Below are some of the major travel highlights for Grand Tour of the Middle East. For more in-depth attractions of each country on this route, click on the country names below or select a route to see the highlights on this section of the journey. Click on the icons below to focus on specific types of features (click again to return to all).
|In-depth highlights: Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon|
|Great Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel|
The Great Temple of Ramses II was built at Abu Simbel in the Nubian desert in the 13th century BC. The temple is guarded by four colossal statues of Ramses (each 20 metres high), one of Egypt's great pharaohs and known as the Great Builder, carved into the cliff face. They were buried in sand until being discovered in 1813 and 150 years later were in danger of being submerged due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam but a UNESCO project led to the relocation of the statues to higher ground overlooking Lake Nasser, now staring east at the rising sun.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae
Aswan is Egypt's third largest and most southerly city. It's a laid back and relaxed city and had retained its feel as a frontier town between Arab Egypt and black Africa. Aswan has a wealth of attractions both within the city and as a base for exploring nearby. These include taking a felucca sailboat across to the Botanical Gardens on Lord Kitchener's Island, taking a camel ride to the abandoned Coptic Monastery of St. Simeon, exploring the Nubian bazaar through the back streets of the city and visiting the Aswan High Dam and the Unfinished Obelisk. The Temple of Isis at Philae is the most important historical monument close to Aswan. Constructed between the 4th century BC and the 3rd century AD, the temple was recently relocated to Agilika Island to preserve it from the rising waters of the Nile.
A cruise along the Nile, the world's longest river, is one of the quintessential experiences of a trip to Egypt. Whether on a felucca sailing boat or a more luxury cruise boat, the trip usually travels from Luxor to Aswan (or in reverse) in southern Egypt. The cruise offers the chance to observe the traditional rural life along the riverbank, relax on one of the world's great rivers and visit two of the best preserved Ptolemaic temples, dating from the 3rd to the 1st centuries BC. The Temple of Horus at Edfu is the second largest in Egypt after Karnak Temple and is in excellent condition due to being covered in sand for centuries. It is notable for having its roof intact, elaborate reliefs, black granite falcon statues and its huge Pylon or Gateway, 79 metres wide and 35 metres high. Further upriver, the twin temple of Kom Ombo is dedicated to the falcon-headed god Horus and the crocodile god Sobek.
Luxor, or Thebes as it was known then, was capital of Egypt during the Middle and New Kingdoms between 2134 and 1070 BC during the height of Egyptian power. What has been left behind are the most magnificent series of buildings, temples and relics in Egypt and some of the finest historical monuments in the world. On the west bank of the Nile at Luxor is 'Thebes of the Dead' where funerary temples and tombs of pharaohs and other dignitaries were built over 15 centuries. The most significant cemetery is the Valley of the Kings which contains the tombs of over 60 pharaohs, including the tomb of Tutankhamen discovered in 1922. A hillside entrance takes you underground to the burial chambers with the walls covered in brightly painted images and hieroglyphs. Other features in this area include the Colossi of Memnon, huge twin statues of Amenhotep III, and the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, a monument to the only female pharaoh which has a spectacular setting and scale as well as finely detailed carvings. On the east bank of the Nile is 'Thebes of the Living' featuring the remarkable Luxor and Karnak Temples. The temples were dedicated to the gods Amon, Mut and Montu. Karnak Temple is an astonishing site, built over a period of 1,500 years. The Great Hypostyle Hall contains 134 columns in 16 rows, resembling papyrus stalks, each 23 metres high, and carved with scenes of the King worshipping Amon. The Luxor Museum is also well worth a visit, with an excellent display of relics from the temples and tombs of Thebes.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis
|Temples at Dendara and Abydos|
North of Luxor are the impressive temples at Dendara and Abydos. The Temple of Hathor at Dendara is dedicated to the cow goddess of joy and sexual love. This beautifully preserved temple displays a Ptolemaic architectural style. Abydoa Temple is a shrine to Osiris, the god of the afterlife, and was an important place of pilgrimage for Egyptians. The temple displays many fine carved bas-reliefs.
