Quick trip? How to spend a history-filled 24 hours in Bahrain

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This nation is stuffed full of surprising history and awe-inspiring natural sites. (Photo courtesy: Tharik Hussein)
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Bahrain’s oldest Islamic archaeological site, the Khamis Mosque
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Bahrain’s oldest Islamic archaeological site, the Khamis Mosque.
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Bahrain’s most famous cultural center is the Beit Al-Qur’an.
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Do not be sad if the 32-meter-high lush green mystery leaves you baffled.
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Updated 12 September 2017
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Quick trip? How to spend a history-filled 24 hours in Bahrain

MANAMA: The Kingdom of Bahrain is a tiny nation with a big history. This is a country that was once ruled by a 12-year-old and a place where, in antiquity, the social elite spoke Greek and practiced Olympian sports. Bahrain was where traders used to come from far and wide in search of the world’s finest pearls, however, despite this rich and fascinating history, Bahrain has become something of a touristic backwater in recent times.
Most travelers only pass through for business or find themselves here in transit, but what can you do in a day in Bahrain? Here is how to make the most of 24 hours in the Middle East’s smallest country.
Museum morning
The best way to explore this eminently drivable little island is by car, so start off by hiring one at the airport. Not only will this allow you to pack in so much more, but taxis are not cheap and public transport is not reliable.
From the airport, your first stop is a mere 10-minute drive. Bahrain’s most famous cultural center is the Beit Al-Qur’an, or the “House of the Qur’an,” which holds the finest collection of Qur’anic manuscripts on public display anywhere in the Arabian Peninsula. Housed in an uber-modern building that integrates classical Islamic design, the museum is split into three sections, the most impressive of which has to be the Makka Hall, where Qur’an segments on parchment and animal skins date all the way back to the time of the prophet. There are also beautifully-illuminated, unusual Qur’ans from across the globe in the collection. However, nothing quite tops the grain of rice onto which verses of the Qur’an have been inscribed.
All that culture is going to leave you hungry. Fortunately, you only need to venture a few streets west to find Chtaura inside Moda Mall. Chtaura’s motto is “when you’re here, you’re home and if you love simple Middle Eastern food in a cool, quirky space than you will feel very much at home at Chtaura. Order the delicious foul and some zaatar bread — baked in a huge clay oven — and wash it all down with a glass of milky karak tea.
Archaeological afternoon
Start off in the southwest of Manama at a place many believe is Bahrain’s oldest Islamic archaeological site, the Khamis Mosque. Sitting on Sheikh Salman Highway, the mosque is easily spotted due to its twin minarets, which peer over the walled enclosure. The Khamis Mosque’s foundations are believed to date as far back as 692 AD — Islam came to Bahrain in 628 AD — although hard archaeological evidence to support this is yet to surface. The impressive ruins you will visit include the remnants of a prayer hall and the two minarets — all of these structures date from much later periods. Be sure to climb one of them for a great view of the site. Recently renovated, both minarets were built during the Uyunid and Usfurid dynasties, who ruled Bahrain between the 11th and 14th centuries.
From the classical, you will jump to the more traditionally Bahraini as you make your way south to the Riffa region. Here, climb the impressive Riffa Fort, which is strategically positioned on a hillock. From there, you can overlook the Hunayniyah Valley and imagine what it must have felt like to stand there knowing what lay in front of you was yours. Riffa Fort was once the seat of the country’s rulers. Built after the 17th century in a wonderfully-harmonious style, the sand-colored walls of this excellent Bahraini citadel appear to have risen from the very desert that once surrounded it.
Enchanting evening
With the day’s oppressive heat behind you, it is time to venture out to the desert in search of a truly mystical experience. Taking the King Hamad Highway south, look for directions to the “Tree of Life.” There is no proper road leading to this enigmatic monument, such is the remoteness of its location. But you will find it and when you do, you will stand in awe wondering how this miracle of nature has survived more than 400 years in the harshest of deserts, where temperatures regularly exceed 110 degrees fahrenheit, with no obvious water source. Do not be sad if the 32-meter-high lush green mystery leaves you baffled — some of Bahrain’s greatest minds are still scratching their heads too.
Finally, as you head back to the airport you will pass the only place one should end an evening in Bahrain — the majestic Al-Fateh Grand Mosque. Make sure you arrive before sunset, so you can close your eyes and listen as the air begins to fill with the sound of 100 muezzins and then open them so you can witness the impressive lights on Bahrain’s largest mosque coming on, one by one. Then walk inside to admire the world’s largest fiber-glass dome, which is surrounded by beautiful cuboid Kufic calligraphy. Finally, take a walk out into the cool, Andalusian-inspired inner courtyard, ringed by a forest of slim marble pillars. Sit here and rest your weary feet before looking up to admire the starry desert sky above. This truly is the only place to end 24 hours in Bahrain.


