The 2300 year old Hellenistic fortress
The 2300 year old Hellenistic fortress
2,300-year-old ruins at Failaka are falling apart
‘One of the most important Bronze Age monuments in all of the Arabian Gulf’

KUWAIT: I stand on a 2,300-year-old fortress on Failaka Island, watching a team of men piece the walls of the ancient fort together, trying to stop it from slowly collapsing. “I’m not sure the walls will last until next year,” says archaeologist Dr Mathilde Gelin. Gelin shows me photographs of the same excavation of the site, one in 1978 and the other in 2009. The walls in 1978 are clean and stable, with clear corridors running in between. In 2009 it is almost unrecognizable; several portions of the walls have collapsed, and the floors are invisible underneath all the wreckage.

The fortress was built by Alexander the Great around 300 BC, says Gelin. I look around and see a large maze of mudbrick walls and corridors — it is as wide as a football field, roughly 60 meters long and 60 meters wide. In the middle of the site is a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis. There I spot the famous Greek column, the same one found on the Kuwaiti one-dinar banknote. Taking a picture of the dinar with the real-life column in the background is a common habit for visiting tourists and locals.

The problem, says Gelin, is the rain. It collects at the bottom of the wall and erodes it, and over time the walls collapse. In order to maintain the walls, the team uses wooden buttresses to hold them up, as well as the same materials that were used to build the fortress 2,300 years ago. They are using the same earth and rocks found on Failaka for repairs. Gelin says the team is doing the best they can to save the walls of the fort.

Two hundred meters away, I walk over to an even older site — a 4,000-year-old temple belonging to the civilization called Dilmun. I can see from what is left of it that it is shaped like the letter H and made of limestone. There I meet archaeologist Dr Ole Herslund, who describes it as “one of the most important Bronze Age monuments in all of the Arabian Gulf”.

The Dilmun were an ancient civilization who arrived before the Greeks and established a trading colony in Failaka, making it a very important trade route between Mesopotamia and India. Herslund explains the uniqueness of the site by showing that just below the surface of the island, you can step directly into the Bronze Age, almost 4,000 years ago. With a few exceptions from Bahrain and Egypt, this makes Failaka “virtually unique in the world”.

Next to the temple we walk over to another valuable excavated building belonging to the Dilmun — the Governor’s Palace. I can see it is rectangular shaped, and the stone walls of the palace rise higher than what was left of the ones at the temple. Herslund explains this to be the administration of the temple, which had an important function: Animal sacrifices. The Dilmun priests would present the Dilmun gods with offerings of food, drink, jewelry and expensive materials to please them.

Herslund points a four-minute walk away, “that’s where we have the settlement, where the people would live”. There is Sheikh Ahmad Al-Jaber’s rest house, a traditional mudbrick Kuwaiti house, built in 1927. As I walk closer to the house, the ground next to it seems to open, and an excavated 4,000-year-old village is revealed below. I can see the mudbrick walls still standing after thousands of years, and the small rooms where people would sleep. Herslund explains it is extremely rare to find a Bronze Age village in such good condition as that found on Failaka. “I really hope the people of Kuwait appreciate that they have this,” he said.

Only a 30-minute boat ride away from the mainland, Failaka Island, only 16 square miles, has a total of 44 archeological sites. The small island has seen different civilizations, from Bronze Age Sumeria to Dilmun to the Greek Hellenistic period and to Christian and early Islamic settlers. According to Herslund, we can learn a lot from the ruins found on Failaka. What does it tell us about life back then? What does this tell us about life today? Herslund says that till this day, Kuwait remains a diverse nation with many different cultures, and through the archaeology found at Failaka, we know that “actually it has been like this for 4,000 years”.

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