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|
Highlights of Jordan Syria and Lebanon
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
|Kerak and Shobak Crusader Castles|
Kerak and Shobak are two of numerous castles built by Crusader forces in the Middle East between the 11th and 13th centuries. Kerak is built on a hilltop overlooking the town, an imposing setting offering spectacular views, and very well preserved. Further south, Shobak Castle is less well preserved but equally impressive.
|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.
|Umm Qais/Gedara and Pella|
Along with Jerash, the classical sites of Umm Qais and Pella marked two other cities of the Roman Decapolis. The remains of ancient Gadara at Umm Qais are located on a plateau overlooking the Sea of Galilee, which was once a major cultural and artistic centre and an important stop on several trade routes. Most of the remains at Pella date from the Byzantine period.
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
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
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.
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.
|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 Qadisha Valley in northern Lebanon contains important early Christian monastic settlements, particularly of the Maronite sect. Located in dramatic settings on the Qadisha slopes and built into cliff faces, many of these monasteries and chapels are still in use and the Maronite services are conducted in Syriac, a language closely related to the Biblical Aramaic.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Ouadi Qadisha (the Holy Valley) and the Forest of the Cedars of God (Horsh Arz el-Rab)
|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.
The city of Tyre, located in southern Lebanon near the border with Israel, was one of the great Phoenician cities and one of the oldest metropolises in the world. Its ruins include remnants of the many periods in its history, particularly as a Roman city and Crusader stronghold. It was almost totally destroyed by the Mamelukes in the 13th century.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Tyre
The city of Anjar was founded by the Ummayads in the early 8th century, built on a site with Greek, Roman and early Christian buildings. The city incorporated the symmetrical Roman layout and had two palaces, baths a mosque and numerous shops. It flourished for only a short period before the Ummayads were defeated by the Abbasids. The ruins were rediscovered in 1949.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Anjar
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