5 Places to Visit – Middle East

It’s been a while since I did a 5 places to visit post (previous ones are in the ‘Bucket List‘ category), however a gap in my schedule has meant reviving them to cover places that I haven’t already listed. Having covered Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Oceania, for this post we head back towards home from the other side of the world and find ourselves in the Middle East.

Amman, Jordan

With a population of just over 4 million, Amman is the largest city in the Levant and the sixth largest in the Arab world. Originally known as Ammon and then Philadelphia during the Roman and Greek periods, the city has been known by its current name since the 7th century. Largely abandoned until the late 19th century, the area has grown rapidly over the past 150 years, in part due to an influx of refugees from neighbouring countries.

Amman’s Citadel atop Jabal al-Qal’a – Picture by David Bjorgen via Wikimedia Commons
  • Amman Citadel – Located on one of the seven hills that originally formed Amman, the Amman Citadel is a historic site with evidence of occupation since the Neolithic ages. Although a large portion of the site has not been excavated, there are numerous buildings from the Roman, Byzantine, and Umayyad periods to see including the Temple of Hercules and the Umayyad Palace. The Citadel is open seven days a week throughout the year, although there are shorter hours in the winter and on Fridays year-round. Entrance costs 2JD which is around £2 and a taxi ride up the hill from the city centre will be about £1.
  • Roman Theatre – At the foot of a hill opposite the Citadel is Amman’s stunning amphitheatre, constructed in honour of Emperor Pius who ruled the empire between 138-161CE. Still used to host cultural events, including the Al-Balad music festival, at its peak the theatre could hold more than 6,000 people on its steep cavea. With similar opening hours to the Citadel, the Theatre again costs just 2JD to enter, a price that definitely seems like a bargain looking at photos.
  • Trip to Petra – 232km to the south of Amman, Petra is possibly the most famous site in Jordan, known the world over and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. The city is famous for its rock-cut architecture and lies in a basin adjacent to the mountain of Jabal Al-Madbah. Visiting Petra is just about do-able in a day from Amman with a 3+ hour drive each way, and there are plenty of official tours, however it might be worth finding your own way to the historic city and staying in one of the hotels a short walk from the World Heritage Site.

Beirut, Lebanon

Situated on a peninsula halfway down Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast, Beirut is one of the world’s oldest cities with evidence of the area being inhabited for over 5,000 years with the first historical mention of the city being in letters from the 15th century BC. The city was severely damaged in the Lebanese Civil War, however in the 30+ years since has recovered well with the cultural landscape having undergone major reconstruction.

Nijmeh Square – Picture by MEA707 via Wikimedia Commons
  • Nijmeh Square – Situated in the heart of Beirut’s Central District, Nijmeh Square is home to the Lebanese Parliament, two cathedrals, a museum, and many other cultural attractions. Nijmeh Square translates as Star Square, a name gained due to the six streets that enter the square. The most notable site in the square is the 1930s Rolex Clock Tower, a gift to the city from Lebanese-Mexican émigré Michel Abed. With all of the surrounding cafes and restaurants, the square is a popular tourist destination.
  • Hamra Street – Located in the district of the same name, prior to the Lebanese Civil War, Hamra street and the surrounding district were known as Beirut’s trendiest. Home to numerous prestigious universities, libraries, restaurants, and clubs, the street and neighbouring ’78 Street’ are a cultural hub and the centre of the city’s nightlife. Whilst there are numerous international chains located on the street, there are also a number of independent, historic local cafes and restaurants.
  • National Museum – With a collection that began following World War 1, the National Museum of Beirut is now home to more than 100,000 objects ranging from Prehistoric times to Medieval Lebanon. Despite being on the frontline of the Lebanese Civil War and part of the museum sustaining heavy damage, the museum’s collection was thankfully largely unharmed due to pre-emptive action to protect items. Entry to the museum is 5000 LBP (about £2.40) or 1000LBP (about 50p) for children and students.

Isfahan, Iran

Once one of the world’s largest cities, Isfahan is now the third largest city in Iran and is located about 250miles south of the capital, Tehran. Home to two of Iran’s 25 UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Naqsh-e Jahan Square which has been on the list since 1979, Isfahan is famous for its many historical buildings, monuments, paintings, and artifacts. The fame of Isfahan led to the Persian proverb “Esfahān nesf-e-jahān ast”: Isfahan is half (of) the world.

