The Middle East is a region in Western Asia, located between the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.
The term "Middle East" was created by British military strategists in the 19th century, and definitions of it vary; it is not simply a geographical term, but also a Eurocentric political one, connoting that it separates Europe ("the West") from the Far East.
Countries and territories
Given the vague and politically-scented definition of the term, some countries and territories are sometimes considered as part of the Middle East ans sometimes as part of neighboring areas. Turkey is also considered as part of Europe, while Egypt is also considered as part of Africa. Azerbaijan and Armenia are considered as part of Europe, even if they have strong historical, geographical, economic, and cultural connections with this region. Iran and Afghanistan are often considered part of the Middle East, but can also be considered to be part of Central Asia. Cyprus can also be considered a part of the Middle East but it is generally classified as Europe for political reasons.
A must to see country full of historic places, a variety of touristic attractions, nature ranges from deserts in central and southern parts to beautiful humid forest in north near the Caspian sea.
|United Arab Emirates
- Amman — experiencing a massive change from a quiet sleepy village to a bustling metropolis
- Beirut — a true cosmopolitan city, the commercial and financial hub of Lebanon
- Baghdad — once a favoured destination on the 'hippie trail' and packed full of sights, now one of the most dangerous cities on Earth
- Damascus — credited with being the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world, the old-walled city in particular feels very ancient
- Dubai — most modern and progressive emirate in the United Arab Emirates, developing at an unbelievable pace
- Istanbul — the only major city to span two continents and a fascinating melting pot of East and West
- Jerusalem — containing the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Old City, this city is sacred for Jews, Christians and Muslims
- Mecca — forbidden for non-Muslims to enter, this is the holiest city in Islam and well known for the Hajj
- Tehran — a bustling metropolis of 14 million people, it's a cosmopolitan city, with great museums, parks, restaurants and warm friendly people
- Dead Sea — the water is far too salty for marine life - hence the name - but even the most skeletal humans will easily float
- Empty Quarter — the name Empty Quarter explains pretty well what it is: a vast, inhospitable, empty desert
- Madain Saleh — a Nabataean city hewed out of rock in the same style as Jordan's far more famous Petra
- Palmyra — stunning ruins and a lush oasis adjacent to the city.
- Persepolis — the ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire during the Achaemenid dynasty, close to modern Shiraz
- Petra — one of the 'New Seven Wonders', Petra is the breathtaking capital of the Nabataean kingdom from around the 6th century BC.
- Samarra — archaeological and Shi'a holy sites, including the tombs of several Shi'a Imams in Iraq
- Sea of Galilee — known for its Gospel associations with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, thus a pilgrimage destination for Christians
- Shibam — known as 'Manhattan of the Desert', a unique, sixteenth century, mud-built, high rise apartment buildings complex
As one of the wellsprings of human civilisation in the ancient and medieval worlds, the birthplace of several world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism and the Bahai faith) and an area of much modern economic and political importance, the Middle East remains a popular destination for travellers.
Ethnically, the region is extremely mixed with people of mainly European and African descent. Today, there is also a very sizeable share of economic migrants coming from Southern and Southeastern Asia, and Subsaharan Africa in search of jobs. Arabs, Persians, and Turks are the largest groups, but there are several different ethnic groups, such as Kurds, Armenians, Jews, Azeris and others, each one with their own languages, customs and cultures.
Every country in the Middle East has a Muslim majority (with the notable exception of Israel, which currently has a Jewish majority), with Iran, Iraq and Bahrain mainly Shia, Oman mainly Ibadhi, Saudi Arabia dominated by Salafism and other areas mainly Sunni. The legal systems in most of these countries are influenced by sharia (Islamic law), but very few are entirely based on it. There are significant communities of native Christians, in particular in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Iraq.
Middle Eastern politics is controversial, incredibly complex, often violent and rapidly changeable. Indeed, it is not usually advisable for tourists to engage in political discussion with strangers. The Middle East is one of the most important geopolitical regions in the world. The world's largest oil reserves, conflicts that date back to the dawn of civilization and religious tensions can make the Middle East seem dangerous. While Syria and Yemen are currently out of bounds, news reports do not reflect the day-to-day reality of people going about their normal lives.
