Steeped in tradition and reaching far back into the mists of time, the pottery industry in the small Bahraini village of A’ali combines time-honored methods with modern techniques and designs. It utilizes the clay of an ancient land once known as Dilmun. Rulers of a prosperous trading empire contemporary with the Sumerians, Dilmun’s powerful kings and queens were laid to rest in royal burial mounds in A’ali. Today, these mounds form an integral part of this quiet neighborhood, resting between houses and pottery workshops, some with potter’s kilns built into the sides of their outer chambers.
A stone’s throw from one of the largest royal burial mounds we find Majid Abdul Rahim checking some newly-thrown pots in the workshop of Delmon Pottery. Majid is one of five brothers working in the pottery industry, carrying on a trade that has been passed down through generations. Majid’s father has his own pottery workshop, and among the half dozen pottery businesses in A’ali there is a friendly spirit of cooperation rather than competition, as all the owners are related, Majid reports.
Like his brothers, Majid learned the potter’s trade at a young age. He began his training by hand-crafting small clay weights used for fishing nets. When his children are old enough, he says he’ll bring them to the workshop so they can also begin getting a feel for working with clay.
Growing up in a house just beside a royal burial mound, Majid also developed a love for archaeology. As a child he would scamper up the rocky, slippery slopes of the mound to the entrance of the central chamber. It was always a thrill to go inside the mound, descend the smooth, steep steps to the bottom of the tomb, and contemplate who might have used it as their final resting place.
With this juxtaposition of home, work, and ancient Dilmun archaeological sites, it’s not surprising that some of the Delmon Pottery designs are inspired by artifacts found in the nearby burial mounds. Before we go to the shop to have a look at the ceramics, Majid takes us on a tour of the workshop and its surroundings in order to show us the production process.
Inside a shed are two men, a Bahraini and a Pakistani, throwing pots on foot-operated wheels. A third man is preparing balls of clay, pounding and kneading them by hand in order to remove any air bubbles.
Majid says that they dig out the clay from Riffa area, some seven kilometers away. “The government allows local potters to take the clay free of charge. Twice a year we collect two big lorry-loads of clay.”
The clay is dumped in big mounds behind the workshop. To prepare the dry clay for use it’s broken up, sieved, and mixed with water in a shallow concrete basin.
The Bahraini clay has an attractive creamy color after it dries but it’s porous and cracks easily so for some items, clay imported from the UK or Egypt is mixed in, in order to make it stronger. Due to its consistency, the local clay also doesn’t take glazing well, so many items are left unglazed, either plain or decorated with stamped or incised designs and a minimum of color.
Majid leads the way down a narrow path where newly-thrown items are arranged on wooden pallets to dry in the sun. The drying time depends on the size of the object and the strength of the sun. Once dry, the items made of pure Bahraini clay are fired once while those containing British or Egyptian clay are fired twice.
Opposite the pallets are jumbled piles of dry pots, behind which is a small hill covered with broken pots. Unfired broken pots can be recycled back into workable clay by breaking them up into powder and mixing it with water. If pots get broken after firing the powder produced by breaking them up also has its uses. Some people mix it with soil and use it for their gardens, Majid says, and it can also be mixed with glue and used to repair ceramic items.
At the top of the fragment-covered hill is a rectangular brick kiln. Majid explains that the brick walls of the kiln are sealed with a mixture of clay and human hair that acts as insulation. Fired by kerosene, the kiln is slowly heated to 1,000 degrees Centigrade to fire the objects. The potter checks the items through a small hole to see if they’re done. Before the kiln is opened it must be allowed to slowly cool down so the items inside don’t crack or break from a sudden change in temperature.
Majid climbs up a nearby hill to show us an ancient wood-burning kiln that was dug into the rocky ground a very long time ago. “We are not allowed to use these kinds of kilns any more because they make too much smoke,” he says.
We go into the shop where Majid tends to some customers while we have a look around. We find a treasure trove of ceramic items that demonstrate the wide scope of the Bahraini potter’s art. There are lamps and lanterns with stars and lattice patterns; vases, cylinders, and plates decorated with intricate geometric shapes and verses from the Holy Quran; and plain pots that look exactly like some of the examples of Early Dilmun pottery on display in the Bahrain National Museum.
There are undecorated urns on pedestals, traditionally used to hold water and keep it cool, with a plastic spigot the only modern addition to a design that is centuries old. Some money banks shaped like a vase with a slit for coins at the top remind a Bahraini customer of the bank in which she saved her coins when she was a little girl. Known as a hasalah, the shape of this bank has remained the same for generations of children but now in addition to the plain, unglazed banks there are ones that are painted with bright pink, blue, green, or yellow stripes. Adapted from a children’s tradition that has come from foreign lands are jack o’lanterns with gap-toothed smiles made of plain, unglazed Bahraini clay.
Some of the shop’s bestselling items are decorative plaques with the distinctive iconography of the Dilmun stamp seals, depicting scenes of everyday life and the legends of the time. Majid and his brothers studied the original seals in the museum and in photographs and also consulted experts from the Ministry of Antiquities in order to reproduce the images as accurately as possible. They also immersed themselves in the stories of the stamp seals and the important role they played in Dilmun culture.
Encompassing what is today Bahrain, the Kuwaiti island of Failaka, Qatar, and the coastal regions of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Dilmun was an important trading center from the late fourth millennium to around 800 BC. Strategically located for maritime trade with regions such as Mesopotamia, Magan (present day Oman) and the Indus River Valley, it handled a complex range of merchandise, from pearls, turtle shells, and precious stones, to fine textiles, copper ore and ingot. Artisans, craftsmen, and merchants from around the world flocked to its shores and created a thriving multicultural community.
Shaped like a disc, the Dilmun stamp seals were used in commercial, religious, and domestic contexts, with their most important role seen as regulating trade. A kind of ancient business card, they were used on official documents, as tags attached to goods, to identify property, and possibly as trademarks or badges of office. They may also have been passed down as family heirlooms from generation to generation. As the only surviving art of Dilmun, the seals are unmatched in providing a vivid portrait of a complex society and culture and an insight into what life in the Gulf was like at that time.
Majid remarks that the most popular of their stamp seal plaques purchased as a souvenir by local expatriates is the so-called “beer drinkers.” The original can be seen in the Bahrain National Museum with the accompanying explanation, “Two men are represented holding a kind of straw emerging from a vessel. This was the traditional manner to drink thick liquids (possible beer or barley-wine) in the ancient Near East. The straw, used as a filter, was inserted below the floating seeds used for the preparation of the desired drink.”
Majid says that sometimes people ask him whether his job gets boring, just working with clay all the time. He tells them that in his line of work, he’s always learning something new, whether it’s about the ancient Dilmun civilisation, dealing with an international clientele in his shop, or about new techniques in pottery production.
Majid just concluded a Raku pottery training workshop with the Bahrain Handicrafts Directorate, in which he learned the art of making the metallic sheen Raku ware originally perfected in Japan. Adapted to local motifs, the Raku pottery creates a beautiful blend of Bahraini tradition and contemporary pottery art. After all, this merging of cultures and exchange of ideas to produce new products that satisfy market demand is nothing new in the land once known as Dilmun. The powerful rulers of the ancient trading empire that were laid to rest in A’ali pottery village would undoubtedly have approved.
The ‘hasalah’ is a traditional children’s money bank, available in natural clay or painted in bright colors.
Story and photos by Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud – Special to the Arab Times