|The Egyptian Pyramids|
The Pyramids at Giza are without doubt one of the most extraordinary sights in the world, the only surviving of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. Built as tombs for the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, they served as a necropolis for Memphis, the capital in the 3rd millennium BC, and are a testament to the brilliance of its civilisation. The first stone pyramids were built at Saqqara for the pharaoh Djoser who ruled from around 2668 BC and at Maidum by Huni, the last pharaoh of the Third Dynasty. These are the oldest step pyramids in the world. The necropolis at Dahshur to the south was used by the pharaoh Snefru who founded the Fourth Dynasty and ruled from 2613 BC. He introduced the square-based pyramid seen at Giza and built the Red Pyramid and the Rhomboid (or Bent) Pyramid. At Giza, just south of Cairo, the pyramids reached their pinnacle - the Great Pyramid of Cheops, Snefru's son, is the largest at 145 metres high with a base of 232 metres while his successors built the Pyramids of Chephren and Mycerinus. Together with the Sphinx, a lion with a human head carved from rock, they form an astonishing and must-see site.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur
Cairo is Egypt's capital and Africa's largest city, with a population of over 15 million. Cairo is one of the world's oldest Islamic cities, founded initially in the 7th century after Arab armies entered Egypt. Cairo thrived in the following centuries under various dynasties and rulers including the Fatimids, Saladin, the Mamelukes and the Ottomans. Amidst the vast urban landscape of modern Cairo, much of this historical heritage remains with over 600 classified monuments. These include the 9th century Great Mosque of Ibn-Tulun, the 10th century Mosque of al-Azhar, Saldin's Citadel, the City of the Dead cemetery and the Ottoman Mosque of Mohammed Ali. The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities is a must-see - an incredible collection of relics and artefacts from Egypt's rich history dating back to 4000 BC, including the amazing Tutankhamen treasures.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Historic Cairo
|St Catherine Monastery|
The Orthodox Monastery of St Catherine was built in 342 AD at the foot of Mount Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments. It is one of the oldest continually functioning monasteries in the world and is a sacred place for Christians, Jews and Muslims. The 6th century Church of the Transfiguration within the complex houses an outstanding collection of early Christian manuscripts and icons.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Saint Catherine Area
A trek to the summit of Mount Sinai is a relatively short and easy climb, taking no more than three hours to ascend. The views from the top over the Sinai mountains are spectacular though, especially at sunset or sunrise when the light casts brilliant colours over the desert. The ascent is a steep climb along the camel path followed by 750 stone steps to the summit. The descent can be along the same route or via the 3,000 'Steps of Repentance'.
The Red Sea is one of the premier locations in the world for diving and snorkelling. In addition to the fascinating coral reefs and colourful marine life to discover underwater, the resorts along the Red Sea offer pristine golden beaches to relax on and warm, tropical waters to swim in. The main locations are Sharm el Sheikh, Dahab and Ras Mohammed on the Sinai Peninsula and Hurghada and El Gouna on the mainland.