North Africa is similar to the Middle East in many ways — language, religion, culture and some ethnic groups. Some writers include Egypt, or even Sudan and Libya, in their use of the term "Middle East".
On the other side, Central Asia also has much in common with the Middle East. Ethnic groups and languages are different, but the religion, much of the food, clothing, and architecture are similar. Iran could be counted as part of either region; at one point most of Central Asia was part of the Persian Empire.
The border between southeastern Europe and the Middle East is also unclear. Many writers include Turkey in their usage of "Middle East" and we include it above, but parts of Turkey are very much European. Large parts of Turkey and all of Lebanon and Israel are also clearly Mediterranean regions. On the other hand, several countries usually considered European — Greece, Cyprus and to some extent the Balkans — also have Middle Eastern aspects to their culture.
The largest hubs for flights in the region are Dubai and Istanbul, from where you can reach virtually any point in the Middle East. After these two, Doha and Abu Dhabi also have good intercontinental connections. Tel Aviv is served by flights from most Western countries, although due to the political situation it is not possible to fly from there to anywhere in the Middle East besides Egypt and Jordan.
However, there are direct flights from large European hubs to most major cities in the region.
See Ferries in the Mediterranean. Ferries are available between Greece or Cyprus to Israel Lebanon and Turkey. Cruises also exist for longer excursions.
By car or bus
Turkey can be reached overland via Greece or Bulgaria.
Border crossings exist between most countries. However, these may be subject to temporary closure depending on political situations. For instance, currently most crossings into Syria are closed or dangerous. There are no border crossings between Israel and both Lebanon and Syria. Driving a car between counties is dependent on whether cars are allowed into different countries. This is variable across the region.
Public transport is poor compared to other regions of the world including other parts of Asia. The majority of locals would use plane or car travel to get between countries. Places where Sunni and Shia areas overlap sometimes lack interlinking transportation.
Rail travel in the Middle East is limited and whilst most countries have limited passenger services between cities, there is very little between countries.
Istanbul is the best starting point for rail journeys to a lot of areas in the Middle East. From here, a service to Aleppo in Syria operates from which one can take a connecting service to Damascus. There is a train that connects Damascus with Amman in Jordan. A service from Istanbul also operates to Tehran which includes a 4 hour ferry journey across Lake Van. In general, these trains tend to operate weekly or at most bi weekly.
All other countries in this region have no international rail services.
This is a more practical option than trains in the Middle East as they are less prone to delays and breakdowns and have far more extensive coverage of the region.
Arabic is the primary language of the region, and the main language in all Middle Eastern countries except Iran (where Persian predominates), Turkey (Turkish) and Israel (Hebrew, but with Arabic as a second official language). While Standard Arabic is the official language in all Arabic-speaking countries and the medium of instruction in schools, there are also many dialects of Arabic that are the main spoken language in daily life in their respective regions, some of which can be mutually unintelligible.
English is moderately common in tourist areas but comprehension varies elsewhere. English is understood widely in Israel, Jordan and the Gulf States, especially among educated citizens and in big cities. In Turkey, some German is spoken because many Turks have worked in Germany.
Urdu and English are also widely known in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and UAE as large Pakistani and Indian communities work in these countries. Filipino is also known to some extent, particularly in main cities (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Doha, etc.), due to large influx of Filipino migrant workers across the region.
- From Istanbul to Cairo classic overland route but currently virtually impossible due to events in Syria.
- Hajj — the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina
- Ferries across the Red Sea
Many universities exist across the Middle East. Some of which are highly regarded including those in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Opportunities to learn Arabic abound, and are available in both religious and secular settings.
Hebrew is available in Israel through intensive study groups known as Ulpan.
The Middle East is famous for its markets or Souqs. Souqs sell a dizzying array of goods, but each will have it's own speciality, be it spices or carpets. Notable example include Jerusalem, Damascus and Dubai. Quality varies enormously. Many souqs sell good quality products, but many sell a range of fake or tacky souvenirs. Over-pricing for tourists is common but this can often be bargained for.
