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Persian Gulf Pearls: Bahrain, Ormus & Kish

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History of the Persian Gulf Pearl Industry

In the past, some of the world's finest natural pearls came from the Persian Gulf region. As early as the third millennium BC, the Sumerians may have been the first to discover the pearl, while gathering oysters along the shores of the Persian Gulf [2]. Persian Gulf oysters (Pinctada margaritifera, Pinctada radiata) were gathered for their mother-of-pearl, which was used as an inlay material in ancient Egypt as early as the sixth dynasty (c 3200 BC).

Pearling in the Persian Gulf dates back several thousand years, taking place along natural oyster beds found in underwater geological formations known as the pearl banks. The pearl-banks pearling grounds stretch along the Arabian side of the Persian gulf, from Kuwait and the island of Bahrain in the west, to Oman on the tip of the Arabian peninsula at the Strait of Hormuz (Ormus), and to Kish Island (aka "Pearl of Persian Gulf") in Iran on the Persian side of the gulf.

Bahrain Pearl Banks

Portuguese Map c. 1600s, Pearl Monument in Bahrain (right Photo: Public Domain)

European interest in the pearl banks of the Persian Gulf region was recorded in the early writings from Greek and Macedonian explorers, and Ptolemy wrote about the pearl fisheries which existed at Tylos, the Roman name for the present day Bahrein. In the Greek historian Pliny's book Historia Naturalis, he wrote: " the most perfect and exquisite pearls of all others be they that are gotten about Arabia, within the Persian Gulf."

From the 1600s on, pearls banks were exploited in the waters around the island of Bahrein, near Dalmah island off Abu Dhabi, Abu Musa, Ormus, and the Lavan-Kish island group.

Due to the high demand for mother-of-pearl from the native Pinctada mollusk, the easily accessible oysters that bred in shallow tidal waters became over-harvested, and it became increasingly necessary to perform deep diving for oyster collection. Breath-hold diving techniques were used to dive to depths of 30 to 50 feet or more.

Pearling in the 1700s & 1800s

Diving from small wooden boats (dhow), Persian divers would weight themselves down with heavy stones, collecting as many oysters as possible before a rapid accent. The divers would use underwater goggles made from polished tortoise shells, and wore a bone clip to close their nostrils, and ear stoppers made of beeswax. Facing barracuda, sharks and poisonous jelly fish, divers would make 50 to 60 dives per day. Due to the physical dangers involved, slaves were commonly used in diving operations.

Bahrain Pearl Divers

Bahrain (left), UAE Stamp Commemorating Pearl Divers (Photo: Public Domain)

Though the invention of, and advancements to the diving suit in the 1700s and 1800s would mitigate many of these dangers, native Persian divers opposed their use, protesting that poorer divers would have a competitive disadvantage. Siding with native Persian divers, the Bahrain king outlawed the use of diving suits for pearling.

Bahrain & Ormus Pearling

Historically, the name "Bahrain" referred to a large geographic region (Bahrayn Province or Iqlim al-Bahrayn) that stretched from Basrah in Iraq to the Strait of Hormuz in Oman. The Arab inhabitants of the Bahrayn Province were descendants of the Bani 'Abdu l-Qays tribe, and were called Baharna. The modern archipelago of Bahrain (aka "The Pearl of the Arabian Gulf") was called Tylos by the ancient Greeks, and its Arabic name was Awal until the 1500s.

Led by navel general Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese took possession of the main pearling ports of the Persian Gulf in 1504, levying taxes on pearl fishery. Kuwait, Ormus (Hormuz Jerun) and Bahrein was used by the Portuguese as a staging ground to launch expeditions to India's Malabar coast, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Macao in China.

The secretary to the Portuguese archbishop in Goa, J. H. van Linschoten wrote in 1596: "The principall and the best that are found in all the Orientall Countries, and the right Oriental pearls, are between Ormus and Bassora in the straights, or Sinus Persicus, in the places called Bareyn, Catiffa, Julfar, Camaron, and other places in the said Sinus Persicus."

The Persians, with assistance from the British, expelled the Portuguese in 1620, and throughout the next two centuries, many of the islands in the Persian Gulf were captured and subsequently lost by the Dutch, British, and French. Throughout its history, the island of Bahrain was claimed at various times by the British, Persia, Muscat and the Ottoman Empire, finally gaining independence in 1971.

Kish Pearl Banks

Kish is one of the four islands (Hendorabi, Kish, Lavan and Sheedvar) in the Lavan-Kish island group that are situated along Iran's Shibkuh coast from Charak to Nakhilu, in the Hormuzgan Province. Under Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese took possession of these islands in the 1500s. The pearl banks of the Kish island group were the Abu Musa, Dhahr-al-Yas, Hawad Bin-Musammih.

The End of Pearling in the Persian Gulf

The great depression of the 1930s swept across Europe, decreasing the demand for pearls, and thereby halting the Persian Gulf pearling industry. With the discovery of oil in Bahrain by Standard Oil Company in 1932, the Gulf region was inundated with shipping traffic, and the resulting pollution, which was the nail-in-the-coffin for the Persian Gulf pearling industry.

Bibliography & Suggestions for Further Study on Persian & Bahrain Pearls

1. U.N. Food & Agriculture Org., Pearl Oyster Taxonomy & Distribution .

2. Bennet Bronson, Pearls Without Price: The Rise & Fall of a Sometimes-Precious Gem .

3. Richard Boyle, The Jewel of the Deep .

4. Frederick Kunz, Pearls Amongst the Ancients .

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