Bahrain's Souq Al Qaysariya: a mission of restoration and regeneration

One of the kingdom's oldest markets is being carefully preserved for future generations

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In the 19th century, Bahrain’s former capital city of Muharraq was thriving.

Back then, it was at the centre of the world’s pearl industry, connecting several trade routes and excelling in several specialisms, from pearl diving to boat manufacture.

With the development of cultured pearls, the demand for the natural gemstones declined, and, after the oil boom of the 1930s, Manama became the capital city as Muharraq largely fell into disrepair.

Bahraini families left the area, moving inland, and the city instead became the home of foreign labourers, many of whom were bachelors sharing housing to keep rent costs down.

Traditional coral houses boasting large courtyards and, often, wind towers, remain the mainstay of Muharraqi construction

This new population began to alter the face of Muharraq’s architecture, working with new materials such as cement to modify the buildings to suit their own means.

Thankfully, mostly for practical reasons, they did not change the original architecture of the old homes they lived in. Traditional coral houses with large courtyards and, often, wind towers, remain the mainstay of Muharraqi construction. The Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities has for years been trying to preserve these aspects of the city's heritage.

While in the 1990s the effort began as a renovation project, it has since become one of restoration and regeneration, encompassing several old town houses and the famed Souq Al Qaysariya.

What is Souq Al Qaysariya?

The souq is one of the oldest parts of Muharraq's market, and has historically featured shops selling everything from pearls to spices and teas.

The souq’s rehabilitation includes the conservation of original structures, alongside new construction that is “compatible with the historic fabric of the souq and incorporates passive cooling methods”, according to a 2019 report on the revitalisation of Muharraq.

Qaysariyah Suq, Muharraq, Bahrain 
Studio Anne Holtrop 
Photo by Anne Holtrop
Souq Al Qaysariya is the oldest part of Muharraq's market. Courtesy Studio Anne Holtrop

Its restoration began in 2010, after the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities successfully prevented plans by the local municipality to demolish the old-style stalls and erect a modern shopping mall in its place. A two-year pilot project to restore six traditional shops, as well as improve surrounding infrastructure, then took place to much acclaim.

Elements of this area now form part of Pearling, Testimony of an Island Economy, a serial site that was inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2012. It consists of three oyster beds, a seashore and 16 architectural properties all connected by a visitor pathway. Each component relates to and illustrates an aspect of the thriving pearling economy of the 19th century.

Souq Al Qaysariya’s heritage houses

Among the heritage houses in the old souq are the Siyadi shops and three Amarat Fakhro buildings.

The Siyadi shops are a series of commercial buildings and storehouses ("amarat") built in 1860. These have been in continuous use by the Siyadi family ever since, and demonstrate the role of a grand pearl merchant, who not only sold the gemstones, but also goods such as dates, rice, sugar, tea and coffee.

Qaysariyah Suq, Muharraq, Bahrain 
Studio Anne Holtrop 
Photo by Anne Holtrop
Studio Anne Holtrop is carefully regenerating the Siyadi shops and three Amarat Fakhro buildings. Courtesy Studio Anne Holtrop

West of these shops is a group of three amarat belonging to the well-known Fakhro family, which was in the boat and timber trade.

Amarat Ali Rashed Fakhro I is a shop and storehouse complex that was run by the family from the 1890s, and to this day houses one of Muharraq's longest continuously operating coffee shops, the Qahwat Bu Khalaf.

Amarat Ali Rashed Fakhro II is the most intact historic amarat and the only one in the market still used by merchants in its traditional function of storing trade goods.

The third storehouse complex, known as Amarat Yousif Abdurrahman Fakhro, is a ruin. All of them are being restored.

A regeneration mission

Studio Anne Holtrop, which has offices in Amsterdam and Muharraq, are the architects in charge of this project. "Our work is focused on the renovation and rehabilitation of the old Souq Al Qaysariya and Amarat Fahkro buildings," said Holtrop, who said the job, which began in 2014, will be finished by spring 2021. They will also be creating new buildings using old construction techniques and materials.

“The new stores of the souq are made out of concrete elements that are cast with unconstrained sand borders on the site. Each cast results in a unique element, taking over the characteristics of the site.”

While one of the main aims is to carefully regenerate the area using much the same architectural practices as in the 1800s, the ultimate goal, Holtrop said, is to "revive the souq as a buzzing place with local shops and cafes".

In Muharraq, only Bahrainis can own land. This means the city, which is the third largest in the kingdom, has managed to keep its own identity, and that the culture and antiquities authority has been able to intervene quickly when property owners plan to destroy their buildings.

"Our project in Muharraq is, I believe, unique in the Arab world, and I hope we can set up a model for the region," Egyptian architect Alaa Al-Habashi told design magazine Disegno in 2016.