Souq Al Qaysariya: Renovation of Muharraq’s oldest market in Bahrain is complete

Its official opening this week follows years of extensive restoration and redevelopment

Following more than a year of coronavirus-related restrictions, Bahrain’s culturati safely gathered in the pedestrianised streets of Souq Al Qaysariya on the island of Muharraq earlier this week to celebrate its official opening, following years of extensive restoration and redevelopment.

There has been much anticipation for this milestone, since the historic trading hub was saved from demolition by the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities back in 2010.

Since then, some of the five buildings comprising the site had already been completed, such as the charming, historically styled Siyadi Shops, one of which has housed the same tenant for about 70 years.

After years of renovation and restoration, Souq Al Qaysariya in Muharraq, Bahrain has officially opened to the public. George Raphel for The National
The unique architecture features Dutch architect Anne Holtrop’s soil as shuttering technique. George Raphel for The National
The soil as shuttering technique sees imperfect concrete panels formed by casting them directly onto the earth at the building site. George Raphel for The National
The richly textured facade of the new souq buildings feels both futuristic and carved by time. George Raphel for The National
Pockets of green feature, too. George Raphel for The National

To mark the opening, the new shops of the main Qaysariyah Suq Street were filled with pop-ups selling local fashions, jewellery, art, handicrafts and more. Soon, a tender process will begin to determine the permanent residents of these striking new retail spaces.

The main aim of the souq regeneration has always been to recreate a synergistic nexus point for the kingdom’s designers, makers, traders, shoppers and visitors.

That mission appears to already be fait accompli, as demonstrated by the prevalence of shopping bags, business card swaps and influencer posts on opening day.

This revamped iteration of one of the country’s oldest markets adds another layer to the historic and commercial significance of the area: architecture that is unique to the world and is sure to draw attention from near and far.

It is the project in which Dutch architect Anne Holtrop first conceived the soil as shuttering technique, whereby imperfect concrete panels are formed by casting them directly on to the earth at the building site. Initially envisaged as an efficient method of paying homage to the neighbourhood’s centuries-old coral stone, Holtrop has since evolved this technique in nearby projects, such as at the newly opened cultural site The Green Corner, receiving international acclaim.

We want to make sure that the magic we have within our fabric here in Bahrain is shown, is celebrated, is seen

Shaikha Hala bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, director general for culture and arts of Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities

Juxtaposition is apparent within every element that is completed, as well as in the interplay between each component project. The towering heights and sprawling expanse of the recently completed Visitors’ Centre emphasises the small and intimate feeling of the neighbouring shops.

Such aesthetic diversity and richness goes some way in reflecting the scale and vibrancy of the kingdom’s historic pearling economy.

The richly textured facade of the new souq buildings feels simultaneously futuristic and carved by time. This contrast of new and old is a defining characteristic of not just this project, but of the Pearling Path initiative as a whole.

Inscribed to Unesco’s World Heritage Site List in 2012, Muharraq’s Pearling Path stretches across 3.2 kilometres; from oyster beds in the sea, past the shore and Qal’at Bu Mahir fortress, to 17 buildings representing all the facets and key figures of the pearling industry that made up the island’s economy during its heyday as a prosperous geographical centre for the gems.

This project has been in the works for at least 10 years, and was scheduled to be completed in 2021, but during the souq launch Shaikha Hala bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities’s director-general for culture and arts, revealed this date has been pushed back to the end of 2022. “We have slowed down a little bit due to Covid measures … but that gives us more time, more time to build the whole thing.”

Al Alawi House is one site on Bahrain’s Unesco World Heritage List-inscribed Pearling Path. All photos Timothy Power
The Pearling Path’s Visitor & Experience Centre in Bahrain. The site consists of 17 houses, two offshore oyster beds and Bu Mahir Fort. It was inscribed onto the Unesco list in 2012.
An example of an old wind tower is seen at Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa Palace. Timothy Power
Siyadi House and majlis is part of a complex by one of Bahrain’s leading grand pearl merchant families.
Inside the Shaikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Center for Culture & Research.
Siyadi Mosque is a single-storey courtyard mosque, the oldest preserved mosque in Muharraq.
A date press at the Visitor & Experience Centre.

She explained that the combination of modern and traditional approaches to preserving the heritage of the historic capital city is inherent to the vision and strategy of the cultural authority.

“Every country and every city has its own characteristics, every city has its magic. For us working at the cultural authority, we want to make sure that the magic we have within our fabric here in Bahrain is shown, is celebrated, is seen.”

There are several historic structures left to be upgraded on the Pearling Path, as well as public parks yet to be implemented. Four multi-storey car parks are being developed to accommodate the expected boon of visitors to the area.

Beautification efforts that are sensitive to the local heritage of adjacent areas are also well under way. It was these details that stood out most to lead architect Holtrop as he watched his project come to life during the opening event.

“I think it’s really nice for the whole neighbourhood that they have done up the surrounding shops, especially with all the signs in hand-painted Arabic calligraphy,” he said. “It really feels connected and local now.”


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