Highlights of Middle East
The ancient Nabataean city of Petra is one of the Middle East’s most treasured attractions, and it’s a place utterly unlike anywhere else on earth. Entering through the impossibly narrow canyon feels like discovering a hidden treasure, and when the sun sets over the honeycombed landscape of tombs, carved facades and pillars all hewn from the rose-red sandstone cliffs, it’s a hard-hearted visitor who’s left unaffected by its magic. Allow a couple of days to do the site justice and to visit the main monuments at optimum times of the day.
Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
Towering over both the urban sprawl of Cairo and the desert plains beyond, the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx are at the top of every traveller’s itinerary. Yes, you’ll have to fend off hordes of people pushing horse rides and Bedouin headdresses to enjoy this ancient funerary complex, but your persistence will be rewarded with one of the region’s signature experiences – no trip to Egypt is complete without a photo of you in front of the last surviving ancient wonder of the world.
There are few more beautiful places on the planet than Esfahan’s bejewelled core. The city’s blue-tiled mosques, intricate and exquisite, share the city centre with refined pleasure palaces and elegant arched bridges, all within sight of expansive gardens, tree-lined boulevards and a central square that brims with life. Tea houses, hidden away beneath the arches and throughout the splendid bazaar, are another wonderful entry point into this most beguiling of cities. It’s easily Iran’s most beautiful urban core, and possibly one of the most beautiful on earth.
Dome of the Rock, Israel & the Palestinian Territories
Few places on earth excite emotions to quite the same extent as Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, a gold-plated mosque of singular beauty, built to represent humankind’s yearning for God. Sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians – it was said to be here that Abraham showed his readiness to sacrifice his son to God, and from here that Muhammad ascended to heaven – it’s an epicentre of religious convergence and conflict. But after a visit, it’s usually the unmistakable spiritual dimension that lives longest in the memory.
Cruising the Nile, Egypt
The Nile is Egypt’s lifeline, an artery that feeds the entire country, from south to north. Only by setting adrift on it can you appreciate its importance and its beauty, and more practically, only by boat, preferably a wind-propelled felucca, can you see some archaeological sites as they were meant to be seen – from the waters of the Nile. Sailing is the slowest and most relaxing way to go, but even from the deck of a multistorey floating hotel, you’ll still glimpse the magic.
Wadi Rum, Jordan
It wasn’t just the sublime vista of Wadi Rum – with its burnished sandstone cliffs and fire-coloured dunes – that impressed Lawrence of Arabia as he rode on camel-back through the land of the Bedouin. He was also impressed by the stoicism of the people who endured unimaginable hardships associated with a life in the desert. Today, it’s possible to get a glimpse of that traditional way of life, albeit with a few more creature comforts, by staying in one of the Bedouin camps scattered across this glorious desert wilderness.
Cappadocia was Mother Nature in her surrealism phase. This lunarscape of wacky rock, sculpted by wind and rain, could have been ripped right off the pages of a geological fantasy. Humans have also left their mark, honeycombing the hillsides with cave dwellings and underground cities, and hollowing out Byzantine churches decorated with vibrant frescoes. Today troglodyte living has been shaken up for the 21st century with hot-air ballooning from above, trail-hiking on the ground and seriously cool cave hotels down below.
Steeped in history and once famous across the ancient world for its dye, enchanting Tyre is a major Lebanese drawcard and very much a tourist destination on the upswing. Down here in the old Phoenician heartland, major complexes of Roman ruins include a sizeable cemetery, a circus and a beautifully preserved main thoroughfare in a picturesque coastal setting. The old town and fishing harbour ooze character, and you may be lucky enough to swim with turtles in Lebanon’s cleanest, clearest water.
The Middle East may be strewn with landmarks left by the ancients, but few carry the raw, emotional power of Persepolis. It’s the combination of scale (monumental staircases dominate), detail (the bas-reliefs are extraordinary) and setting (the site rises from the sands against a backdrop of pretty hills) that gives this Unesco site its appeal. Begun by Darius the Great at the height of the Achaemenid Empire’s powers in the 6th century BC, it’s one of the region’s most memorable ruined cities.
In İstanbul, you can board a commuter ferry to ﬂit between continents and be rewarded at sunset with the city’s most magical sight, when the tapering minarets of the Old City are thrown into relief against a dusky pink sky. Elsewhere, history resonates with profound force amid the Ottoman and Byzantine glories of the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya and Topkapı Palace. Such is İstanbul, a collision of continents and a glorious accumulation of civilisations. Little wonder, then, that locals call their city the greatest in the world.
Few cities have the cachet of Beirut, and few have fought so hard for it. Battle-scarred yet ever-buoyant, the city rises magnificently to the challenge of balancing the cultures of the West and the Middle East. Beirut is both the sophisticated and hedonistic place that once partied under the sobriquet of the ‘Paris of the Middle East’, and a demographically diverse city that’s rife with contrasts. Never is this more true than at sunset along the waterfront Corniche, where mini-skirted rollerbladers dodge conservative Shiite families enjoying a cool sea breeze.