A trip to Wadi Rum is one of the quintessential travel experiences in Jordan. This is an area of stunning desert scenery with sand dunes mixing with dramatic sandstone mountains, narrow gorges, natural arches, towering cliffs, ramps, massive landslides and caverns. Travelling with Bedouin guides who still forge a nomadic existence in the area, camping overnight in Wadi Rum is essential - to see the effect of sunset on the colours of the sandstone rocks and sleep out under the clear, star-filled sky. It was here that Lawrence of Arabia assembled the Arab tribes for the attack on Aqaba in the First World War and it also provided the location for the film. A camel trek through the wadi will transport you back to the time of Lawrence and complete the desert experience. The site also includes some 25,000 rock carvings and 20,000 inscriptions which testify to 12,000 years of human occupation.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Wadi Rum Protected Area
Petra, the Rose-Red City, is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and one of the world's most famous and spectacular historical sites. Petra was founded by the Nabataean Arab tribe in the 6th century BC and taxes imposed on trading caravans allowed them to build their rock-carved city surrounded by mountains. Construction continued after the Romans annexed the Nabataean Kingdom in AD 106 and, after it was conquered and occupied by Muslim Arabs and Crusaders, it was abandoned and became a mystical 'lost city'. Its exact location was unknown in the west until the Swiss explorer J.L. Burckhardt stumbled upon it in 1812. Today visitors followed the same path used by Burckhardt, through a kilometre long chasm known as the siq, the only entrance to the city. At the end of the siq lies the stunning sight of the Treasury, or Khazneh, a 40 metre tall facade carved into the mountain rock face. Inside the Hellenistic columns is a large plain square room, carved out of rock. The High Places are the mountain-top altars which offer spectacular views over Wadi Araba and the Negev Desert. Beyond the centre of Petra lies El Deir, the Monastery, with another superb facade built into the mountain rock. Other highlights include the three Royal Tombs, carved into the King's Wall, the Palace of the Pharaoh's Daughter and the Roman era theatre, with 8,000 seats carved from rock.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Petra
|Dead Sea - Jordan|
Floating in the Dead Sea is one of travel's memorable experiences. The sea, 400 metres below sea level and with 33% salt (normal sea water has 3-4%), is impossible to sink in. The water and the soft, sulphurous black mud you can pick up underneath is said to have remarkable healing powers.
Like Damascus and Aleppo in Syria, Amman is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with occupation dating back some 9,000 years. It rose to prominence with the arrival of the Ammonites in 1200 BC, later falling under the influence of the Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Ptolemies and Seleucids before it became one of the cities of the Decapolis under the Romans. Its historical attractions include the Citadel with its Roman Temple of Hercules and 6,000 seat Roman theatre, the 8th century Ummayad Palace and the grandeur of the King Abdullah Mosque. The Jordan Archaeological Museum contains an excellent collection of artefacts from the city's history, including an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a copy of the Mesha Stele and four rare Iron Age sarcophagi.
Jerash is one of the finest examples of a Roman provincial city anywhere in the world and a highlight of any trip to Jordan. It is the best preserved of the Decapolis, a confederation of ten self-governing cities that developed in the area following the Roman conquest in the 1st century BC. A triple arch gateway leads to the Colonnaded main street, where grooves in the paving stones are reminders of the chariots that once rode along these streets. Other impressive remains include two theatres, the forum, the temple of Zeus, a nymphaeum and a hippodrome.
Bosra became the capital of the Roman province of Arabia in the 2nd century AD and prospered for centuries as a key stop on the trade routes linking Damascus with Amman and Aqaba. Rule and occupation by various empires has left its mark on the city. Its most famous feature is its Roman theatre, perhaps the best preserved and largest of its kind anywhere, holding some 15,000 people. It is enclosed within a citadel, fortified by the Arabs in the 13th century to counter the threat of the Crusaders. Other notable attractions include the 6th century Cathedral of Bosra and the Mosque of Omar.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Ancient City of Bosra
Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and its oldest capital city, dating back to the third millennium BC. It has hosted many historical civilisations including Greeks, Romans and Byzantines before becoming part of the Arab world in the 7th century and one of Islam's most important cities. Today it is a vibrant mix of the historical old town, with some 125 monuments from its vast history, and a bustling and sophisticated modern capital city. The Umayyad Mosque (or Great Mosque), dating to the 8th century, is one of the largest and most impressive in the world and a masterpiece of early Islamic architecture. The National Museum has an excellent overview of Syria's long and fascinating history with some very important artefacts including written tablets from Ugarit (believed to be the earliest alphabet in the world), frescoes from the Greco-Roman fortress city of Dura Europas and marble statues from Palmyra. Elsewhere the Ottoman Azem Palace contains the tomb of Saladin while the old town is an intriguing maze of narrow alleyways, souks, hidden courtyards and mosques.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Ancient City of Damascus
Located as an oasis in the Syrian desert northeast of Damascus, Palmyra was one of the great cities of the ancient world and is one of Syria's main attractions. Although settled for millennia, Palmyra reached its cultural and architectural peak from the 1st to the 3rd centuries AD as a key trading centre along the Silk Road when taxes and levies paid for its wonderful buildings. Palmyra developed as a powerful city state of the Roman Empire under Queen Zenobia until she declared independence from Rome which led to Roman legions razing the city in AD 217. Zenobia was carried off to Rome in golden chains. The Grand Colonnade is the city's main axis, running for 1,100 metres from the Temple of Bel to the Camp of Diocletian. The white limestone Bel Temple is the city's best preserved monument, dating to the 1st century. Other features include the Theatre, Agora (or marketplace) and the Valley of the Tombs.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Site of Palmyra
|Krak des Chevaliers|
Krak des Chevaliers (Fortress of the Knights or Qalat al-Hosn) is the most outstanding example of a Crusader castle in the Middle East. Located in a dramatic setting atop the Jebel Khalil ridge 700 metres above sea level, the castle dominates the surrounding landscape and guards the Homs valley. Constructed in the 12th century, the almost impregnable fortress was held by the Crusaders until it fell to a Mameluke siege in 1271. The castle is in an excellent state of repair and is worthy of extensive exploration around the Great Hall, chapel, through the long dark passages and along the ramparts.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din
The city of Hama is located on the Orontes River and is a quiet and traditional Syrian town. It is most famous for its huge, wooden water wheels (known as norias) which date back to the 13th century. They are still in use today, slowly turning on the edge of the Orontes River and irrigating the nearby farmland.
The ancient city of Apamea was founded by the Seleucids in the 2nd century BC. It prospered for several centuries and was known for its vast stud houses and its elephants trained for warfare. The city was eventually destroyed by an earthquake in 1157AD. Today its colonnaded street is still in evidence, almost 2km long and 37 metres wide, flanked by buildings and porticoes.
Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Strategically located at the crossroads of trade routes, it has prospered since the 3rd millennium BC and occupation by a myriad of peoples throughout the centuries have influenced the city and its architecture. The Citadel, a huge medieval castle built on a 50 metre high mound, dominates the city with a range of architectural styles from various occupiers. Inside are the remains of the 13th century royal palace, the mosque built by Saladin's son and dungeons carved into rock. Aleppo's other famous attraction is its labyrinthine souk that is enclosed by stone vaulted roofs and covers some seven kilometres through a maze of narrow streets. Some beautiful Silk Road era caravanserai lie adjacent to the souk. The Great Mosque is one of the oldest in the world, dating back to AD 715, though it was largely rebuilt in the 13th century.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Ancient City of Aleppo
|Cedar Tree Reserves|
The cedar tree is the national emblem of Lebanon and the great cedar forests have been used throughout its history in the construction of religious and political buildings. Today, the remaining cedar forests can be seen at a number of sites including Bcharre and the Tannourine Cedar Reserve in the north, which have trees up to 1,500 years old.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Ouadi Qadisha (the Holy Valley) and the Forest of the Cedars of God (Horsh Arz el-Rab)
Byblos is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, stretching back to Neolithic times and was one of the oldest Phoenician cities. The world's first alphabetic script was developed here and the town's name, derived from 'biblos' or sheets of paper, gives its name to the Bible. Occupied and influenced by numerous civilisations over millennia, the ruins at Byblos include Egyptian temples, the Phoenician acropolis and the Crusader castle.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Byblos
Beirut dates back to the Phoenician times, 1,500 BC, when it was a prosperous trading port. Once known as the 'Paris of the Middle East', Beirut was devastated by recent wars but is now undergoing reconstruction as a vibrant and cosmopolitan city. Its attractions include Martyr's Square, the National Museum, the Corniche and Pigeon Rocks.
