Vintage photo archive 'The Old Bahrain' shows island life in simpler times

The nostalgic online collection is captivating the Gulf island

Selection of images from 'The Old Bahrain' social media accounts. Photos: Bahrain News Agency / American Mission Hospital / Old Bahrain
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As we find ourselves flung headlong into another uncertain year, it’s not surprising that some of us may prefer to peer back through the cloudy gauze of nostalgia.

Enter The Old Bahrain: a growing online photographic and video archive that not only enfolds an anxious populace into the past’s comforting arms, but also aims to highlight the huge changes in the country.

The man behind the accounts is Nick Cooksey, a publisher from the UK who moved to Bahrain more than 20 years ago. Originally travelling to the Middle East to set up a magazine, he soon fell in love with the island he now calls home.

The Old Bahrain started as a simple Facebook page in early 2019, where Cooksey would share vintage photos of the island online. “I’m fascinated by the past and would find and post old photos of Bahrain for others to also enjoy,” he tells The National.

“I then set up a dedicated page, The Old Bahrain, and invited about 15 of my friends to follow, and it grew from there.”

All in all, the account now has more than 50,000 followers across its original Facebook page and its newer Instagram and Twitter presence. With this expanded reach, people have now begun to submit their own photos to Cooksey, allowing the archive to grow quickly.

Modern photos are taken to preserve snapshots of Bahrain’s ever-shifting landscape for future generations, and for people who’ve left the country to live abroad. Many photos are submitted by people who moved to Bahrain for work, which means the military and the early days of industry are well documented.

Cooksey is particularly interested in illustrating the sweeping changes Bahrain has undergone in recent decades. “On Friday morning, I’ll go out and find the places shown in the pictures and photograph how they look today,” he says. “I like putting myself in the same position as someone 80 years ago, to compare the scene.”

Other posts continue this link between past and future, with the recent floods in Bahrain inspiring Cooksey to post about the country’s previous extreme weather events, such as the big freeze in 1964.

Some posts are more popular than others, especially videos. “I also post videos, some old [ones] dating from the 1930s to the current day.” One video of a car driving through Manama in 1991, sat next to another set in 2021, got more than 130,000 views, for example. But Cooksey feels all his posts are important in documenting Bahrain’s history.

Despite the accounts’ success, Cooksey has managed to keep a low profile, so much so that many of his friends are unaware he created The Old Bahrain. “They’ll come and show me photos that they’ve found on this great Instagram post, not knowing that it’s me who shared it,” he says. “It’s always funny when someone tells me about my own account.”

While many expatriates avidly follow the account, The Old Bahrain also has a lot of local support, with a majority of its readership being Bahraini.

So why has the account struck a chord among Bahrainis and non-Bahrainis alike?

“I think it just makes people feel warm,” Cooksey says. “Every day, The Old Bahrain receives kind messages from within Bahrain, and around the world from those who once lived here and still feel a bond to the island.”

Scroll through the photo gallery below for more images of decades past in Bahrain:

Updated: January 28, 2022, 6:02 PM