Haggling or bargaining is common across the Middle East. However, it's usage is rather complex. In general, haggling is common in markets, but only for certain items. For instance, haggling for souvenirs is acceptable, but not acceptable for food. Also, haggling in shops with fixed prices such as a supermarket is not done. However, in independent stores it may be possible to negotiate a deal if buying multiple or expensive items e.g. jewellery. Haggling can be a tiresome and seem like a pointless ritual. It is important to remember that the seller merely wants to maximise their profits. Walking away from an unacceptable deal is considered normal and can prevent pressure selling.
- See also: Middle Eastern cuisine
Cookery provides obvious evidence of the extent of Middle Eastern influence. Turkish doner kebab, Greek gyros and the shawarma of the Arab countries (everywhere from Oman to Morocco) are all basically the same dish.These are also seen in Central Asia and even China. A traveller going overland from Europe to India will find very similar dishes — notably flat breads and kebabs — in every country from Greece to India. There is a strong theme of fresh, wholesome ingredients. Meat (except pork) is very popular, as are vegetables such as eggplant, chick peas and tomatoes. Many Greek dishes are closer to Iranian cooking than to Italian.
Turkish Coffee, served in small cups is popular throughout the region. Black tea is ubiquitous in Gulf states. As a predominately Muslim region, alcohol is rare. Alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, alcohol will often be confiscated at the airport if found and is generally not available except in some hotels catering for foreigners.
On the other hand, alcohol is available in Turkey, Lebanon and Israel. Numerous beers are available, as is the stronger Arak, an aniseed liquor.
Few nations in the Middle East have a vibrant nightlife to go along with excellent hotels. As with any region, quality varies enormously from cheap hostels to the $15,000 a night grand Atlantis suite in Dubai. Virtually all big cities will have numerous large international chain hotels.
Some of the hotels in more conservative middle Eastern countries will refuse entry to homosexual or unmarried couples, but this tends not to be a problem in popular resorts.
Planning a visit to the Middle East can be complicated in various ways:
- Some countries and territories in the area, such as Iraq, Syria, and the Gaza Strip, are in a state of war or civil war and should not be visited. See War zone safety if you must go.
- Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, do not issue tourist visas except for a few expensive tours.
- Many countries in the region do not recognize the state of Israel for many reasons. These nations may refuse you entry if you have an Israeli visa or an Israeli stamp in your passport, or even a visa for another country that was issued in Israel. The Israeli authorities will generally help you avoid these problems by providing a visa as a separate document so it is not in your passport, however now this has been discontinued; see the Israel article for details. Only Turkey, Egypt and Jordan have official relations with Israel in the region.
- Some countries in the region have legislation carrying with heavy penalties (even up to the death penalty) for homosexuality, adultery, fornication, apostasy, proselytizing, and other acts considered as criminal offenses.
- For most of the area, suggestions in Tips for travel in developing countries apply.
Healthcare varies widely across the region. Generally, large cities will have better hospitals and most doctors will speak English. Hospitals in more rural areas are less likely to be of good quality. Pharmacies are common everywhere.
Drinking water tends to be safe in richer countries, but less so in Yemen or other poorer areas. Always check before drinking.
Most of the Middle East is arid, dehydration is common, so always drink water more than you feel like doing.
Driving in the Middle East is notably more dangerous than in Europe or North America. Road rules may or may not be followed. It is advisable to observe driving standards before taking the plunge with a rental car.
- Turkey and Cyprus — with lots of border crossings and extensive transport alternatives, southern Turkey is well linked to the battleground of Syria. It may also be possible to take cruises to the island nation of Cyprus from Syria as well as Lebanon.
- Egypt — with buses from Israel and ferries from Jordan, Egypt is an easy trip from the region.
- South Asia — the "Hippie Trail", after traversing Turkey and Iran from one end to another (and dipping into Iraq at a time in history) goes onward to Pakistan.
- Central Asia — an off the beaten path destination, which is accessible by buses from the Iranian city of Mashhad (which terminate in Turkmenistan and Afghanistan).
- Caucasus — the lush and beautiful Caucasus is a short hop north from Iran.