The old Phoenician port city of Sidon is located south of Beirut. Today known for its atmospheric souks, its most notable historic monument is the 13th century Crusader castle, located on a small island just off the coast, connected to the mainland by a causeway.
Baalbek was a Phoenician city before the arrival of the Romans, known as Heliopolis, the city of the sun, as the Phoenicians worshipped the sun god Baal here. The Romans arrived in 64 BC and began construction of huge temples to their gods Bacchus, Jupiter and Venus in addition to the Great Court of Baalbek, constructed in the 2nd century AD.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Baalbek
The town of Urfa (or Sanliurfa) is known as the 'City of the Prophets' and was supposedly the birthplace of Abraham before he moved to Canaan. Urfa was an important staging post on the ancient trade routes and silk products are still sold in its 16th century bazaar. The ruined Crusader castle at Urfa sits high above the city, affording amazing views. The nearby village of Harran is supposedly one of the oldest settlements in the world and was once a wealthy merchant city which traded with the Phoenician city of Tyre. Today it is famous for its traditional mud-brick beehive houses.
Nemrut Dag (or Mount Nemrut at 2,150 metres) contains the remains of the great temple mausoleum of Antiochos I of Commagene (69-34BC). Commagene existed as a semi-independent state from 162 BC to AD 72 following the breakup of Alexander the Great's empire and ruled in the region north of Syria and the Euphrates. The site consists of a manmade burial mound containing the King's tomb and five huge 10 metre stone heads of the gods Apollo, Zeus, Hercules, Tyke and Fortuna. The site is best viewed at sunset when the heads are bathed in golden light.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Nemrut Dag
One of Turkey's most iconic sights is the lunar like landscape of Cappadocia. Formed by wind and water erosion of tuft (soft compacted volcanic ash), the landscape comprises bizarre rock formations shaped like pillars, cones, towers, domes and pyramids, some up to 40 metres high. For centuries man has carved dwellings, churches, troglodyte villages and even entire subterranean cities into these rocks, particularly Byzantine monks and hermits from the 4th century onwards. Many of the rock churches in the Göreme Valley contain richly decorated religious frescoes from the post-iconoclastic period (10th-12th centuries). The underground cities of Kaymakli and Derinkuyu, built by Christians seeking refuge from Arab oppression, are fascinating places to explore with several levels of tunnels extending for many kilometres.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia
|Ancient sites near Antalya|
There are several interesting historical sites around the southern city of Antalya. East of Antalya, the Roman theatre at Aspendos has been superbly restored and is one of the finest examples of an ancient theatre in the world. The mountain citadel of Termessos is located west of Antalya. It was thought to be home to some fearsome warriors who held out against Alexander the Great. The scattered ruins include a theatre with excellent views over the plains below. The Lycian port city of Phaselis was founded in the 7th century BC and flourished as a commercial city until the 12th century. The ruins are located in a beautiful setting around three small bays and surrounded by fragrant pine forests.
|Turquoise Coast Activities|
The Turquoise Coast in Lycia in southern Turkey is a great area for adrenaline activities. Based around the charming port town of Kas, there are numerous options over land, sea and air to keep every adrenaline junkie satisfied. To the northwest of Kas, the Dalaman River offers white-water rafting with rapids classed as Grade 3-4. To the east of Kas lies Kekova Island with an ancient sunken city off its northern shore. Kayaking along these waters allows you to see the ruined walls, stairs of houses and the outline of its jetty submerged in a few metres of translucent, turquoise water. Kas is also an excellent spot for diving or snorkelling with numerous dive sites, clear waters and a good variety of sea life. Downhill mountain biking in the hills above Kas, along asphalt roads and rough tracks, is an exhilarating experience as well as offering some stunning views of the coast and mountains. Paragliding from a jump point of 1,000 metres takes you over Kas, the coast and nearby islands. Finally the mountains behind Kas have some spectacular gorges that are excellent spots for canyoning.
