The middle east is a vast stretch of land situated, as its name suggests, in the center of the east. Due to the media’s often unfavorable portrayal of countries in the region, many consider it to be synonymous with danger and disaster. As such, many travelers tend to overlook or dismiss the region entirely when considering areas of interest to visit. However, this great domain consists of 15 incredibly diverse countries, stretching across Western Asia (including the Arabian Penninsula) to North Africa.
The Middle East is also the birthplace of several of the world’s major religions. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam trace their origins to the Middle East. Home to some of the most beautiful landscapes and greatest geopolitical significance in the world, these places are not only safe but also important in the cultural and historical establishment of the society that we know today. Here are some of the lesser-known, off the beaten track locales that the adventurous traveler should visit.
Despite weathering 25 years of civil unrest, the longest of the 21st century, Lebanon’s famous capital prides itself on being one of the safest, westernized and liberal cities in the region. The capital is also one of the most culturally diverse in the area, boasting an eclectic mix of districts that are vastly different from each other: from hipster to Palestinian to Christian. The city also offers a wide selection of dining and lodging options for any traveler. No matter the religious affinity or how deep your wallet goes, there’s always a place for you in Beirut.
Ruins of Baalbek
You don’t have to go to Rome to see ancient ruins. Just go to Lebanon.
Thousands flock to Rome to see the remnants of mankind’s glory at its finest every year. However, as one of the greatest empires to ever exist, its territories stretch from Europe to North Africa, including the Middle East. Thus, the ruins of Baalbek in Lebanon, well-preserved and devoid of busloads of tourists, is one of the best places to experience ancient ruins outside of Rome. You get them all to yourself, after all.
If you don’t want to make a trip to Lebanon just for Baalbek, another more accessible alternative for ancient Roman ruins-hopping in the Middle East would be Jerash. Situated in rolling hills populated by fig and olive trees, you can breathe in the fresh air and see the same lush and bountiful valleys the Romans saw nearly 2,000 years ago when they built their great city.
The Dead Sea
Sharing a border with Jordan, Isreal, and Palestine, the infamous Dead Sea is a lake with the highest salt concentration in the world. It is so salty that it is uninhabitable for plants and animals alike. Swimming in it, however, is completely enjoyable due to the water’s high density, which makes sinking virtually impossible. Along with the many hotels and resorts that line the coasts of the great lake, you are almost guaranteed a good time.
Estafan’s mosques amaze the masses with their exquisite domed ceilings engraved with intricate patterns and shapes that soar high above devotee’s heads bowed in prayer. Back in its heyday, Estefan was touted as the “Athens” and “Rome” of the Middle East.
The capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, few cities in the world can hold a candle to Erbil’s 30,000 years of history. Along with its ancient historical sites and being the gatekeeper of tradition, its significant business ex-pat community and cosmopolitan outlook gives a welcome contrast and provides its denizens with some truly memorable nightlife.
Arguably the most historically, culturally and theologically significant places in the world, Jerusalem is the meeting point between the three major monolithic religions of the world. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all consider Jerusalem to be their holy city and remains a site of contestation between Isreal and Palestine today. That said, the city, however, is not one to be left in the dust and has mingled modern conveniences and pleasures with its ancient history.
One might think of sprawling metropolitan cities, oil magnates and the Mecca when Saudi Arabia is mentioned but many often overlook the quaint mountain villages of Jizan when planning their Middle Eastern getaway. Sharing a border with Yemen, Jizan is a picturesque pastoral refuge from the fast-paced urban wealth of Saudi Arabian stereotypes and offers a rare sight into a new and different look into the country through its charming terraced fields.
Often fondly referred to as the “the Norway of the Middle East”, Musandam is a popular destination for Dubai ex-pats for its majestic fjords and cliffs that spill into the sea. The Omanis are also known for their affable nature and generosity, so don’t be afraid to socialize and join them when they wave you over. In terms of activities, one of the things-to-do is to rent a local boat and go dolphin-watching and meeting a wide variety of beautiful wildlife around the cliffs.
Luxor is the world’s most remarkable open-air museum. It is built along the bank of the great Nile river and flanked by both lush plantations of mango and arid desert. Egypt’s most famous pharaohs such as Tutankhamun, the famous ‘boy king,’ were rediscovered here. From massive elaborate tombs of kings long past to temples beautifully preserved and maintained, you can be sure that this museum is more than a little awe-inspiring.
From Lebanon to Egypt, here are just 10 of the incredible less-traveled-to places in the Middle East where you can dip your metaphorical toes into its deep, rich and fascinating blend of modern culture and ancient tradition. The Middle East is where the new meets the old in a wondrous celebration of life. Luckily for visitors, its wonders are all available at the tip of your fingers and you’re only an air ticket away from a vast repository of ancient history and culture.