The Middle East is the area of Western Asia centered around the biggest peninsula in the world, the Arabian peninsula. It’s generally considered to include the countries of Bahrain, Eygpt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Some of the world’s most historically significant cities are located in the Middle East, including Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo, Baghdad and Istanbul. The area is also home to fascinating ruins of long gone ancient cities such as Persepolis in Iran, Ephesus in Turkey, Palmyra in Syria, Baalbek in Lebanon and Jerash in Jordan.
The Middle East is the birthplace of the world’s major religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, the Druze, Zoroastrianism and the youngest of these religious sects, the Bahá’í faith. The area abounds with holy sites, from ancient Egyptian temples through medieval Islamic mosques to Christian cathedrals and monasteries. These sites are some of the world’s greatest travel attractions.
While it is difficult to select the most significant historical sites in the Middle East, here are a few that stand out:
The ancient ruins of Persepolis in Iran, parts of which date back to around 515 BC. Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the First Persian Empire. Construction was begun by the third king of the Empire, Darius the Great, and continued by his son and subsequent rulers. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared Persepolis a World Heritage Site in 1979. UNESCO describes it as an “ensemble of majestic approaches, monumental stairways, throne rooms (Apadana), reception rooms and annex buildings classified among the world’s greatest archaeological sites, among those which have no equivalent and which bear witness of a unique quality to a most ancient civilization.”
The Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Cheops or the Pyramid of Khufu) is the oldest and most intact of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is located outside of Egypt’s capital city of Cairo, and was built around 2560 to 2540 BC as a tomb for fourth dynasty Egyptian pharaoh
Next to the Great Pyramid is the world-famous Great Sphinx of Giza, which is believed to have been built in approximately 2500 BC by the pharaoh Khafra, the builder of the Second Pyramid at Giza.
Constructed in the 12th century, the Fortress of the Knights (also known as Krak des Chevaliers or Qalat al-Hosn) is the most outstanding example of a Crusader castle in the Middle East, notable for its excellent state of repair. Located on a ridge 700 meters above sea level in western Syria, the castle was a fortress held by the Crusaders until it fell to a Mameluke (a powerful Egyptian military class) siege in 1271.
Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction, Petra, the Rose-Red City, is named after the rose-coloured rocks from which it is carved. One of the new Seven Wonders of the World and one of the world’s most well-known and magnificent historical sites, Petra was founded by the Nabataean Arab tribe, possibly as early as 312 BC. Towering mountains enclose the rock-carved city, adding to its impressiveness. Petra was abandoned after it was conquered and occupied by Muslim Arabs and Crusaders, becoming a mystical “lost city” until Swiss explorer J.L. Burckhardt stumbled upon it in 1812.
Lebanon’s ancient city of Baalbek was a Phoenician city known as Heliopolis, the city of the sun, before the arrival of the Romans in 64 BC. For over two hundred years, the Romans constructed colossal structures that outshone even those in Rome, making Baalbek one of the finest examples of Imperial Roman architecture of the imperial period. Lonely Planet describes Baalbek as “arguably the most important Roman site in the Middle East”.
The acropolis of Baalbek comprises several temples, and Pilgrims thronged to the sanctuary to venerate several deities. Baalbek remained a centre of worship well into the Christian era.
No list of historical sites in the Middle East would be complete without mention of the Old City of Jerusalem, a .35 square mile (.9 square km) walled area in the modern city whose history goes back more than 3000 years. Ottoman Turk, Suleyman the Magnificent, constructed the walls in the first half of the 16th century. Different parts of the Old City are accessed by different gates.
The Old City of Jerusalem is perhaps the holiest place of all for Christians and Jews, and also a place of great spiritual importance for Muslims. For this reason, it has a highly contentious history as one of the most fought-over cities in the world.
The Old City is divided into four historical and cultural quarters – the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter and the Muslim Quarter. Parts of the Muslim Quarter, including the Dome of the Rock, are not accessible to non-Muslims, and access to other parts, such as the Noble Sanctuary (known to Christians and Jews as the Temple Mount), are strictly regulated. For example, non-Muslims are banned from praying on the Temple Mount.
Must see sites include the Temple Mount, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter, and the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter.
Bob Hornal has been a financial advisor for over ten years, and is a super visa insurance specialist. In 2010, he set up BestQuote Travel Insurance Agency to make it easier for clients and visitors to Canada to research and purchase travel insurance.