The house of Shaykh Isa bin Ali Ali Khalifa is located in Muharraq, the old capital of Bahrain, residence of the ruling Khalifa family. The house, considered to be the oldest in Bahrain, was built ca. 1800 as a private residence for Shaykh Hassan bin Abdallah, the grandson of Shaykh Ahmed Ali Fatih (reg. 1783-1794), conqueror of Bahrain. In 1869, under Shaykh Isa bin Ali Ali Khalifa (reg. 1869-1932), who was a distant cousin of Shaykh Hassan, the house was used as both the ruler's residence and the centre of government. The house was then inhabited by his son, Abdallah, until his death in 1972. In 1976, the house was bought by the directorate of antiquities and restored to become a major tourist attraction, accommodating the Ethnograhic Museum.
The house is rectangular in shape and occupies a complete city block between the Shaykh Abdallah and Kharu districts. It is bordered by Shaykh Aballah Street on the south and the Great Mosque of the city on the east. Constructed of mud bricks covered with gypsum, its exterior walls are up to one meter thick, moderating the extreme climatic conditions. The house is divided into four quarters, each arranged around a courtyard. The house has two entrances, the family entrance to the north and the guest entrance to the east. The majority of the rooms occupy the first floor, while the summer rooms are found on the second floor terrace.
The Shaykh's Quarters: The western quarter, arranged around a rectangular courtyard measuring eight by ten meters, comprises the Shaykh's private apartments. To the north of the courtyard is the Shaykh's bedroom and bathroom; to the east is the family room, or majlis, which communicates with the adjacent women's courtyard through an arcade situated on its eastern wall. This majlis is topped by a wind tower added in 1932 by Aisha, Shaykh Isa's wife, to cool the space by capturing summer breezes. The upper part of the wind tower is perforated with elongated arches and topped by a decorative crenellation, a later addition dated to a 1976 restoration. The northern wall of the majlis leads to a rectangular room with no windows used as the children's winter bedroom. The west wall of the courtyard, facing the majlis, is decorated with a series of four arched niches with decorative motifs carved in plaster. To the south of the Shaykh's private courtyard is an iwan reached by two arches, leading to the secondary courtyard with two smaller bathrooms and a staircase to access the roof terrace. Above the Shaykh's bedroom is the children's summer bedroom, which is accessed from the east through a portico decorated with carved gypsum bands. This bedroom is ventilated by ten windows distributed across the north, south and west walls. To the southern side of the terrace is the Shaykh's summer bedroom, preceded by a portico/sitting area which opens to the north and is decorated with Persian arches.
Women's Quarters: The women's quarters are situated between the Shaykh's quarters and the servants' quarters, and are arranged around the largest courtyard of the house, which measures approximately twelve by fifteen meters. The women's courtyard communicates with the Shaykh's courtyard through a narrow corridor running parallel to the majlis, accessed through a lobed arch. The northern side of the courtyard is occupied by the Shaykh's daughter's bedroom and the women's majlis, whereas the southern side houses a kitchen used to prepare coffee. This kitchen then adjoins a wood storage room and a summer iwan leading to the female servant's bedroom. On the western wall of the courtyard is a storeroom for honey and dates; on the eastern wall, separating the servants' courtyard from the women's, is a kitchen equipped with a bread-baking oven. A staircase in the courtyard situated between the wind tower and the north wall leads to the children's bedroom on the roof terrace. This courtyard is connected to the street through a door on its northern wall, which is the only entry into the house for the family members and the servants. From the outside, this door is topped by a pointed arch set within a frame decorated with motifs carved in plaster.
The servants' quarters are arranged around a trapezoidal courtyard equal to the Shaykh's courtyard. On the northern side of the courtyard are the laundry room and kitchen; on the western side is a large bathroom for the servants, with a big kitchen adjacent to a cow-shed running along the southern side. South behind the kitchen is an open air corridor located along the outside wall of the house that forms the only link between the family quarters and the guest quarters. A staircase supported on the bathroom wall leads to the roof terrace containing the bedroom of the Shaykh's married son; this bedroom is composed of two spaces separated by three Persian arches. To the north side of this terrace is the bedroom of the Shaykh's unmarried daughters. This bedroom has ten windows opening onto the terrace and two others opening to the street.
Guest Quarters: The guest quarters are arranged around a courtyard with a well at the western end of the house, and are accessible from the street by a separate entrance on the east which is, like the family's private entrance, adorned from without by carved plaster decorations. To the north of the courtyard is a triple-arched portico that precedes a bathroom and three winter living rooms, each without windows. To the south is an iwan formerly used by Shaykh Issa to meet with his guests. One arrives at this iwan via steps and a pointed arched doorway framed by two windows. Facing the entrance on the southern wall is a series of four decorative arched niches. On the eastern wall of the courtyard is a staircase leading to a covered terrace preceding the guests' majlis, adorned with decorated arched windows on the west and north walls opening to the courtyard below. The southern wall is decorated with arched niches. On the western wall is a staircase leading to a guest bedroom with eight windows and its attached bathroom.
Bahrain Old Houses. Manama: Falcon Cinefoto, 1987. Hardy-Guilbert, Claire and Lalande Christian. La Maison de Shaykh Isa a Bahrayn= Shaikh ?isá's House In Ba?rain /i>. Paris: Editions A.D.P.F, 1981.