Dilmun: Mesopotamian Paradise on the Persian Gulf

The Paradisaical Trade Center in Bahrain

Main Courtyard, Dilmun Culture, Fort Bahrain
Main Courtyard, Dilmun Culture, Fort Bahrain. Chris Price

Dilmun is the ancient name of a Bronze Age port city and trade center, located in modern-day Bahrain, Tarut Island of Saudi Arabia and Failaka Island in Kuwait. All of these islands hug the Saudi Arabia coastline along the Persian Gulf, an ideal location for international trade connecting Bronze Age Mesopotamia, India, and Arabia.

Dilmun is mentioned in some of the earliest Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform records from 3rd millennium BCE. In the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, probably written in the 2nd millennium BCE, Dilmun is described as a paradise, where people lived after surviving the Great Flood.


While praised for its paradisiacal beauty, Dilmun began its rise in the Mesopotamian trade network during the late 3rd millennium BCE, when it expanded to the north. Dilmun's rise to prominence was as a trading center where travelers could obtain copper, carnelian, and ivory which originated in Oman (ancient Magan) and the Indus Valley of Pakistan and India (ancient Meluhha).

  • 2200–2000 BCE (Period I)—social elites emerge
  • 2150–2050 BCE (Ia)—copper industry begins, Qala'at al Bahrain grows to a city with a stone wall
  • 2050–2000 (Ib)— the emergence of vast mound cemeteries with elite tombs, strong influence from Indus Valley, ~34% population increase in Dilmun
  • 2000–1800 (Period II)—abandonment of Magan's large central settlements, increase in Barbar temple, large public buildings, city wall around the capital, connection with Amorites (contemporary political power in Mesopotamia)
  • 1800–1650 (Period III)—Bahrain mostly abandoned, Failaka in Kuwait continues

Debating Dilmun

Early scholarly debates about Dilmun centered around its location. Cuneiform sources from Mesopotamia and other polities in the region seem to refer to an area of eastern Arabia, including Kuwait, northeastern Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. Archaeologist and historian Theresa Howard-Carter (1929-2015) argued that the earliest references to Dilmun point to al- Qurna, near Basrah in Iraq; Samuel Noah Kramer (1897–1990) believed, at least for a while, that Dilmun referred to the Indus Valley. In 1861, scholar Henry Rawlinson suggested Bahrain. In the end, archaeological and historical evidence has agreed with Rawlinson, showing that beginning about 2200 BCE, the center of Dilmun was on the island of Bahrain, and its control extended to the adjacent al-Hasa province in what is today Saudi Arabia.

Another debate concerns the complexity of Dilmun. While few scholars would argue that Dilmun was a state, evidence of social stratification is strong, and Dilmun's location as the best port in the Persian Gulf made it an important trading center if nothing more.

Textual References

Dilmun's existence in Mesopotamian cuneiform was identified in the 1880s, by Friedrich Delitzsch and Henry Rawlinson. The earliest records referring to Dilmun are administrative documents in the First Dynasty of Lagash (ca. 2500 BCE). They provide evidence that at least some trade existed at the time between Sumer and Dilmun, and that the most important trade item was palm dates.

Later documents suggest that Dilmun held a key position on trade routes between Magan, Meluhha, and other lands. Within the Persian Gulf between Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and Magan (present-day Oman), the only suitable harbor is on Bahrain island. Cuneiform texts from southern Mesopotamian rulers from Sargon of Akkad to Nabonidus indicate that Mesopotamia partially or completely controlled Dilmun beginning about 2360 BCE.

Copper Industry in Dilmun

Archaeological evidence indicates that there was a substantial copper industry operating on the beaches of Qala'at al-Bahrain during Period 1b. Some crucibles held as much as four liters (~4.2 gallons), suggesting the workshop was substantial enough to require an institutional authority operating above the village level. According to historical records, Magan held the copper trade monopoly with Mesopotamia until Dilmun took it over in 2150 BCE. In the account of Selmun Ea-nasir, one huge shipment from Dilmun weighed more than 13,000 minas of copper (~18 metric tonnes, or 18,000 kg, or 40,000 lbs).

There are no copper quarries on Bahrain. Metallurgical analysis showed that some but not all Dilmun's ore came from Oman. Some scholars have suggested the ore originated from the Indus Valley: Dilmun certainly had a connection to them during this period. Cubical weights from the Indus have been found at Qala'at al-Bahrain from the beginning of Period II, and a Dilmun weight standard corresponding to the Indus weights emerged at the same time.

Burials at Dilmun

Early (~2200–2050 BCE) Dilmun burial mounds, called Rifa'a type, are shaped like a pill-box, a crudely built central chamber covered with rock fill forming a low, tabular mound at most 1.5 meters (~5 feet) in height. The mounds are primarily oval in outline, and only vary in that the larger ones had chambers with recesses or alcoves, giving them an L-, T- or H-shape. Grave goods from the early mounds included late Umm an-Nar pottery and Mesopotamian vessels of late Akkadian to Ur III. Most are located on the central limestone formation of Bahrain and the Dammam dome, and about 17,000 have been mapped to date.

The later (~2050–1800) type of mound is generally conical in form, with a stone-built chamber with capstone slabs covered by a high, conical mound of soil. This type is 2–3 m (~6.5–10 ft) in height and 6–11 m (20–36 ft) in diameter, with a few very large ones. About 58,000 of the later type of mound have been identified so far, mostly in ten crowded cemeteries containing between 650 to over 11,000 interments. These are spatially restricted, on the western side of the central limestone dome and a rise between the cities of Saar and Janabiyah.

Ring Mounds and Elite Tombs

Some ob both burial mound types are "ring mounds," encircled by a stone wall. Ring mounds are all limited to the northern slopes of Bahrain's limestone dome. Early types are found alone or in groups of 2-3, located on elevated plateaus in between wadis. Ring mounds increase in size over time between 2200–2050 BCE.

The latest type of ring mound is only found on the northwestern side of the Aali cemetery. All of the late mounds with rings are larger than the regular mounds, with mound diameters ranging between 20–52 m (~65-170 ft) and outer ring walls 50–94 m (164–308 ft) in diameter. The original height of the largest known ring mound was 10 m (~33 ft). Several had very large, two-story inner chambers.

Elite tombs are in three separate places, eventually merging into one principal cemetery at Aali. Tombs began to be built higher and higher, with outer ring walls and diameters expanding, reflecting (possibly) growth of a dynastic lineage.


The earliest excavations on Bahrain include those of E.L. Dunnand in 1880, F. B. Prideaux in 1906–1908, and P. B. Cornwall in 1940–1941, among others. The first modern excavations were undertaken at Qala'at al Bahrain by P.V. Glob, Peder Mortensen and Geoffrey Bibby in the 1950s. Recently, Cornwall's collection at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology has been a focus of study.

Archaeological sites associated with Dilmun include Qala'at al-Bahrain, Saar, Aali Cemetery, all of which are located in Bahrain, and Failaka, Kuwait.