It was a struggle to rise at 8.00 a.m., but somehow we managed it, lured by the thought of another good cup of tea. After breakfast, Stephanie drove us to the cathedral (St Christopher’s) where we met up with Norma, Susan and Chris. It was the start of a fascinating day. The cathedral is small, but charming, with beautiful windows. Chris outlined some key points to us. Firstly it is built just across the road from what is called, ‘The Police Fort’, a large police compound run by the Ministry of the Interior, which I hope I never have to see from the inside!
In 2011 Bahrain had its own version of the Arab Spring, with largely the majority Shi’a community participating. The Pearl Roundabout became the focus for demonstrations. It has since been dug up and removed. At that time the cathedral was cut off because of its proximity to the Police Fort and many of the congregation were pulled out by their companies anxious for their safety. Tyres were burnt, teargas was used, arrests were made. Since then Sunnis have been imported to swell the ranks, particularly in the security service industry, so that the Shi’a/ Sunni split is now closer to 50/50. There is still tension and unease in some areas. However the Christian Church has never been threatened or surpressed. It has good relations with the Royal Family who are keen to reach out to different religious communities…..but possibly not so much to the Shi’a?
Chris outlined the history of Christianity in Bahrain starting with a pre-Islamic Nestorian community through the American Reformed Evangelical missionaries that came in the 1890’s to the building of the cathedral in 1953 – when it was actually just a church. The present congregation is a cosmopolitan mix and somewhat transitory as people come and go as contracts finish or service personnel are posted. At present there is a growing Kenyan community. It is a lively place with a lot happening. It works with other churches and there are strong ecumenical links. There are also links with other faiths. On Christmas Day a Shi’a band plays at the end of the service for example. There is one other church on the island at Awali. There is a Seafarer’s Centre (Seaman’s Mission) and string links with the US and Royal Navy Bases. (more on that tomorrow!)
After a cup of coffee, we set off for the Ahmed Al-Fateh Islamic Centre with its enormous and very beautiful mosque.
The mosque was built between 1984 and 1988 and can accommodate 7,000 worshippers. Inside the floors are covered in Italian marble and Irish carpet, both with geometric patterns in them. In the main prayer hall is an enormous chandelier made in Austria surrounded by numerous handblown glass lamps made in France. The whole effect is stunning. We had to wait for the end of midday prayer so I headed off around the outside of the building. The sunlight on the warm stone is very pleasing.
We picked a guide (or vice verse if you like) and we’re brought inside the main prayer hall, our toes enjoying the deep pile of the Irish carpet. We were then taken to a sort of teaching area and asked to sit down. There then followed a fascinating half hour as our guide explained the main points of Islam and we looked st the similarity and differences between that faith and Christianity. There is so much we have in common, but we seem to part company over the Trinity, which Dean Chris and I agreed they don’t really understand. Goodness knows I think many of us don’t find it an easy concept, so I think they can be forgiven! Our guide was excellent and was very happy to take questions. Only after she finished were we allowed to take photos. Rather prosaically the dome is made of fibreglass!
From the peace and quiet of the mosque we headed off through the hectic Manama traffic for lunch in an Indian vegetarian restaurant. It was excellent. We all had a Thali – a range of small dishes – all cooked without onions or garlic. Delicious, and all for about a fiver.
Chris then drove us out to the fort which is an archaeological site on the coast. We visited the museum first if all. This is situated in a very modern concrete building and is a model of how to lay out a museum. Cleverly you begin at the lowest stages of the excavations – the Dilmun civilisation dating back to two thousand BC and then rise up through the layers to the Portuguese fort of the C15th century onwards. Explanations were clear, detailed, but not too detailed.
The short walk to the fort took us past springs which emerge on the beach and presumably were the one of the reasons why the fort was situated here. The other main reason was the natural harbour. The sun was beginning to set as we approached the fort and it all looked rather beautiful. There was a stark contrast between the archaeological remains and the modern cityscape in the near distance.
I wandered off off on my own and took pictures of the exterior of the fort before wandering in. There were no explanation boards which was a pity, but the walls and arches were very atmospheric in the evening light. The whole site is one large tell and the most recent fort dates from the C16th and was built by the Portuguese as a trading centre for pearls. The Portuguese were ousted by the Persians in 1602 and eventually, in 1782,they were driven out by the Al Khalifa family who rule today. The fort was eventually abandoned.
We left the site at sundown, passing some rather bizarre large4 than life wasps or bees which gave me quite a buzz!
That evening we went to a home group by an American ex-baptist called Angel. We were made very welcome in the apartment of Fozia and Nathan who were S. African ex-pats. We were plied with delicious food and orange juice before getting down to the study on ‘Judges and Kings’. A Bible Society video and booklet provided the core and there was some discussion. At the end, Angel, larger than life in every sense, very kindly drove us home. A devotee of gospel music we were accompanied on our journey by heavenly choirs and rather excited soloists singing with great determination and vigour. Verdi’s Requiem it wasn’t! We fell into bed and sleep very quickly.