Arad Fort lies on the northeastern corner of the Kingdom of Bahrain, in the town of Arad, on Muharraq island, which was the capital of the island kingdom until 1923. The name “Arad” possibly comes from a Roman word for Bahrain, “Arathus,” which was used by the Egyptian-Roman writer Ptolemy in the second century CE. From Manama, the capital city today, visitors can reach the fort by driving east across the Shaikh Hamad Causeway, which passes close to the sleek and modern Bahrain National Museum, and then turning right along the Khalifa Al Khabeer Highway. Follow this highway around the coast and then take Arad Highway to Avenue 40. After turning right onto this road, signs indicating the way to Arad Fort (Qala’at Arad) will be visible. The fort occupies a prominent position overlooking a shallow coastal inlet with a spectacular view of the tall buildings of Al Juffair district in South Manama, which is an area full of hotels and is where I usually stay when visiting Bahrain.
The history of Arad Fort is somewhat sketchy. The history of the fort cannot really be understood without some knowledge of Bahrain’s history. Bahrain has changed hands many times, and in more recent centuries Arad Fort was the scene of many battles as regional rulers, as well as invaders from further afield (such as the Portuguese), fought for control of the island and its riches from the pearl trade. The fort was probably built around the end of the fiftheenth century, after Bahrain had been invaded by the Omanis in 1487, although the exact date the fort was built seems to be unknown. The Portuguese first became interested in Bahrain in 1514 when, led by Alfonso de Albuquerque, they visited Bahrain and were intrigued by the pearl trade there. By this time, the Portuguese had conquered Hormuz (an island in the Gulf close to the mainland of Persia – present day Iran) and had “helped” to establish treaties between the King of Hormuz and the rulers in Bahrain, and used their control of Hormuz to influence trade with Bahrain. A little after this time, Mukarram, the ruler of Hasa on the Arabian mainland, and son-in-law of the Shaikh of Makka, seized Bahrain and Qatif from Hormuz, which angered the Portuguese because it resulted in their loss of control over trade with Bahrain. This led to war with the Portuguese, who sent an invasion fleet to Bahrain around 1521. The ruler of Hormuz also sent a fleet – led by Rais Sharaf – to assist the Portuguese. Mukarram died from wounds sustained in the war with the Portuguese and Hormuz. After many wars between the Portuguese, Arabs from mainland Arabia, local Bahrainis and Hormuz, the fort was eventually occupied by local Bahrainis under the leadership of Rukn ad-Din in 1602 after he killed the Portuguese governor of Bahrain. The Bahrainis then formed an alliance with Persia for protection against the Portuguese. Bahrain and Arad Fort soon came under the control of the Persians once again.
The Persians ruled Bahrain until the end of the seventeenth century, when it was reoccupied by the Omanis. Because the Omanis followed a different sect of Islam from the Bahrainis, many people living in Bahrain at that time fled to Qatif on mainland Arabia. During their time on Bahrain, the Omanis made extensive changes to Arad Fort. In 1720, the Omanis sold Bahrain to the Persians. The Al-Khalifa rulers, who originated from Iraq, came to power in the late eighteenth century and took possession of the fort until the Omani invasion of 1799. The Khalifas, under Sulman, recaptured Bahrain in 1809 with help from the ruler of Makka, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. Although the fort was restored by the Al-Khalifas, it remains essentially an Omani-style fort according to my research. The Al-Khalifa family continues to rule Bahrain today. This is my extremely condensed history of Bahrain and Arad Fort, and I’m sticking to it!
The fort is square in shape, with a round tower in each corner. From the ramparts, visitors can view the surrounding town of Arad and part of the southern coast of Muharraq island. The fort was renovated extensively in the 1980s under the direction of British architect Dr. Archie Walls, under contract to the Government of Bahrain. Restoration has been ongoing since then. Indeed, a small number of craftsmen were working on the front of the fort when I visited the fort with my family.
Dr. Walls refers to the building techniques used by the original builders of Arad Fort in an article published in the March 1991 edition of the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum Magazine (wealddown.co.uk). As described in Dr. Walls’ article, “A 3000 Year Old Building Technique: Its Discovery and Conservation,” the walls of the fort were constructed in “horizontal layers, each of which [were] plastered over before the next layer [was] added.” The height of each layer was about equal to the length of a man’s forearm, which enabled craftsmen to build each layer without the need for scaffolding. Horizontal palm timbers were included in the design to help strengthen the walls and prevent the masonry from corroding. This technique resulted in walls that were durable and strong enough to resist cannon balls.
The article by Dr. Walls refers to the main reasons for why the walls of Arad Fort decayed over the years and needed to be restored. The decay was caused mostly by evaporation of salt-carrying groundwater, which rose up through the walls due to natural processes. As a result of evaporation, the salt in the water crystallized, which then caused the masonry to decay. Over the centuries, wind-blown sand also added to the effects of the buildup of salt on the fort walls and increased the rate of decay.
To maintain the authenticity of the fort, and to ensure an effective restoration, building materials such as clay, lime, gypsum and the trunks of date palms were used. Materials were gathered from around Bahrain and also imported from Saudi Arabia. The fort does look well preserved from the outside but much of the inside of the fort still looks like there is a lot of restoration left to do. Parts of the inner walls remain in a state of relative disrepair and there are mostly just the foundations of the walls of buildings that once housed the fort’s occupants.
The fort is quite small compared to some other forts on Bahrain, and looks like it was designed more for housing a military garrison than for providing a home for the country’s rulers. Other points of interest within the fort that I saw included an old cannon and a well, which in addition to being a source of drinking water was also used to keep the trench or moat around the outside of the fort full of water as part of the fort’s system of defense.
The fort offers views of Muharraq Dhow Building Yard, which is located on the other side of the coastal inlet where the fort is situated, which adds to the “old town” atmosphere that pervades much of the Muharraq district. There are also several examples of traditional dhow vessels on display next to the fort. Some of these types of boats were once used for pearl fishing, for which Bahrain was famous. In fact, the area was at the center of the world’s pearl trade until the 1930s, when competition from Japan caused the local industry to decline. Much of the wealth of Muharraq was derived from this industry.
It was a hot September day when I visited Arad Fort with my wife and children. We got there quite early in the day, probably around 9:30 a.m. I think we must have been the first visitors to the fort that day. Apart from some people who were working there, we had the whole place to ourselves, which made us feel privileged. Muharraq is a place where much of the historic architecture has been preserved. Arad Fort is one of those places where Bahrain’s history can be experienced today.
Part of the Muharraq district of Bahrain, particularly buildings and places associated with the historic Gulf pearling industry, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012. The site encompasses seventeen buildings as well as offshore oyster beds and coastal areas close to Arad Fort from where boats used to take pearl divers to the oyster beds.
As of 2015, entry to the fort costs 500 fils (about $US 1.35). The fort is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and is lit at night, which makes the fort a pleasant and popular location for a nighttime stroll.
My main source for the history of Bahrain and Arad Fort was James H.D. Belgrave’s “A brief survey of the history of the Bahrain Islands,” which was originally published in the Journal of The Royal Central Asian Society in 1952. Copies can be obtained from Taylor & Francis.