First space tourist flights could come in 2019

Updated 13 July 2018
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First space tourist flights could come in 2019

WASHINGTON: The two companies leading the pack in the pursuit of space tourism say they are just months away from their first out-of-this-world passenger flights — though neither has set a firm date.
Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, and Blue Origin, by Amazon creator Jeff Bezos, are racing to be the first to finish their tests — with both companies using radically different technology.
Neither Virgin nor Blue Origin’s passengers will find themselves orbiting the Earth: instead, their weightless experience will last just minutes. It’s an offering far different from the first space tourists, who paid tens of millions of dollars to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) in the 2000s.
Having paid for a much cheaper ticket — costing $250,000 with Virgin, as yet unknown with Blue Origin — the new round of space tourists will be propelled dozens of miles into the atmosphere, before coming back down to Earth. By comparison, the ISS is in orbit 250 miles (400 kilometers) from our planet.
The goal is to approach or pass through the imaginary line marking where space begins — either the Karman line, at 100 kilometers or 62 miles, or the 50-mile boundary recognized by the US Air Force.
At this altitude, the sky looks dark and the curvature of the earth can be seen clearly.
With Virgin Galactic, six passengers and two pilots are boarded onto SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, which resembles a private jet.
The VSS Unity will be attached to a carrier spacecraft — the WhiteKnightTwo — from which it will then detach at around 49,000 feet (15,000 meters.) Once released, the spaceship will fire up its rocket, and head for the sky.
Then, the passengers will float in zero-gravity for several minutes, before coming back to Earth.
The descent is slowed down by a “feathering” system that sees the spacecraft’s tail pivot, as if arching, before returning to normal and gliding to land at Virgin’s “spaceport” in the New Mexico desert.
In total, the mission lasts between 90 minutes and two hours. During a May 29 test in California’s Mojave desert, the spaceship reached an altitude of 21 miles, heading for space.
In October 2014, the Virgin spaceship broke down in flight due to a piloting error, killing one of two pilots on board. The tests later resumed with a new craft.
The company has now also reached a deal to open a second “spaceport” at Italy’s Tarente-Grottaglie airport, in the south of the country.
Branson in May told BBC Radio 4 that he hoped to himself be one of the first passengers in the next 12 months. About 650 people make up the rest of the waiting list, Virgin said.
Blue Origin, meanwhile, has developed a system closer to the traditional rocket: the New Shepard.
On this journey, six passengers take their place in a “capsule” fixed to the top of a 60-foot-long rocket. After launching, it detaches and continues its trajectory several miles toward the sky. During an April 29 test, the capsule made it 66 miles.
After a few minutes of weightlessness, during which passengers can take in the view through large windows, the capsule gradually falls back to earth with three large parachutes and retrorockets used to slow the spacecraft.
From take-off to landing, the flight took 10 minutes during the latest test.
Until now, tests have only been carried out using dummies at Blue Origin’s West Texas site.
But one of its directors, Rob Meyerson, said in June the first human tests would come “soon.”
Meanwhile, another company official, Yu Matsutomi, said during a conference Wednesday that the first tests with passengers would take place “at the end of this year,” according to Space News.
SpaceX and Boeing are developing their own capsules to transport NASA astronauts, most likely in 2020, after delays — a significant investment that the companies will likely make up for by offering private passenger flights.
“If you’re looking to go to space, you’ll have quadruple the menu of options that you ever had before,” Phil Larson, assistant dean at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, said.
Longer term, the Russian firm that manufactures Soyuz rockets is studying the possibility of taking tourists back to the ISS. And a US start-up called Orion Span announced earlier this year it hopes to place a luxury space hotel into orbit within a few years — but the project is still in its early stages.