Probably no other area on earth is as complex, as contested and often as downright confusing as the Middle East. Sat at the meeting point of east and west, and at the junction between Europe, Asia and Africa, the region has been buffeted by an extraordinary range of influences but maintains its own unique identity and culture, dominated by the ever-present Islamic faith.
Synonymous nowadays for many people with war, terror and instability, the region was also the location – in Iraq (Mesopotamia) and Egypt – of two of the great cradles of human civilization and birthplace of the world’s three great monotheisms. Arab scientists and philosophers led the world for centuries, while Muslim architects and artists created the great mosques of Cairo and Istanbul and the swirling calligraphy and intricate arabesques which continue to fascinate to this day.
After long centuries of marginalization and under-development, the past fifty years have seen the Middle East re-emerge as a key player in world events thanks to the region’s location atop the world’s biggest oil reserves, albeit at a huge social and political cost. This volatile mix of faith and fuel continues to fire turbulence in the region, which shows no sign of an end.
Definitions of the Middle East vary and, as with so many things about the region, are controversial. Traditionally the Middle East (or Near East as it was once known) comprises the Mediterranean countries of the Levant (Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt). Increasingly, however, the Middle East is also taken to include the Gulf states of the Arabian Peninsula (UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Yemen) plus Iran. Of these, only Turkey (covered in the Europe section of the website), the UAE and perhaps Jordan, Israel and Oman can be said to be in the tourist mainstream. Egypt’s massive tourism industry is reeling thanks to recent events, while countries as rich in culture and history as Syria, Iraq, Iran and Yemen are now largely off limits.
A country almost as old as human history and a modern nation state which according to some was never meant to exist – probably no other place in the world stirs up as much passion and controversy as Israel. A key location in all three of the world’s great monotheisms, the name alone is capable of dividing, enraging and inspiring in equal measure.
The modern nation’s turbulent history has, not surprisingly, somewhat obscured its enormous appeal to travellers. Jerusalem is is one of the world’s most fascinating – and most divided – cities, brimful of history and still preserving much of its ancient heritage and atmosphere. The country’s other great city, Tel Aviv, is one of the Middle East’s most dynamic destinations and provides the heartbeat of modern Israel, while the picturesque, multi-ethnic port of Haifa is another top draw. Elsewhere, the sere landscapes of the interior are rarely anything less than beautiful, framed between the Sea of Galilee in the north and the curious Dead Sea, the lowest point on the surface of the planet, in the south.
Squeezed in between Egypt, Israel, Syria and Iraq, Jordan is the smallest and most understated country in the Levant’s historic patchwork of ancient nations. Like its neighbours, Jordan has suffered mightily from post 1948 political upheavals but has survived with relatively fewer scars than its neighbours, and remains one of the safest and most welcoming countries in the region.
Many people visit Jordan for one reason and one reason only: to see the unfortgettable Nabatean city of Petra, its ancient classical buildings still magical, preserved amidst the gorges and on the hilltops above Wadi Arabia. Elsewhere, the majestic mountain-shielded, dune-filled canyon of Wadi Rum is one of the Arabia’s most memorable landscapes, while the chance to float effortlessly in the dense, salty waters of the Dead Sea is one of its most surreal. The superb Roman ruins at Jerash (all the more precious following the destruction of Palmyra in Syria) are also well worth a visit, and within easy striking distance of affable Amman, one of Arabia’s smallest but most endearing capitals.
This is a strange sort of country: a makeshift paper construct glued together out of leftover bits and pieces of the old British empire. Ironically, the country’s two main cities – Dubai and Abu Dhabi – are a lot better known that the nation in which they stand, to the point where plenty of people think they’re actually countries in their own right.
Created in 1971 out of the old British-ruled Trucial States, the UAE comprises (in order of size) the seven emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Fujairah, Ajman and Umm al Quwain. It’s a country (but only just) of weird contrasts, from the glittering skyscrapers of Dubai to the dusty, off-the-map backwaters of Umm al Quwain, or from the vast deserts of Abu Dhabi to the tiny enclave of blink-and-miss-it Ajman. Much of the country remains suprisingly undeveloped and, in places, beautifully unspoilt, with the blissful beaches of Fujairah to the east and the rocky mountains of Ras al Khaimah up north on the border with Oman, or the spectacular Liwa oasis, buried deep inland near the Saudi border among towering sand dunes and endless palms.
The UAE’s largest city and the world’s most spectacular contemporary city, Dubai divides opinion like few other places, attracting superlatives and scorn in equal measure. Little more than a modest Gulf-side town just fifty years ago, Dubai is now home to the world’s tallest building, largest man-made island and an overflowing magic box of other modern marvels. There’s much more to the city however than its reputation as a characterless consumerist dystopia would suggest. Often derided as nothing but an enormous shopping mall in the desert, the older parts of the city are full of unexpected pleasures including some of the Gulf’s most vibrant and enjoyable souks and a surprisingly extensive clutch of historic attractions, from wind-towered mansions and intimate museums to the salty old wooden dhows which still ply the waters of the breezy Creek.
Geographically and economically the UAE is dominated by the mega-rich emirate of Abu Dhabi, which covers 87 percent of the country’s land and holds around 95 percent of its oil reserves. Long in the shadow of its upstart neighbour Dubai, the city of Abu Dhabi (and capital of the UAE) remains slower-paced and a lot more conservative, with headline attractions such as the gigantic Sheikh Zayed Mosque and the opulent Emirates Palace hotel very much in the traditional Arabian mould. Signs of change are finally in the air, however, with Abu Dhabi belatedly beginning to flex its commercial and cultural muscles and a string of landmark developments mushrooming up across the city including the spectacular flying-saucer-shaped Abu Dhabi Louvre (due to open in late 2016), which promises to plant the city firmly on the tourist map.
Put very simply, Oman is everything the UAE is not. Compared to the modernizing frenzy which has engulfed Dubai (and, increasingly, Abu Dhabi), many parts of Oman still offer a picture-perfect snapshot of old Arabia. Traditional mud-brick villages lurk in the shadow of rocky mountains or between the endless palm trees of sprawling oases. Lopsided forts and watchtowers guard rugged passes and valleys, while men in flowing white dishdashas and colourful miniature turbans linger over coffee.
The landscape is sensational. Inland stretch the jagged peaks of the Hajar mountains and rolling dunes of the Wahiba Sands, while fringing the country are thousands of miles of largely unspoilt coastline, from the vertiginous khors (fjords) of Musandam in the north down to the frankincense-studded uplands of Salalah in the south, with the country’s loveably low-key capital Muscat midway between. Tourism remains in its relative infancy, although an excellent road infrastructure and some idyllic hotels are pulling in increasing numbers of visitors and steadily opening up one of the region’s most memorable destinations.