Histories & Culture

Bahrain is famous for its pearls and specialized pearl dealers still trade in the souks of Manama and Muharraq. The exceptional quality of Bahraini pearls is thought to be due to the many fresh water springs in the seas around the island. In 100 A.D. the Roman traveler Pliny describes Tylos (the name of Bahrain Island at the time of Alexander the Great) as being "famous for its vast number of pearls". Pearling had been practiced around Bahrain for approximate¬ly 4,000 years.

The main pearl diving season was from June to October. There were also "cold diving seasons" before and after the 5-month main diving season but their length varied according to the weather.

Boat building traditions developed vessels specially for pearl diving. The first type of boat was the sambouq. Later this was replaced by the jalibut. At the beginning of each season, several fleets set sail from the pearling villages with great ceremony meeting at sea before making their way to the pearling areas.

The diving methods described by Abu Zayd Hassan in the 10th century show that methods changed little in the next 1,000 years. Looped ropes with stone or metal anchors were tied to the sambuqs. Divers used these ropes and. anchors to descend quickly to the seabed. Once underwater, they would cut open as many shells as possible within the next minute and a half. When they needed air, the divers simply tugged on the ropes as a signal for them to be hauled up to the water surface. After a few minutes of rest they descend again. The only equipment the divers used were a nose-clips, leather guards to protect their fingers, a knife to cut open the shells, and a bag for the pearls.

Pearls were classified according to size and then according to quality and beauty. They were generally divided into four sizes: The biggest is the "ras", and then the "batn", followed by the "dhayl", and the smallest is the "sahtit". The best pearls are round and large, bright white tinged with a light pink color emanating from their center.

Sales of pearls took place in the pearl-broker's quarters and were often conducted in a sort of deaf-and-dumb code to preserve the secrecy of the price. The actual value of the pearls was assessed in a special way: they were first stored out according to size using a graded sieve. Their worth then was estimated using the ancient measuring system called “khows”. These sieves can still be seen in Bahrain antique shops.

In 1932, the ruler of Bahrain Shaikh Hamad saw the deplorable working conditions endured by the pearl divers and introduced financial reforms which put the industry on a much sounder footing. Until the early 1930's the industry flourished but the beginning of the trade depression in Europe along with the start of large-scale production of cultural pearls in Japan led to a consequent reduction in demand for pearls. From then on the industry steadily declined. Although the days of impressive fleets of pearling boats are over, the tradition continues on a smaller scale.