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

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Highlights of Nile Valley - Syria

Great Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel
Great Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel
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
Aswan
Aswan

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.

Nile Cruise
Nile Cruise
Nile Cruise

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
Luxor
Luxor

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
Temples at Dendara and Abydos
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 Egyptian Pyramids
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
Cairo
Cairo

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

Mount Sinai

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'.

Red Sea
Red Sea
Red Sea

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.

Wadi Rum
Wadi Rum
Wadi Rum

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
Petra
Petra

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
Dead Sea - Jordan
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.

Amman

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
Jerash
Jerash

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
Bosra
Bosra

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
Damascus
Damascus

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

Palmyra
Palmyra
Palmyra

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
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

Hama
Hama
Hama

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.

Apamea
Apamea
Apamea

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
Aleppo
Aleppo

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