Visit a Centuries-Old Kuwaiti Island Turned Ghost Town
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Failaka Island is a rare place where the histories of ancient Greece and the first Gulf War collide.
By Rahma Khan
“Welcome to the land of history and resources ripped apart by the hunger of power and wealth!” exclaims Ayub al-Shammari, a co-passenger on the ferry. An ex-inhabitant of the island we’re about to visit, al-Shammari and his family fled to the mainland 27 years ago, at the time of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. As the boat inches closer, a ghostly place emerges: abandoned houses, vehicles and war machines. But within this setting of tragedy and loss, a far different trend is emerging.
This is Failaka Island (pronounced “Fallacha” locally), about 20 kilometers off the coast of Kuwait City. Inhabited as early as the Stone Age, and named Ikarius by the Greeks who settled and traded here for centuries, it is the only archaeological site in the country. And its fascinating history has turned this small island into an unlikely, and growing, tourist attraction.
Buzz about discoveries on the 43-square-kilometer island began four years ago, but since last year there’s been a notable increase in tourism. “Mostly archaeology and history lovers from around the region visit the island to get a glimpse of the past,” explains Amina Hussain, a sales representative of Tourismo World, a local tour company.
Archaeological operations, which began in 2000, uncovered a treasure trove of artifacts, among them an ostrich egg, a shell ladle of Indian origin and pottery similar to pieces found in modern day Pakistan. A more intensive dig, in 2010, by the University of Perugia, uncovered an array of pottery, porcelain, glass bangles and bronze objects, including nails and coins, dating to between the 17th and 19th centuries.
The secret to Failaka’s rich history is its location: just 60 miles south of the spot where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers empty into the Gulf. This ensured a stable water supply to the plains, making the area favorable for the Mesopotamian people to live and trade. Historians claim that Failaka Island dates back 4,000 years, to the Bronze Age and the Dilmun civilization centered in Bahrain. The Greeks, who arrived in the fourth century B.C., lived here for two centuries.
The shadow of the first Gulf War hangs heavy here.
The island is drawing enough tourists that a small resort, Failaka Heritage Village, has been built to accommodate overnighters (camping is not permitted), and a few small cafés have opened near the main jetty. There were larger plans — to the tune of $5 million — to transform the island into a major tourist destination with marinas and high-rise buildings, Hussain says, but these were called off due to global economic recessions in 2013 and have not been revived.
Visitors can take a tour by bus to the former main street, then south to Roman ruins before ending in the tourist-designated Al-Zour area of the island. Here, at the Museum Palace of Sheikh Abdulla Al Salim Al Sabah — a former palace turned museum — a handful of artifacts and coins are on display (a larger exhibition exists at the Kuwait National Museum in Kuwait City). Tourists are permitted to explore this unrestricted area, marked by signs, on foot.
What you won’t see is the large part of the island still used by the Kuwaiti army to carry out military practices — it’s unauthorized territory. The shadow of the first Gulf War hangs heavy here. An estimated 2,000 residents fled in 1991 and “only a handful of people returned,” says al-Shammari as we walk through crumbled buildings, pocked with bullet holes, and around abandoned vehicles. There’s also a small military graveyard with abandoned Iraqi tanks.
But among these ghosts of war, there is a spirit of growth on Failaka Island. In its trading heyday it was a thriving, beautiful place, and there are movements to make it beautiful again. It begins with welcoming the world to acknowledge its past, where visitors can explore remnants of ancient Greece and the first Gulf War in the same place — something you won’t find anywhere else in the Middle East.
Go There: Failaka Island
- How: Book a tour through a local company. Speedboats leave from Marina Crescent in Kuwait City. It’s a 30-minute journey to Failaka Island.
- Cost: A tour package costs 15 Kuwaiti dinar (about $50) per person and includes an overnight stay.
- Pro tip: Go in winter (November – March); temperatures can reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer months.
- Rahma Khan, OZY Author Contact Rahma Khan