Qal’at al Bahrain [Barém]

Lat: 26.233272222222000, Long: 50.519922222222000

Qal’at al Bahrain [Barém]

Persian Gulf | Red Sea, Bahrain

Historical Background and Urbanism

The Fortress of Qal’at al Bahrain was registered in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2005. The site located at 26º14’N – 50º3’E has been occupied by man since at least 2300 BC and was used as a trading post on the Persian Gulf route between Mesopotamia and the Strait of Hormuz, between the Arabian and Iranian coasts, with access to India and the Far East. The fortress said to be Portuguese is situated on a hill 11.2 metres high resulting from successive periods of human occupation. Built overlooking the sea but slightly set back from the coast, the fortress has an irregular plan resembling a turtle whose head and fins are represented by the Portuguese bastions. The Portuguese captured it in 1521 from Migrin ibn Zamil who died in the battle; they eventually lost it in 1602 when they were expelled by Shah Abbas I. In 1614, Garcia da Silva e Figueroa, ambassador of the king of Portugal and Spain, travelled to the shah’s court to sign a trade agreement between the Portuguese and the Persians. Although initially to the shah’s liking it was not successful, due to the demand transmitted by the ambassador that the Bahrain Fortress should be returned to the Portuguese crown.
During the 81 years of occupation, despite being remotely located inside the Gulf, this fortress was nevertheless subject to the crown’s attention, especially during the construction work carried out by the architect Inofre de Carvalho, a master sent to India in 1551 by King João III. After the fort was recaptured by Antão de Noronha in October 1559, Inofre de Carvalho came to Bahrain in 1561, and it was he who gave the fortress its present appearance, especially the bastions which Rafael Moreira says were inspired by the treatise Quattro Primi Libri di Architettura by Pietro Di Giacomo Cataneo, published in Venice in 1554. About 4,300 years ago, mankind attempted to settle on the north coast of Bahrain Island, not very far from the mainland, in a place originally less than 100 metres from the sea. Over the centuries, amid an extensive plain of palm groves, the vestiges of various civilizations accrued, continually marked by trade between East and West, up to the 16th century arrival of the Portuguese. The original fortress, whose foundations remain and which is part of the listed ensemble, was probably built before the 3rd century. Used until the 5th century and definitively abandoned after the 13th century, it was built along medieval lines: surviving vestiges indicate a square measuring about 51.5 metres on each side, with round towers on the corners and semi-circular ones in the middle of each wall section. The east wall included the narrow main gate and was protected by quadrangular towers, opening onto a small courtyard. The walls had arrow slits and a gate over the sea. Although restored in the 13th century, the ruins of this fortress were abandoned soon afterward due to erosion and the changing coastline; much of the material was used to rebuild and enlarge the said Fortress of Bahrain. Despite being presented schematically in the illustration by Pedro Barreto de Resende in the Livro do Estado da Índia Oriental, dated 1646 and kept in the British Museum, the Fortress of the Coast, as it was known, is the most rigorously depicted of all. The draughtsman used dotted lines as if showing a construction that is nothing more than a ruin and can only be identified by the vestiges of the structures’ foundations, a situation recognisable even today. In the late 14th and early 15th centuries a new fortification was built near the Fortress of the Coast and towards the interior. In 1529, this fortress was described by João de Barros as looming over the port, sheltering a small island where fishermen gathered. The fortification was built of stone and lime; its perimeter wall had 17 quadrangular towers and an outwork surrounded by a moat and marked by embrasures. The chronicler then specified that the fortress had a very fine keep and one of the quadrangular towers a well-fortified gate; he added that the outwork was surrounded by a broad ditch with a drawbridge. This description corresponds to the changes introduced during the period of governor Badr al Din. Until then the Portuguese were lords of the Persian Gulf and the Turks’ position was dubious; many local kingdoms sometimes paid tribute to both the Portuguese crown and the Ottomans. In a common policy for that region, the Portuguese entrusted the position’s administration to a local governor, in this case Badr al Din, who possibly under Portuguese influence adapted the fortification to meet the new conditions dictated by the use of artillery. This led to building the curtain from three to six metres from the main wall, as well as a vast triangular space to the west. The new structure, four to five metres lower, forms a ring around the original fortress, where terraces facilitated circulation and the use of heavy artillery. The gate was now at the south end and was the only access, a new one, to the fortress after crossing the moat. Most of the interior structures date to this time, namely the donjon succeeding the keep. This period also saw enlargement of the bastion which protected the cistern entrance. The donjon, as attested by the ruins and the illustration in the Taboa de Barém, a Portuguese engraving from 1538, was an imposing quadrangular structure adjoining the south wall with several floors, certainly the governor’s residence. In this depiction, though very schematic, the pentagonal layout of the walled structure is clearly visible, along with the moat and even an arch topped by a cross that may be the ashlar arch which Rafael Moreira asserts is the entrance to a chapel; as in Muscat, it may have been brought from the home kingdom. It is around this time, in 1529, that Badr al Din rebelled, perhaps feeling secure in the renovated fortress, or because he knew that the various parties – Baluchi garrison, Portuguese, Hormuzis and himself – defended antagonistic interests. He rose up with 800 of his men and 600 Persians, who were then besieged and overcome by Simão da Cunha. On orders from the king, Nuno da Cunha left for India in April 1528 with the mission of reaching the Persian Gulf and capturing Bahrain Island. This was indeed achieved when the governor moved against those locations. On the 19th May 1529, Nuno da Cunha was at Muscat. He then headed to Hormuz, where he ordered his brother Simão da Cunha to carry out the royal order and attempt to replace Badr al Din with Mir Aberuz, deemed to be more trustworthy. With a fleet of five ships and 400 men Simão da Cunha left Hormuz on the 8th September but only reached Bahrain on the 20th of that month due to navigation difficulties. There he met Belchior de Sousa, who was patrolling the Gulf to keep Badr al Din from receiving Persian reinforcements. When more artillery and ammunition for Hormuz arrived as requested, Simão da Cunha and his men landed on the island, sought the south-facing wall, the weakest section, and used artillery to successfully breach it. Simão da Cunha was not very fortunate despite this feat, as he fell victim to the diseases then ravaging those territories, which also decimated much of his force. In the 1550s the whole gulf was again the stage for Turkish incursions, as they fought for supremacy over those waters against the Portuguese; the Bahrain fort was not unscathed in those attacks. In 1559, Emir Murad of Bahrain resisted the Turks with the support of a fleet led by Antão de Noronha; that Turkish attempt to control the Gulf dictated the need for more work to be done to strengthen the fortress.

Military Architecture