10 Places to Visit in the Middle East

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The pandemic has forced us all to put our travel plans on hold. But it’s never a bad time to think about where we’d like to go, whenever we’re able to get there. In this column, Ray Keirouz offers ten places in the Middle East that might make your bucket list of destinations.

Although the media portrays the Middle East as a war-torn region full of unrest and disputes, there are many hidden gems in the region not so many have heard of that are outstanding to the human eye, from ancient to natural sites and crystal blue beaches, all of them far from conflicts. The Middle East may seem like a giant desert when looked at on a map, but it has so much history and culture. People there are welcoming and always have something to offer to travelers like coffee, tea and sweets because they believe that travelers go through many obstacles and that they deserve a warm greeting. Make sure you do not refuse any coffee or small gifts because it is seen as a taboo to do so.

Here are the top ten treasures in the Middle East that do not receive enough recognition due to ongoing conflicts or isolation. 

10. Aleppo Citadel, Halab Governorate Syria 

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The Citadel of Aleppo is located in the old city of Aleppo, in the north western region of Syria. Although this city was hit hard during the Syrian Civil War, the castle only suffered minimal damage. Sitting above the whole city on the citadel hill, this castle dates back to the third millenium BCE. This citadel itself has been ruled by many civilizations like the Greeks, the Caliphates and Ottomans and went through many wars like the Crusades, Mongol Conquest and the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Those civilizations have left their marks through cultural influence and architecture.

 

9. Marj Bisri, al Janoub Governorate, Lebanon 

Marj Bisri gained local recognition when the Lebanese parliament voted to construct a dam in the valley. This action was soon condemned by the public, and the International Monetary Fund and NGOs like Save Bisri stopped funding the project due to corruption and a lack of confidence in the project. Located 61.7km away from Beirut, this giant playground has many creeks that lead to the Awali River, historical sites, abandoned orange orchards and biodiversity. Activities such as camping, swimming and hiking are available in this natural getaway. 

 

8. Siwa Oasis, Matrouh Governorate, Egypt 

Vincent Battesti

Roughly fifty kilometers away from the Libyan border, the Siwa Oasis oasis is barely known not only because of its remoteness, but because it is often overshadowed by Egypt’s main attraction, the Pyramids of Giza. Dating back to the 10th millennium BCE, this secluded oasis has thousands of springs and many ponds filled with salt water, as well as many endemic wildlife such as cheetahs, fennec foxes, slender-horned gazelles and birds like the turtle dove. 

 

7. Shibam, Hadhramaut Governorate, Yemen 

Nicknamed locally as the Manhattan of the desert, Shibam is hidden within Wadi (Arabic for “valley”) Hadhramaut . This town dates back to 1700 years ago, with the first ever high-rise buildings made out of mud bricks, reaching up to eight stories high. The city was once known to be an enclave for the wealthy people of the region due its protection from the Bedouin raiders, the nomads within the Sahara and Arabian deserts. One of  the areas least impacted by the current Yemeni Civil War, this UNESCO Heritage Site is sprinkled with cafes and hookah lounges, which are very popular in the Middle East.

 

6. Ghadames, Tripolitania Region, Libya 

David Stanley

Similar to Shibam, Ghadames (Berber for “pearl of the desert”) is an oasis town that is densely built with rooms and corridors mashed together. A great place to play a large game of hide and seek, this town dates back to the fourth millennium BCE, when Touareg and Amazigh (local ethnic groups in North Africa) settled next to the oasis. Inside the dense town, corridors will lead you to indoor pools and a clear rooftop view during the night. 

 

5. El Naqoura, al Janoub Governorate, Lebanon

Just a couple kilometers away from the Lebanese-Israeli border, the coastal village of Naqoura is barely known by tourists and locals because of the city of Tyre’s beaches that overshadow this destination. The coves of Naqoura are some of the rare public beaches in the region  and home to the endangered leatherback sea turtles of the Mediterranean.

 

4. Burj Islam, Latakia Governorate, Syria 

Meaning Islam Cape, this destination has never been hit by the ongoing Syrian Civil War due to the heavy presence of government forces. The cape is locally known for its snorkeling and white limestone rocks off the coast. Besides the beach, old sites like the Turkmen Mosque of Mohammad Salib Turkman, which dates back to the Ottoman Empire, are definitely worth seeing. The area offers hospitable people and a vibe different from Naqoura’s Palestinian and Lebanese-based culture.

 

3. Waw an Namus, Fezzan Region, Libya 

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In the Libyan Desert, the dormant Volcano of Waw an Namus is one of the most stunning attractions of the Sahara. This 12.4-mile land of black sand includes a salt water oasis and a caldera at its center. This place used to have crocodiles, but they were unfortunately hunted to extinction by the local Toubou ethnic group. Completely isolated, this natural site is very safe and barely visited because of how deep into the desert it is.  

 

2. Socotra, Socotra Governorate, Yemen

Martin Sojka

An island off the coast of Yemen, Socotra has only sixty thousand inhabitants and has a similar topography to Madagascar. What makes it unique are the inland sand dunes, the blue waters, the tall peaks and the creeks that are all around the island. Some neighboring islets include Darsa, Kilmiah and Samhah, which are uninhabited and have even bluer waters than the main island itself. Being relatively safe, its many activities range from hiking to fishing and dining in local restaurants like Shabwah restaurant. 

 

1. Majlis al Jinn, Al Sharqiyah Governorate, Oman 

Michael McAndrew

Oman itself is not always the country people have in mind when looking to travel somewhere.  However, this dome-shaped cave is visited for rock climbing and enjoying the wide space it offers inside. The Majlis al Jinn (Arabic for “genie’s chamber”) is the second-largest cave in the area, but it is isolated in the Selma Plateau. With a height of 120m, length of 340m and a width of 228m, the cave can be a giant cooling room with temperatures as low as 16 degrees Celsius.