Middle East

In pictures: Bahrain's ancient pearl fishing

Pearl fishing was the mainstay of Bahrain's economy from the 5th millennium BC until the 1930s - when it fell victim to cheap competition.

With most of the country's population involved in the industry - from diving down to the rich oyster beds in the Gulf to building ships and trading the largest and most luminous pearls to merchants - the island's economy, culture and social structure evolved around the pearl.

Image copyright Bahrain Ministry of Culture

Divers used to put on nose clips prior to descending into the depths. They were indentured to ship captains who gave them loans prior to the diving season. Even with experience, diving was perilous - and burst ear drums were a rite of passage. But the potential rewards were great and almost the entire male population of Muharraq, the old capital of Bahrain, was involved in one way or another in pearling.

Image copyright Bahrain Ministry of Culture

Divers opened oyster shells on deck with a special curved knife. The dhow was commanded by a captain who brought the crew together, navigated and gave orders at sea. He took charge of all the pearls, keeping them until the end of the season and only selling a few if necessary to pay for provisions. Sailors consisted of divers and rope pullers with singers, apprentices and cooks. Captains were experts at finding rich oyster beds.

Image copyright Bahrain Ministry of Culture

French jeweller Jacques Cartier (centre) made many journeys to Muharraq - the capital from 1810 until 1923 - to buy pearls. Sitting outside a house made of coral stone with two pearl merchants and experts, he learned about Arab culture - a personal interest that inspired the jewellery he created in the early part of the 20th Century. Eastern influences made themselves felt in the art-deco style of his designs.

Image copyright Richard Duebel

Simple tools were all that was needed to categorise pearls in the days before the market was irrevocably changed by the arrival of the cheaper, cultured pearl. The entire way of life disappeared. Demonstrating the use of a traditional sieve to size pearls, the Mahmoud family are still proud to show how pearls used to be examined and classified by their forebears.

Image copyright Richard Duebel

Complex production methods for creating cultured pearls that closely mimic the real thing have spawned a whole battery of digitised tests to make the distinction. Only when a pearl has passed a series of examinations, a certificate is issued that guarantees it is a natural, organic gem - and therefore has greater value. Historic pearls have often passed through the hands of European royalty or film starts. Today Gulf pearls are the most sought after.

Image copyright Richard Duebel

With the decline in the pearl trade, the songs and dances associated with the farewell and return ceremonies - wishing pearl divers a lucrative season and marking their safe return - were gradually disappearing. As part of an initiative to keep pearling culture alive, the Bin Faris Band performs rhythmic, free-flowing "fan al-sout music". This group of musicians, singers and dancers preserves the lyrics and dance steps, giving free concerts once a week in a restored pearling house.

Image copyright Richard Duebel

The meticulous drilling of pearls by hand using a very fine drill bit is a special skill that is still used. Tales of finding the perfect pearl are influencing a new generation of film-makers. The recent Bahrain Film Days festival was devoted to the theme of the sea - with all the works referring in one way or another to pearl diving. Each pearl has a special name depending on its size, shape, lustre and colour.

Image copyright Richard Duebel

One of the traditional ways Bahraini women earned money was by creating kurar - a gold or silver trim painstakingly woven by hand. Five women would sit together for hours using their fingers to create a unique weave that was immediately attached to the garment to be embellished. The kurar is attached to traditional women's robes. Here, Mama Shaima - the oldest member of the group - is seen at work. (Text by Sylvia Smith)

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