Sheffield was painted on that ship’s last visit to Muscat.

The Sheffield steamed towards the Falklands War that England was battling with Argentina and was subsequently hit by a French Made Excocet Missile fired from an Argentine Mirage fighter jet (also made in France).  The Excocet hit just above the water line and destroyed the ship completely.  In a lapse of good judgment, the British Navy decided to save a few bucks and made their new class of destroyers out of aluminum rather than steel and the high heat generated by the missile melted the ship as it burned.  The entire ship burned down to the water line leaving nothing left above the surfcae of the ocean.  The British tried to tow the ill-fated destroyer back to England but it never made the journey.  In retaliation, a British submarine torpedoed an Argentine heavy cruiser sinking it in the cold Pacific Ocean killing over a thousand Argentine sailors.

Using the zoom on my camera I could see that the crew of the British ship Perseus actually created a huge copy of the King’s Cross next to the name of their ship.  The Persius was a British submarine that was sunk during World War II in 1941, its wreck was discovered in 1996.  It seems that this “graffiti” is as much a memorial to some of these ships as it is a naval tradition.  I asked if I could go over to the other side to see some of the ship names up close but I was told that it was a closed military area.


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Muscat Bazaar

Near the commercial harbor in Muscat is a bazaar with all kinds of shopping, restaurants and a great way to observe local Omanis in their native enviornment.  During my visit to the Bazaar I saw quite a few European and North American travelers who had disembarked a cruise ship for a day visit but aside from them, it was all Omani people.  Overlooking the bazaar is one of the 16th Century Portugues forts like the one that Ihad visited earlier - looking up at it I could see why the Portuguese occupiers of this city placed it here – it commanded a view of the harbor and city and could provide a watchful eye on the subjects here.  I looked left and right to each of the other hills in view and each of them had a fortress as well.

The bazaar was a jumble of buildings in close proximity with other vendors set up between them and on the nearby sidewalks and between the alleyways.  In the photo below some men sell fruit, nuts and dates on the sidewalk leading from the bazaar to one of the side streets.  I saw all sorts of things for sale from clothing and food to internet and cellular phone services.  As I walked around I felt like I had stepped back in a time machine – the way the people are dressed here has probably not changed in a thousand years.  Unlike Dubai, I saw few wearing western clothing save for the German and Australian tourists from the cruise ship.  As I walked around I was greeted with smiles and comments of “hello,” and I was always impressed with the friendliness of the Omani people.

I walked past one group of men who were standing around talking and drinking Chai Tea and one of them asked me where I was from.  After I told him that I was from the United States he translated this to his friends and soon they were all asking him to translate for us.  They had many questions for me, “Why was I in Oman,” How long was I traveling for” and “How did I like the country?”  They showed great hospitality and insisted that I join them for a cup of tea (and later a second and then a third).  They told me about their families and their work – it seems that they were all in the import export business and they received goods in from Asia and facilitated their transit into the Middle East; Muscat has a fair amount of sea-borne commerce.

The one man with the white hat and black diamonds (to my left in the photo) seemed to be the charismatic leader of this group of friends.  He cracked a lot of jokes and talked at a rapid and animated rate.  He wanted to make a joke out of everything and had all of his friends laughing and laughing.  I spent quite a while with this group enjoying their company and learning a bit about the Omanis; aside from their dress, they seemed no different from people from any country in the world.  I can’t help but think how someone in a western country might draw a conclusion about these men based on their dress but I found them similar to my friends back at home.  Actually, they are probably a lot more friendly than most Americans.

After a while a latecomer to this group of friends arrived.  It was explained to me that this little old man (blue hat, photo below) was a bit senile and they all sort of “watched out” for him.  He seemed a little agitated at my presence and asked what I was doing there and my interpreter told him that I had been voted a member of the group and that he had better get used to being in my company.  All of the guys roared with laughter and this seemed to agitate him some more.  He told me that I was not welcome to join the group and that group and that I should leave.  My interpreter had a big grin and – as he told me that the other man wanted me to leave – he then added, “Oh, he hates cameras, take his photo and watch what happens.”  I resisted and all of the guys egged me on, they all chimed in Arabic and my interpreter spoke quickly in English telling me that everyone wanted me to do it.

I pulled my camera out of my pocket and the senile man began shouting and as soon as I took this photo, he leaped off of his seat and began chasing me around the bazaar.  Not only the men in my group, but the entire bazaar howled with laughter.  It seems that everyone knows this guy and they all thought it was the funniest thing they had seen in some time.  My “new” friends held him back from getting to close and but he was furious and his face turned bright red.

After he calmed down the rest of the guys were all slapping me on the back and thanking me for giving them a good laugh.  They insisted that the senile man drink a cup of Chai with me to show that there were no hard feelings and he agreed but then added that I’d better not take my camera out again.

After a while I parted company with my new friends and went in search of an internet café.  I wanted to check in with friends and family and send a “hello” email.  As I was looking for a net café I saw this dress shop and was immediately taken by the wide variety of colors and patterns – LOL.  I took this photo and (later) emailed it to friends and family and of all the photos I took on this trip, this photo received the greatest number of comments from the women – I guess they were quite astounded with the limited dress selection.  As I walked around in Oman I didn’t see women wearing any color other than black and while they did dress like the Saudis, I couldn’t help but notice that their attitudes towards foreigners was quite different.  I really enjoyed the Omanis and despite the very conservative society they seemed very friendly and open to outsiders.

As the sun set I found a fabulous restaurant and had a wonderful dinner of lamb kebabs and hummus and bread (my favorite Arabic dish).  In the next table there were sitting 6 college students and they inquired as to where I came from and (again) I was in another conversation with more of the  locals.  Of all the countries I’ve visited in the world, Oman was one of the easiest to meet the locals and to get to know them.  These young men were studying everything from Law to Economics and Engineering.  They were all quite interested in America and asked about what it was like to live there.  They were all football (soccer, not American) enthusiasts and asked me if I had a favorite team (of course, Manchester United!).  We chatted for a while and they ordered some sheesha tobacco and began smoking.  If found the smell of the pipes to be quite pungent and smelled like burning fruit and tobacco (I learned later that this is exactly what it is).  After dinner they all posed for a photo for me and wished me happy travels as we parted ways.

With each encounter I have with Omani people I am reminded again and again how friendly they are.  Should you ever have a chance to visit, I’d recommend it with a big thumbs up – it is a wonderful country with interesting people.


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