With the greatest concentration of ancient Egyptian monuments anywhere in Egypt, Luxor repays time. You can spend days or weeks around this town, walking through the columned halls of the great temples on the east bank of the Nile, such as the Ramesseum, or climbing down into the tombs of pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings on the west bank. Just watching the sun rise over the Nile or set behind the Theban hills are two of Egypt’s most unforgettable moments.
Floating in the Dead Sea, Jordan
Floating in the Dead Sea is one of the world’s great natural experiences. Floating is the right word for it: thanks to an eye-stingingly high salt content, it is virtually impossible to swim in the viscous waters of a sea that is 1000ft lower than sea level. The experience is usually accompanied by a mud bath, a bake in the sun and a health-giving spa treatment at one of the modern pleasure palaces lined up along the Dead Sea’s shores.
Tel Aviv, Israel & the Palestinian Territories
Just over 100 years ago, Tel Aviv was little more than sand dunes. Nowadays it’s a cool, contemporary and cosmopolitan Mediterranean city bursting with bars, bistros and boutiques, strung out along beaches where sunbathers bronze their bodies, while the more athletic swim, surf and play intense games of matkot (beach racquetball). Each beach along the coast of Tel Aviv has its own personality, all set against a deep blue backdrop. And not far away, there’s sure to be an innovative restaurant, lounge bar or boutique hotel.
Mediterranean Coast, Turkey
Long before the beachgoers discovered Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, the Empire builders descended in their droves, leaving the remnants of once-grand cities in their wake. Backed by rugged cliffs that tumble down to a turquoise sea, this famed sun-and-sand destination is a whole lot more than its resorts. Quaint villages snuggle into hillsides, ruins lay scattered across craggy mountain slopes and, down below where the thick forest meets the shore, those white strips of beach beckon all who visit.
Mt Sinai, Egypt
It may not be the highest of Sinai’s craggy peaks, but Mt Sinai is the peninsula’s most sacred. A place of pilgrimage for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, the summit affords the magnificent spectacle of light washing over the sea of surrounding mountaintops. Down below, tucked into the mountain’s base, is St Katherine’s Monastery. Its sturdy Byzantine fortifications are built over the spot where Moses is believed to have witnessed the burning bush. Watching the sunrise from the summit is one of life’s great travel moments.
Tabriz Bazaar, Iran
The sensory overload that comes from visiting a Middle Eastern souq is nowhere more memorable than in the main market of Tabriz. Restored to its former glory, this thousand-year-old souq, a Unesco World Heritage site, covers 7 sq km and is a true labyrinth of alleyways, vaulted ceilings and glorious domed halls. Each corner of the bazaar has its speciality, but wander to get lost, follow the enticing smells and explore without hurrying through this world where tourists are rarely seen.
Ramallah, Israel & the Palestinian Territories
Ramallah, in the West Bank, is a fine place to take the pulse of Palestinian life. It’s a city that struggles daily with the area’s status as a not-quite Palestinian state, but does so with remarkable energy. Proudly Palestinian, it’s home to cafes, bars and even a fine brewery, and is a reminder that Palestinians are getting on with life with a real buzz even as the politicians are unable to forge a lasting peace. Ramallah also makes the perfect base for visiting Bethlehem, the place of Christ’s birth.
Roman Ruins of Jerash, Jordan
For a country so small, Jordan punches well above its weight in world-class monuments, boasting some of the finest Roman ruins outside Rome. Most countries would be pleased to have attractions like the Citadel or the Roman Theatre in Amman, but these pale into insignificance compared with the superbly preserved ruins at Jerash, one of the best places in the Middle East to see the glories of the Ancients. Visit during the Jerash Festival when live performances help to bring this ancient outpost of Rome alive.
Red Sea Diving, Egypt
Egypt’s Red Sea coastlines are the doorstep to a wonderland that hides below the surface. Whether you’re a seasoned diving pro or a first-timer, Egypt’s underwater world of coral cliffs, colourful fish and spookily beautiful wrecks is staggering. Bring out your inner Jacques Cousteau by exploring the enigmatic wreck of WWII cargo ship the Thistlegorm, a fascinating museum spread across the seabed and one of the world’s best wreck dives. Even if diving isn’t your thing, it’s easy to snorkel and see this beautiful underwater world.
Few places have adapted to their environment as well as Iran’s desert city of Yazd. It’s a gem of winding lanes, blue-tiled domes, soaring minarets, covered bazaars, and fine old courtyard homes topped by badgirs (wind towers) and watered by ingenious qanats (underground water channels). Several of these homes have been restored and converted into marvellously evocative traditional hotels. Many travellers declare Yazd to be their favourite city in Iran, and it’s not difficult to see why, combining as it does a whiff of magic on the cusp of the desert.
Burj Khalifa, UAE
Competitively slicing the sky, the audacious tower blocks that rise from the cities of the Gulf are a potent symbol of the region’s ambitions. At 828m, Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the tallest building in the world. Dine on top of this futuristic totem of steel and glass and escape the hurly burly of the streets below: in fact, at this altitude you could quite literally be accused of burying your head in the clouds.