The country’s pearling heritage – be it tangible or intangible – is hardly a thing of the past as Bahrain Authority for Culture & Antiquities continues to work tirelessly on the preservation of historic structures across Muharraq. Here, its Head of Architectural Affairs reveals more.

S ay what you want about the pace of urbanisation in Bahrain, but old really is gold, if the work of Noura Al Sayeh is any indication. The architect is currently Head of Architectural Affairs at Bahrain Authority for Culture & Antiquities (BACA), a government organisation that is continuing its relentless efforts to preserve Bahrain’s past – even through the series of setbacks that is 2020. Earlier this year, 550 historic buildings, mosques, temples, and other sites in old Manama were surveyed for a new preservation list. Meanwhile, as part of the Revitalisation of Muharraq project (which won the esteemed Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2019), the pearling city and former capital remains the focal point as the country’s architectural heritage is restored.

“I oversee the different architectural projects of BACA, which includes many different responsibilities. Most importantly, it’s a position that – thanks to the leadership of H.E. Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al-Khalifa, President of BACA – comes with a lot of freedom to take initiative, step outside the boundaries of a prescribed job, and suggest ideas ranging from organising competitions and exhibitions to projects that I think are relevant to the work we’re doing,” says Noura, elaborating on her role.

As the Revitalisation of Muharraq project evolved, so did Noura’s focus. She is currently spearheading a longterm project centred around the Pearling Path, a 3.5km trail that snakes through the storied alleys of Muharraq. Not only is the idea to rehabilitate this urban centre of yesteryear, but also introduce contemporary infrastructure that matches the modern-day lifestyles of current residents. “I actually wish more people knew about it altogether and would visit the projects that have already been completed,” she says of Pearling, Testimony of an Island Economy, a site that has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2012.

“Later in the year, we are working on a special event that we hope will encourage more people to come and wander the streets of Muharraq! Many people also don’t know that Pearling Path includes 17 public squares that are dotted along the different neighbourhoods that the path crosses, with strategically placed lamp posts guiding you through the streets.” For an optimum introduction to the path and insights into the unique legacy of Bahrain’s pearling era, visitors are encouraged to start their visit at Bu Mahir Fort (from where boats used to set off for the oyster beds) and Bu Mahir Interpretative Centre.

Elsewhere in area, renovation of Murad House – which will eventually be a boutique hotel – has started, while the contract for a multi-storey car park was awarded earlier this year. According to UNESCO, the site is the last remaining complete example of the pearling tradition and the wealth it generated at a time when trade dominated the regional economy. This was the case until the 1930s, when Japan developed cultured pearls and everything changed. Soon after, the discovery of oil and gas resources in Bahrain led to the further decline of the pearling economy – and Muharraq’s significance and cultural identity as a result.

Conservation work on derelict structures has been ongoing since 2011, and the project was scheduled to be completed by this year. But did 2020 have other plans? “Luckily, we were at a stage of the project where most of our contracts are now under construction. Yes, there have been some delays on the site due to the current situation, but thankfully, we have mostly been able to work throughout.” On the subject, one aspect of Bahrain’s historic architecture that deserves more recognition, according to Noura, is its inherent sustainability. “From its passive cooling methods to the use of local resources such as coral stone, it was architecture from and of a place,” she explains. “It’s also architecture that is very contemporary in its functionality and simplicity.” As Noura and her team continue to conduct citywide fieldwork, she says the diversity of Bahrain’s natural and built heritage, despite the country’s relatively small size, still surprises her – even 10 years later. And like all things small, the word ‘charming’ is frequently associated with Muharraq. “I think what makes most historic cities more appealing than new developments is their organic and layered nature, which holds the history of many generations and therefore has a richness that is difficult to replicate.”

Looking ahead, Noura is gearing up for Bahrain’s participation on global platforms, namely Venice Architecture Biennale and Expo Dubai in 2021. “Bahrain’s pavilion in Venice will be on the Pearling Path, while our participation at Expo 2020 is on the theme of density. The pavilion is designed by Christian Kerez and will be completed by the end of this year.” ✤