The Dilmun Civilization: An Important Location for Ancient Mythology and Trade
Dilmun (Telmun) was a civilization located in the eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula. Although this was quite an old civilization, it is much less famous than the four cradles of civilization of the Old World, i.e. Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, the Indus Valley Civilization, and the Yellow River Civilization.
Location of the Dilmun Civilization
Unlike these four ancient civilizations, which developed around river valleys, the Dilmun civilization was located on the island which is today the country of Bahrain. Due to its strategic position in the Gulf, the Dilmun civilization was able to develop as a trade center, and was in contact with two of the four cradles of civilization, namely Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley Civilization.
Location of Dilmun burial mounds in Bahrain. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Dilmun’s Mythological Role as the Home of Ut-napishtim
Dilmun occupies an important place in the mythology of Mesopotamia. In the second half of the Epic of Gilgamesh (commonly regarded as the first great work of literature), the eponymous hero, Gilgamesh, sets out in search of the secret of immortality following the death of his good friend, Enkidu.
In order to do so, Gilgamesh has to seek out Ut-napishtim, the only man who attained eternal life. Gilgamesh is told that he has to cross the sea to reach this immortal, as Ut-napishtim was sent to “dwell far off, at the mouth of the rivers.”
Artists rendition of Gilgamesh and Ut-napishtim. (Filipe Ferreira/Flickr)
Gilgamesh is also informed that no one, with the exception of Shamash (the Sun), has accomplished this feat before:
There has never been a ferry of any kind, Gilgamesh,
And nobody from time immemorial has crossed the sea.
Shamash the warrior is the only one who has
crossed the sea: apart from Shamash, nobody
has crossed the sea.
The crossing is difficult, the way of it very
And in between are lethal waters which bar the
Although the name of Ut-napishtim’s residence is not mentioned specifically, it is popularly speculated to be Dilmun.
- A Paradise Lost: In Search of Eden
- Archaeologists unearth one of the world’s oldest civilizations in Bahrain
- The Legend of Gilgamesh
- Ancient Persian Cuneiform Contract and Artifacts Discovered in Bahrain Fort
Dilmun in the Myth of Enki and Ninhursag
Apart from the Epic of Gilgamesh, Dilmun is also mentioned in the myth of Enki and Ninhursag / Ninhursaja. In this story, Dilmun is presented as a sort of earthly paradise:
Image of the Sumerian god Enki. (Public Domain)
“Pure are the cities -- and you are the ones to whom they are allotted. Pure is Dilmun land. Pure is Sumer -- and you are the ones to whom it is allotted. Pure is Dilmun land. Pure is Dilmun land. Virginal is Dilmun land. Virginal is Dilmun land. Pristine is Dilmun land….
In Dilmun the raven was not yet cawing, the partridge not cackling. The lion did not slay, the wolf was not carrying off lambs, the dog had not been taught to make kids curl up, the pig had not learned that grain was to be eaten.
When a widow has spread malt on the roof, the birds did not yet eat that malt up there. The pigeon then did not tuck the head under its wing.
No eye-diseases said there: "I am the eye disease." No headache said there: "I am the headache." No old woman belonging to it said there: "I am an old woman." No old man belonging to it said there: "I am an old man." No maiden in her unwashed state ...... in the city. No man dredging a river said there: "It is getting dark." No herald made the rounds in his border district.
No singer sang an elulam there. No wailings were wailed in the city's outskirts there.”
More than a Mythological Place: Dilmun as a Site for Trade
Yet, Dilmun was not merely a mythological place. The existence of Dilmun can be found in Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform records.
One of the earliest known inscriptions mentioning Dilmun speaks of the tribute that they brought to Ur-Nanshe, the first king of the first dynasty of Lagash: “The ships of Dilmun from foreign lands, brought him (Ur-Nanshe) wood as a tribute (?).”
Another inscription from the reign of Sargon the Great boasts of Dilmun’s ships being anchored at Agade, “… the ships from Dilmun, he made tie up alongside the quay of Agade.” It was the ships of Dilmun, perhaps, that made long-distance trade between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley possible.
It has been noted that a number of Indus Valley seals have been discovered in several Mesopotamian sites, whilst ‘Persian Gulf’ circular seals (known from Dilmun) have been found in both the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia. This has been taken as evidence that trade occurred between the three civilizations.
A collection of Dilmun seals, Bahrain National Museum (CC BY SA 3.0)
One commodity involved in this trade was copper from the mines of Oman. This precious metal was shipped to Mesopotamian cities, and it is thought that the merchants of Dilmun had a monopoly in this trade.
Archaeological Evidence for the Dilmun Civilization
As for the archaeological evidence, the first problem was to identify the location of Dilmun. Apart from Bahrain, early scholars have also speculated that Dilmun was located in Kuwait, northeastern Saudi Arabia, and Al-Qurna near Basrah, Iraq. One scholar even believed for some time that Dilmun referred to the Indus Valley.
The issue was mostly put to rest with the first modern excavations of the Qal’at al-Bahrain in the 1950s. Today, the site is considered to be the ‘ancient harbor and capital’ of Dilmun, and is located near the modern village of Saar in the northwestern part of the island.
The Qal’at al-Bahrain site as it stands today. (CC BY SA 2.0)
At this site, seven successive levels of settlement have been uncovered, the oldest of which may be dated to about 2300 BC. Apart from living quarters, burials have also been uncovered at Qal’at al-Bahrain. It has also been reported that there are around 170,000 burial mounds that cover an area of 30 square km (11.6 square miles), which is equivalent to 5% of the main island area.
Reconstruction of a Dilmun mass grave at the Bahrain National Museum. (CC BY SA 3.0)
The majority of these burial mounds are said to have been made during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, though, undoubtedly there would have been those from the Dilmun period as well. Some believe that the island was used as a cemetery by the mainland Arabs (perhaps due to Dilmun’s role in mythology), whilst others refute this theory.
Saar temple’s burial chambers are also said to be from the Dilmun period. Saar, Bahrain. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Featured image: Ruins of the Bahrain Fort and what may be the location of the old capital of the Dilmun civilization. (Find Ancient Arabia) Insert: Copper bull head from the Dilmun culture. (Find Ancient Arabia)
Anon., Enki and Ninhursaja [Online]
[The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford (trans.), 2003. Enki and Ninhursaja.]
Available at: http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.1.1.1&charenc=j#
Anon., The Epic of Gilgamesh,
[Dalley, S. (trans.), 2008. The Epic of Gilgamesh, in Myths from Mesopotamia, Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.]
Hirst, K. K., 2015. Dilmun Civilization. [Online]
Available at: http://archaeology.about.com/od/dterms/qt/Dilmun.htm
Kramer, S. N., 1964. The Indus Civilization an Dilmun, the Sumerian Paradise Land. [Online]
Available at: http://www.penn.museum/documents/publications/expedition/PDFs/6-3/The%20Indus.pdf
Smith, S., 2013. Bahrain digs unveil one of oldest civilisations. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-22596270
UNESCO, 2015. Qal’at al-Bahrain – Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun. [Online]
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1192