The Middle East is the cradle of civilization whose roots go back as far as the Assyrians, in the Tigris-Euphrates valley over 5,000 years ago. Because this area has been inhabited for so long, the amount of history here is staggering. Unfortunately, this area is also one of the most volatile in the world. It seems that there is constant strife, with neighbors always pitted against neighbors. Thus, it is a dangerous area to travel to. Tourists are admonished to be always vigilant, and to avoid certain countries. If the traveler is willing to take the risk, the travel rewards are immense. Here are some of the sights you might be able to experience. Photos will follow at a later date.
1. Jerusalem, Israel
Jerusalem, Israel, is, without question, one of the most important tourist sites in the world. It is and has been a pilgrimage site for worshippers of three of the world’s major religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Unfortunately, it is also an area of tremendous unrest and conflict, which makes travel here extremely risky at certain times.
The focus of tourism in Jerusalem is the old, walled city, a tight maze of cobblestone streets which is actually composed of four ethnic neighborhoods, the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Christian Quarter, which coexist but try hard not to co-mingle.
Must-see sights in the old city include the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a church built on what is thought to be the site of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of Christianity. The church itself is shared by several Christian religions, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, and Copt, and preserves several important relics, for example, the Stone of Unction, where Jesus was prepared for burial, and Golgotha, the hillock where the actual crucifixion took place.
Another important tourist attraction is the Dome of the Rock, and the area on which it sits, the Temple Mount, site of the original Judaic temple, built by King Solomon, and thought to be the location where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as described in the Old Testament. It is also considered to be the spot where Muhammad rose into heaven to receive Islam’s teachings from God.
A third major focus for tourists is the Western Wall, which is an extremely holy site for Jews. They believe that this wall was a remnant from the Temple Mount built by King Herod, and Jews from all over the world come here to pray and offer devotion.
The Via Dolorosa is a walk along what is thought to be the route that Jesus Christ took when led to his crucifixion. It is displayed in almost every Christian church in the world as the “Stations of the Cross”. “Processions” take place frequently and involve prayers at the various stops (“Stations”) along the way. This pilgrim path takes about an hour (note that the last 5 “stations” are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher).
In West Jerusalem, tourists will find the very worthwhile Israel Museum, which, besides some wonderful art, displays the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament, dated to the second century B.C. and the Yad Vashem, a very emotional memorial to the Holocaust.
For a classic view and great photograph of the city of Jerusalem, drive or take a cab to the Mount of Olives Observation Point, east of the old city.
Visitors can walk the walls of the old city, gaining access at either the Jaffa Gate or the Damascus Gate.
A popular excursion from Jerusalem is to Bethlehem which lies in the area, just 10 kilometers (6 miles) east of Jerusalem, known as the West Bank, because it is located on the western bank of the Jordan River. It is a particularly holy pilgrimage site for Christians because it was the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth. The actual stable where Jesus was thought to be born is below Manger Square, the central plaza in Bethlehem, and, on the square, in commemoration of this pivotal event, is the Church of the Nativity.
2. Petra, Jordan
Petra, Jordan, was once thought to be a city, carved into the sides of cliffs, in an area of Jordan, just northeast of the southern Israeli border at the city of Eilat. The builders of the place were the Nabateans, transplants from Arabia who settled this area in the 4th century B.C. The remains which can be seen today were probably constructed in the 1st century A.D. Entry through the Siq, a narrow passage between the rock walls, affords a view very familiar to movie fans. At the end of Indiana Jones, the Last Crusade, Harrison Ford rides through this very part of the city. The most notable and also most-recognized building in the city is the Khazneh, the Treasury Building, as it is known, with it beautiful columns and sculptures. Other significant stops should include the High Place of Sacrifice, accessible via stairs, the Temple of the Winged Lions, built around 27 A.D., and some of the many tombs which are found throughout the area. Recently, archaeologists have discovered that Petra was in actuality a necropolis, or cemetery, and not a city, and that all the buildings carved into the stone, including the Treasury were mausoleums. The more elaborate the structure, the more important the family or person buried.
3. Damascus, Syria
Damascus, Syria, claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and is a living history museum which can unfold for the visitor. It was an extremely influential city during the 3rd millennium B.C. and, later, became the capital of the first Arab State, in 661 A.D. After a period of decline, it emerged again, when Syria became an independent nation in 1946.
Tourism in Damascus centers around the Old City, whose walls date to Roman times. The Omayyad Mosque, built in 705 A.D. has become a model for mosques throughout the world of Islam. Azem Palace, whose plain, simple exterior, belies the beauty and intricacy of the interior, with its multi-colored stone, cascading fountains, and lovely gardens. The Damascus Citadel is a city within the city, and was built in the late 11th century to fortify the headquarters of generals who were garrisoned here during the Crusades. The streets (Souqs) of the old city are lined with shops selling, among other things, spices (Damascus was called “the Fragrant City”), crafts, food, and clothing.
Outside the old city is Al Takieh-Suliemanieh, an example of Ottoman architecture which dates to 1554, and St Paul’s Church, a tribute to the famous preacher and writer of the Epistles of the New Testament.
4. Baalbek, Lebanon
Baalbek, Lebanon, is the site of one of the best preserved Roman ruins in the world. The town, named after the Phoenician God, Baal, lies in the mountains of Lebanon, about 90 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of Beirut. The site is known for its three temples, the Temple of Jupiter, the Temple of Venus, and the Temple of Bacchus, the Roman God of wine and revelry, whose temple here is even larger than the Parthenon. It is the largest complex of Roman temples ever built. The columns are the tallest, and the rocks are the largest ever used. The entire Acropolis was erected in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, A.D. and also contains ceremonial entrances (Propylea) similar to those in Athens.
5. Masada, Israel
Masada, Israel, is another important Jewish pilgrimage place. Located on a mountaintop southeast of Jerusalem, it was the site of one of King Herod’s desert palaces. It became the scene of a last ditch battle between the Jews and the Romans, in the first century A.D. Only seven of the almost 1,000 people stranded on the mountaintop survived.
6. Sana’a, Yemen
Sana’a, Yemen is an ancient city, dating to the 1st century AD. It was an important stop along a major trade route from the Gulf of Aden to the Middle East and beyond. Most of its 6-9 meter (20-30 ft) high walls of clay are still intact. Its ancient houses, some of which date to 1000 AD, are known as “tower houses” and the distinctive architecture is a major characteristic of the city.
The Great Mosque, only one of numerous mosques in the city, is one of the largest in Islam and was built during the time of Mohammed (in the 600‘s). It has Persian-style minarets and dominates the city’s skyline. Also of note are the Liberty Gate, one of the city’s original gates, which is over 700 years old, the 15 or so steam baths, and the numerous markets, the most important of which is the Salt Market.
Note that, a the time of publication of this book, American travelers to Yemen are strongly cautioned concerning safety, since known terrorist groups are actively operating in this nation.