Ali Qapu Palace – Picture by Amir Pashaei via Wikimedia Commons
  • Naqsh-e Jahan Square – Located in the centre of Isfahan and constructed between 1598 and 1629, the Naqsh-e Jahan Square is one of the city’s two UNESCO World Heritage sites and is home to two mosques, the Ali Qapu Palace and the Qeysarie Gate, the latter of which leads into Isfahan’s Grand Bazaar. The square itself is a green oasis, with gardens and a large fountain showing the square’s importance in the city.
  • Ali Qapu Palace – The official residence of the Persian Emporors, the Ali Qapu Palace is actually part of the Naqsh-e Jahan Square UNESCO World Heritage Site. he palace is forty-eight meters high and there are six floors, each accessible by a difficult spiral staircase. In the sixth floor, Music Hall, deep circular niches are found in the walls, having not only aesthetic value, but also acoustic. Ālī Qāpū is regarded as the best example of Safavid architecture and is a symbol of Iran’s Islamic heritage. Entrance to the palace costs what sounds like a large amount, 200,000 Rials, however in reality this is about £3.50.
  • Allahverdi Khan Bridge – Popularly known as the Si-o-se-pol or the bridge of thirty three, the Allahverdi Khan bridge unsurprisingly has 33 spans across its length of almost 300ms and is the largest of 11 historical bridges on the Zayanderud. The bridge was built in the early 17th century to serve as both a bridge and a dam, and was constructed under the supervision of Allahverdi Khan Undiladze, the commander-in-chief of the armies, whom the bridge was names after. It is a popular recreational gathering place and is one of the most famous examples of Iran’s Safavid architecture.

Jerusalem, Israel/Palestine

One of the oldest cities in the world and a holy city to three major religions: Christianity; Islam; and Judaism, Jerusalem is claimed by both Israel and Palestine as their capital city, although neither claim is widely recognised internationally. Throughout its almost 4,000 year history, Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, and attacked 52 times.

Jerusalem’s Old City from the Mount of the Olives – Picture by Wayne McClean via Wikimedia Commons
  • Old City – A walled area of just 0.9 square-kilometres, Jerusalem’s old city has been detailed significantly on maps for the past one and a half millennia. With it’s defensive walls built in mid-16th century, the old city has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981 and is traditionally split into four unequal quarters, known as the Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish Quarters. The Old City also includes Jerusalem’s most holy sites including the Temple Mount and Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
  • Way of the Cross & Church of the Holy Sepulchre – According to traditions dating back to the fourth century, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre contains the two holiest sites in Christianity: the site where Jesus was crucified, at a place known as Calvary or Golgotha, and Jesus’s empty tomb, where he is believed by Christians to have been buried and resurrected. The church is located at the end of the Way of the Cross, a 600m winding route that Jesus took from the former Antonia Fortress to the place known as Calvary or Golgotha.
  • Trip to the Dead Sea – Spanning the border between Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, the Dead Sea is famous for being both one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water, with a salinity almost 10 times that of the ocean and being the lowest body of water in the world with its surface sitting more than 400m below sea level. Organised tours run to the Dead Sea from various locations including Jerusalem and start from around £50. Given the disputed territories in this area, I would certainly opt for an organised tour to prevent any possible accidental incidents.

Muscat, Oman

With a history stretching back to the first century AD, Muscat is probably the youngest city of the five in this post, however, still has plenty of stories to tell as an important trading port between the west and the east, having been rules by various indigenous tribes as well as foreign powers such as the Persians, the Portuguese Empire, the Iberian Union and the Ottoman Empire at various points in its history. Since the ascension of Qaboos bin Said as Sultan of Oman in 1970, Muscat has experienced rapid infrastructural development that has led to the growth of a vibrant economy and a multi-ethnic society. The Mutrah and Takia districts to the east of the modern city are the historic centres, home to many of the cultural and historic sites in the city.

Al Alam Palace – Picture by Ajay Suresh via Wikimedia Commons
  • Al Alam Palace – Located in the heart of Old Muscat, Al Alam palace is one of six residences of the Omani monarch and whilst the site has a history of more than 500 years, the existing palace was only constructed in 1972. The majority of the palace remains off-limits; however visitors are permitted to stop near the gates and take photographs. In addition to the palace itself, the grounds are is surrounded by the Mirani and Jalali Forts built in the 16th century by the Portuguese who ruled Oman at the time.
  • Bait Al Zubair Museum – Located in Old Muscat, the Bait Al Zubair museum was founded by the Zubair family in 1998 and has an extensive collection of ancient weapons, household equipment, and costumes and is considered one of the finest privately owned collections of Omani artifacts. The museum now consists of six separate buildings plus a garden which is home to a miniature Omani village and souk. I can’t find a definitive entry price with various sources quoting between 1 and 3 Riyal, however either way it seems to be around £5.
  • Souq Muttrah – One of the oldest marketplaces in Oman, the Muttrah Souq is also known as Al Dhalam (Darkness) by locals due to the crowded stalls and lanes preventing sunlight penetrating the souq. In the past, the market was built from mud and palm leaves, however the Muscat Municipality has renovated and decorated the market, maintaining the popular style, whilst also introducing modern amenities and redecorating the market to attract tourists and make the shopping experience comfortable for tourists as well as other ordinary shoppers.

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