The Greco-Roman ruins at Aphrodisias are some of the most impressive in the region. The city contained the most important temple to Aphroditis, the goddess of love and was an artistic centre with one of the ancient world's most famous Schools of Sculpture. Many of these sculptures can be seen in the small museum on the site. Aphrodisias also contains one of the largest and best preserved athletics stadiums in the ancient world.
|Pamukkale and Ruins at Hierapolis|
Pamukkale, meaning 'cotton castle' in Turkish, is a bizarre and spectacular natural phenomenon where mineral-laden hot spring waters have created a landscape of petrified waterfalls, mineral forests and a cascade of terraced pools. The waters have supposed therapeutic qualities that have been used since Roman times. The ruins of the thermal spa of Hierapolis are close to Pamukkale. Founded in the 2nd century BC by the King of Pergamon, it soon came under Roman control and prospered as a cosmopolitan city. Among the ruins are a theatre, temple, monumental fountain, bath, basilica and necropolis.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Hierapolis-Pamukkale
Ephesus was one of the great cities of the ancient world and the ruins here are some of the best preserved of any Roman site in the Mediterranean. Ephesus was founded by Ionian Greeks in the 11th century BC and flourished as a major city and sea port. The Temple of Artemis built by the Greeks was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The city came under Roman control in the 2nd century BC, reached its zenith in the 2nd century AD with a population of 300,000 and later became an important centre for Christianity. The Library of Celsus is the most impressive single ruin at Ephesus, a two-storey front facade of the original building with pillars, statues and windows. The Street of Curetes climbs upwards from the library, lined by columns and facades of shops, temples, houses, public baths and a brothel. The vast amphitheatre seats 25,000 people and still holds concerts today. The Ephesus Museum in nearby Selcuk has an excellent collection of artefacts and statues from the ancient city.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Ephesus
|Archaeological Site of Troy|
The mythical ancient city of Troy was once thought to be merely a legend until archaeological work by Heinrich Schliemann in the 19th century identified its site near Çanakkale, uncovering extensive remains of nine cities built on top of one another. The history of Troy covers some 4,000 years, extending back to 3000 BC. Troy VI is assumed to be the walled city of King Priam (1800-1275 BC), immortalised by Homer in The Iliad when Odysseus used the wooden horse to help the Spartans and Achaeans break the siege of Troy and rescue Helen. The remains of the ancient city walls can still be seen which enclosed a citadel with palaces and administrative buildings. Further ruins exist from the Greek and Roman periods.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Archaeological Site of Troy
Gallipoli is the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War between the Turks and the Allied forces, largely comprising Australian and New Zealand troops. Among the sites you can visit are the beach, the cemeteries of Anzac Cove, the Australian Memorial at Lone Pine and the New Zealand Memorial at Chunuk Bair, the highest ground secured by the Allies. The Ataturk Memorial commemorates the fact that Mustafa Kemal, 'Father of the Turks', fought on the Turkish side during the campaign.
Turkey's most important city spans Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus and has been capital of three empires - Eastern Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman throughout its history (including its previous incarnations as Byzantium and Constantinople). This has left it with an incredibly rich historical heritage that makes it one of the great cities of the world. The Blue Mosque is perhaps the city's most famous sight, built by the Sultan Ahmet I in the 17th century, with a stunningly impressive scale and elegant design. Aya Sophia was built as a Byzantine Christian church in the 6th century, converted to a mosque after the Islamic takeover in the 15th century and now a museum. Its huge dome and walls include some superb mosaics. The 4th century Hippodrome of Constantine was the site of political demonstrations, chariot races and polo matches. Topaki Palace, built in Islamic style, was the home of the Ottoman sultans for four centuries. Other buildings of note include Suleymaniye Mosque, the Kariye Camii church and the ancient ramparts and aqueduct. One of Istanbul's most famous attractions is the vast Grand Bazaar, a labyrinth of some 4000 covered shops, cafés and restaurants, where you can haggle for jewellery, clothes, sweets and spices.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Historic Areas of Istanbul