Time Out tours the best World Heritage Sites in the Middle East
Time Out Bahrain staff
Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis Thebes to the Pharaohs, Luxor to us. The Temple of Karnak and the Valley of the Kings have to be among the most stunning of Egypt’s myriad treasures. Perched on the bank of the Nile, Luxor is the best place to catch a glimpse of one of the world’s oldest civilisations.
Historic Cairo There are few ancient cities that still pulse with as much life as Cairo. From the Pharoahs, to the Romans, the Umayyads to the Crusaders, the French to the British, Cairo is a vast vat of history that is still evolving and defining itself in the Arab world, often carelessly shrugging off a rich past to an inevitably prosperous future.
Memphis and its Necropolis That’s the Pyrmaids of Giza to you and me. The last remaining monument of the Seven Wonders of the World, nothing prepares you for the sheer scale of these necropolises which were built by blood, sweat, tears and a lot of slaves around 4,500 years ago.
Nubian Monuments The Nubians originally came from Northern Sudan and southern Egypt, and their monuments now encompass everything between Sudan and Aswan. The two most prominent monuments inscribed in this site are the magnificent rock-hewn temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, and the remarkable Temple of Philae near Aswan, which had to be reconstructed after the Aswan Dam flooded the temple.
Persepolis Anyone thinking of marching against Iran, take note: Iran has been a region power almost without interruption for the last 4,000 years. The pinnacle of one of the country’s many empires can be found at Persepolis, the seat of power of Xerxes the Great and home to the most remarkable collection of Persian ruins anywhere in the world.
Meidan Emam, Esfahan The centrepiece of one of Iran’s most glorious cities, this square is boarded on all sides by monumental buildings of epic proportions, all of which are testament to the artistic life of the sixteenth century Safavid Empire.
Samarra Archaeological City Although Iraq has a handful of World Heritage Sites, the ancient city of Samarra is the most glorious. The site of capital of the powerful Islamic Abbasid Empire that ruled a vast tract between Tunisia and Central Asia in the ninth century, this site is best known for its fantastic mosque, which is currently in a critical condition after being hit by an insurgent bomb blast in 2005.
Petra This Nabataen stronghold is a vast city carved into a series of gorges. Immortalised by Indiana Jones (well, for the MTV generation, at any rate), Petra was recently voted as one of the New Seven Wonders, the only site in the Middle East to make the cut.
Baalbek Forget Beirut. If it’s history you are after, Baalbek has it in spades. Built on the site of a Phoenician Temple, Baalbek was one of the most important Roman cities in the Levant, and is home to some of the world’s best preserved ruins. The drive between Baalbek and Beirut takes you through some of Lebanon’s most beautiful landscapes.
Byblos Not long ago Bridget Bardot and Carey Grant hung out here. Today, Byblos is a practically deserted fishing village, with a terribly pleasant natural harbour and cute cobbled streets. Oh, it is also one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, practically a capital in Phoenician times, hence it’s World Heritage status and inclusion on this list.
Leptis Magna Thanks to Gaddafi, Libya has been off the tourist trail for several decades, which goes some way to explain why such a wealth of stunning historic sites has not garnered more attention. Leptis Magna is by far the greatest of them all. One of the most beautiful Roman Cities ever created, the ruins, not far from the capital Tripoli, are a sight to behold.
Ghadames Standing in Libya’s vast desert, close to the border with Algeria, Ghadames is one of the oldest cities in the Sahara, and is a stunning labyrinth of passageways, mud brick buildings and fairy-tale towers. Think the Cappadocia crossed with Fez, crossed with Timbuktu.
Rock Art sites of Tadrart Acacus One of ancient art’s most treasured sites, this rocky massif in the middle of the desert on the border with Algeria, is home to a plethora of cave paintings, some of which date back to a tremendously impressive 12,000 BCE.
Bahla Fort Situated in the oasis of Bahla around 200km from Muscat, this fort owes its massive size to the prosperous Banu Nebhan tribe. The first fort built in Oman, it remains the most impressive.
Al Hijr Archaeological Site A couple of years ago, Saudi Arabia was bereft of a single World Heritage Site. Today it boasts two. The first, Al Hijr, located in the desert north of Jeddah, is a collection of Nabataen rock carved necropolises, second only to Petra in their importance.
At-Turaif District in ad-Dir’iyah North-west of Riyadh, this was the first capital of the House of Saud and is home to a splendid fortress built in the Najdi style, an architectural movement that is specific to the Arabian Peninsula. This is also where the Wahhabi reform was founded.
Damascus One of the oldest cities in the world, and home to one of the world’s most famous mosques (the eighth century Great Mosque of the Umayyads), Damascus is one of the highlights of any Middle Eastern tour. Spending a day or so getting lost in the souq is obligatory.
Palmyra Palmyra is one of those places that looks familiar, but which you just can’t place. Two thousand years ago Palmyra was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. Today it is a hugely evocative collection of ruins in heart of Syria’s inhospitable desert.
Aleppo Syria’s second city has spent the past two thousand years welcoming traders from across Asia and Europe, and as a result was prized by every major empire in the region. With such a rich tapestry of influences, Aleppo is an architectural palimpsest.
Crac des Chevaliers The Crusaders littered the Middle East with castles, but none is more awe-inspiring than the Crac De Cavaliers.
Sana’a If you see one city in the Arabian Peninsula, make it Sana’a. With a vast and ancient old town filled with some of the most remarkable architecture seen in this part of the world, Sana’a is also home to some of the friendliest people on earth!
Shibam Even more off the beaten track than Sana’a, the sixteenth century city of Shibam is one of the oldest and best preserved examples of urban planning based upon vertical construction. A city of late medieval skyscrapers, all the more remarkable because they are made of mud.
Socotra Archipelago Socotra is not called the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean for nothing. With a wealth of endemic plants and animals, Socotra is teeming with oddities and also boasts some of the best diving in the world.