The Mythical Dilmun and The Island of the Dead
In Sumerian mythology, the mythical Dilmun was known as the bright and pure land, a paradise where sickness and death did not exist. The land of Dilmun was filled with divinely ordained and abundant water sources, brought forth from the subterranean realm by Utu/Shamash—the sun god—at the behest of Enki. These waters transformed a formerly dry land into a literal garden of the gods, where the mother goddess Ninhursag tended sacred plants. Various deities were believed to have made Dilmun their home, including Enki himself.
As the Sumerian Poseidon, Enki was the “lord of the absu (abyss)” in ancient cosmology, and was thought to have sent his sages, the apkallu from out of the watery abyss to partner with the pre-flood kings of Babylonia. What makes the concept of Dilmun so unique among the many mythic locales in ancient literature, is that many researchers consider it to have been an actual place, although there are several candidates for it’s true identity.
Dilmun's God of Water (Prathap MSK / Flickr)
Some archaeologists (including Peter Bruce Cornwall and David Rohl) have identified the mythic Dilmun with the Island of Bahrain, located south of Eridu in the Persian Gulf. Positioned between Mesopotamia, India, and the East African Coast, Bahrain became the host of influential middlemen trafficking copper ore, diordite, gold, tin, ivory, and semi-precious stones into Sumer, Babylon and Assyria until the mid-second millennium B.C., activities attributed to people of the Dilmun Civilization, which occupied both Bahrain and the neighboring Arabian coast. The island of Bahrain was once littered with natural springs, and many of those not overrun by development are today still surrounded with the ruins of sacred shrines from many eras. There are also off shore springs beneath the salt sea where fresh water bubbles up from the massive underground aquifer beneath the Gulf. It may have been just this natural connection to the mythic abyss and the underworld, which resulted in one of the greatest archaeological mysteries in the world—the construction of over 200,000 burial mounds in Bahrain.
Map of ancient Dilmun (Saudi Arabia Tourism Guide)
The majority of the Bahrain tumuli were constructed between 2300 and 1800 BC, and range between 1-3 meters in height and 3-11 meters in diameter, although there are several much larger examples. Some of the tumuli are surrounded by traces of perfectly circular walls of highly stacked, carefully placed limestone blocks, which are typically twice the diameter of the inner mound itself. A 1959 aerial survey revealed that 46 out of 75,023 tumuli observed featured the ring walls, and they also appear surrounding some of the Dilmun tumuli on the adjacent Saudi Arabian coast. These outer rings are thought to indicate the mounds of particularly high status individuals of one or more ruling lineages. Chronologically, ring walls initially appear surrounding some Early Type mounds, and appear later among larger Royal mounds, including 18 of the tumuli near the village of Aali, ranging from 20 to 52 meters in diameter with outer rings between 50 and 94 meters. (S. Terp Laursen, “Early Dilmun and its rulers: New evidence of the burial mounds of the elite and the development of social complexity, c. 2200-1750 BC”, in Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, 19, 2008, 155-166.)
The Burial Mounds in A'ali, Bahrain. They date to the Dilmun era of Bahraini history (public domain)
Many of the larger tumuli (called “Royal” mounds in the literature) feature two storied tombs, complete with a small passage or vertical shaft entryway. Earlier tumuli were usually small with crudely built stone chambers, and the gradual appearance of the more elaborate mounds is considered indicative of a gradual increase in social complexity, including the rise of an elite class. The “Royal” Mounds of Bahrain were often built near the heads of natural springs in areas selected specifically for mound field, perhaps representing a connection to the gods of the absu.
The elite dead of Bahrain were interred with bronze weapons, hairpins, and prestigious Ivory artifacts, as well as elaborate drinking goblets in tombs open at the west, perhaps to view the setting sun. On the Gulf Coast of Saudi Arabia, extensive mound fields of the same types as those from Bahrain are known, one of the largest concentrations of which is at Dhahran, consisting of around 50,000 tumuli dating to around 2500 BC. Being slightly older than their Bahrain counterparts, the Dhahran tumuli are considered representative of a time before the capital of the Dilmun civilization was moved to the island. Potteries of the Uruk, Jembet Nasr, and Barbar periods have been found at Dhahran, suggesting frequent interaction with Mesopotamia. The elites of the Dilmun civilization may have been considered true royalty by the Mesopotamian world, as evidenced by a letter found at Girsu describing gifts received by a queen of Lagash from a contemporary queen of Dilmun.
Remains of Saar temple, a temple dating to the Dilmun era of Bahrain's history (public domain)
There is evidence of cross-cultural influence at Dilmun. Several Bahrain mounds feature terracing similar to that from early Egyptian Mastaba tombs, while the Dhahran tumuli have yielded seals demonstrating Egyptian influence, such as one depicting a lion and two winged cobras wearing the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. Another seal features a falcon seated on a cartouche, a design used in Egypt to proclaim the deceased king as the reincarnated Horus. Could the sacred island of many waters have been considered prime funerary real estate in the ancient world? Symbolism similar to that of Bahrain was prolific throughout the ancient east. For example, the sites of Byblos and Jericho both began as small villages built around enshrined or “sacred” wells. The possibility exists that the Island of Bahrain was in fact a very ancient predecessor of later concepts of an Island of the Dead, the archetypal forbearer of the Island of Avalon.
Top image: Main: Aali burial mounds in Bahrain (Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities).