The Middle East is a paradox. Located at the cultural crossroads between east and west, the region nowadays tends to make headlines for all the wrong reasons, but also served as one of the major cradles of human civilization and birthplace of the world’s three great monotheisms.
Myriad stunning mementoes of the region’s cosmopolitan and history-laden past survive, with a wealth of world-famous attractions ranging from medieval bazaars and historic mosques through to untamed deserts and remote oases.
Stretching from the depths of antiquity through to the futuristic skyscrapers of the modern Gulf, these are the most beautiful places in the Middle East, as picked by our author Gavin Thomas.
Standing at the meeting point of Europe and Asia, Istanbul straddles one of the world’s great cultural crossroads, with a history to match. Modern Istanbul remains one of the world’s most beautiful cities, with the soaring minarets of the great Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet mosque pricking the skyline above a fascinating tangle of bazaars, and the serene waters of the Golden Horn and Bosphorus below.
Jerusalem is the one of the world’s oldest tourist hotspots, attracting visitors for almost two millennia. Even back in the Middle Ages dedicated guidebooks for European pilgrims were being churned out on a regular basis, complete with bucket-lists of saints and shrines to be visited en route to the Holy Land.
Visiting Jerusalem remains a powerful experience, offering a glimpse of some of Judaism, Christianity and Islam’s most sacred sites, as well as the time-warped old streets and bazaars of the ancient city itself and the Biblical landscapes beyond.
No one ever forgets their first sight of Petra. Entering the site you pass through the narrowest of gorges, as if through the eye of some magical needle, before emerging into the great lost city of the Nabateans, where the exquisitely carved Greco-Roman façade of the Treasury looms out of the cliff-face ahead. And that’s just one of the dozens of spectacular temples and tombs dotting the rocky defiles and hilltops above.
If you ever wondered what life in medieval Arabia looked like, old Cairo – or “Islamic Cairo”, as it’s usually called – is as good a place as any to let your imagination wander.
Step back in time amidst the old city’s endlessly fascinating maze of medieval streets and alleyways, dotted with ancient mosques, spectacular gateways and bustling bazaars. Getting lost is half the fun – if you don’t, go back until you do.
If Tolkein’s elves ever decided to move out of Middle Earth, they’d probably want to live in Cappadocia. There’s a distinct whiff of enchantment about the region’s unique landscape, with its surreal collection of outlandish rock pillars, cones, mushrooms and other bizarre geological formations.
Troglodyte caves, chapels and even entire underground villages honeycomb the rocks, meaning there would probably be room for a few hobbits as well.
Visitors have been lured to Siwa ever since Alexander the Great came here to consult the resident oracle back in 332 BC. The great Macedonian adventurer visited, it’s said, to seek confirmation that he was descended from Zeus, although most modern visitors are happy enough simply exploring Siwa’s ruined mud-brick kasbahs, the remains of ancient Egyptian tombs and Greco-Roman temples.
The vast landscape itself is enough to draw, though, with its dense splashes of dusty-green palms amidst the endless Saharan sands.
When David Lean required a suitably iconic backdrop for his great 1962 Lawrence of Arabia biopic, it was to the incomparable Wadi Rum that he turned.
A kind of Middle Eastern Grand Canyon – with camels – Wadi Rum cleaves through the jagged mountains of southern Jordan, eroded in places into sheer ochre-coloured cliffs, fissured in others into precipitous ravines. “Vast, echoing and god-like,” as T.E. Lawrence himself described it.
Mediterranean meets Middle Eastern at the ancient port of Byblos, hemmed in between beautiful beaches and rugged mountains on the coast just north of Beirut. Byblos is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities and history lies particularly thick on the ground here, with the remains of Phoenician temples jostling for space with a Crusader castle.
Romanesque churches, Mamluk mosques and rustic ochre houses of the old medieval centre tumble down to a picture-perfect horseshoe harbour.
In the remote far north of Saudi Arabia, the extraordinary rock-tombs of Mada’in Saleh are one of the Middle East’s most remarkable – and least known – sights. There are 131 of these cavernous mausoleums cut into a sequence of craggy red sandstone outcrops that dot the sands of the Saudi desert.
“Isfahan is half the world,” runs a famous Persian proverb – an easy mistake to make, once you’ve seen the city, which seems to positively encourage hyperbole.
The jewel in Iran's cultural crown, Isfahan boasts an extraordinary collection of blue-tiled mosques, historic madrassas and caravanserais, and ancient bazaars stuffed with carpets and crafts, with all roads leading to the vast Naghsh-e Jahan, one of the world’s most spectacular city squares.
The “Norway of Arabia”, as it’s often described (although it’s considerably warmer), Musandam is the Middle East at its most scenically spectacular.
Land meets sea in dramatic fashion as the towering red-rock Hajar Mountains plunge precipitously into the still blue waters of the Arabian Gulf, creating a labyrinthine landscape of sheer-sided khors (fjords), inlets and islands.
Arabian beauty may seem to be a largely ancient affair, but the modern Middle East also has its marvels too, exemplified by the stunningly futuristic skylines of modern Qatar, Abu Dhabi and, especially, Dubai.
It’s in the last that you’ll find the stupendous Burj al Arab, the vast sailed-shaped icon which has done more than anything else to put the city on the world map – one of the most original, and certainly the most beautiful, building constructed anywhere on the planet over the past fifty years.