A journey to the Middle East comes with the promise of surreal landscapes, archaeological treasures, celebrated cultures, monuments of historic conflicts, and sacred sites. We’ve steered clear of cliches and curated a list of experiences that will awaken the interpid explorer in you. By Sushmita Srivastav & Rashima Nagpal
1. VISIT THE EMPTY QUARTER IN OMAN
The enigma of Oman’s Rub Al Khali, or the Empty Quarter as it is widely known, is so great that it isn’t advisable to venture there without a reliable guide. Thankfully, a few reputed tour operators offer full-day private trips to the gargantuan desertland from Salalah. Viator lets you drive to this untouched region with a guide who can handle off-road trails and will ensure you don’t get lost. Go dune-bashing, check out the ruins of Ubar—the lost city that is said to be swallowed by the desert—and absorb the remote emptiness of the land at Thumrait, which was once a famous Bedouin settlement and an important point on caravan routes.
2. GO BACK IN TIME AT ALULA, SAUDI ARABIA
With expansive deserts dotted with gigantic boulders and precious remnants of the most ancient civilisations on Earth, AlUla has always been a hidden treasure, until now. Saudi Arabia finally opened itself to international tourism last year and chose AlUla as the flagbearer of its glorious heritage. The ancient land boasts 2,00,000 years of history and is home to the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Al-Hijr Archaeological Site, which has over 100 well-preserved tombs with elaborate rock-cut facades. There’s also Jabal Ikmah, which acts as an open library with hundreds of ancient inscriptions from the Dadanitic and Lihyanic cultures, and the ancient rock city of Dadan to explore.
3. TAKE A PRIVATE DESERT SAFARI IN DUBAI
The Private Heritage Desert Safari offered by Platinum Heritage takes you through the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve in a vintage Land Rover. The private retreat features traditional entertainment and a four-course Arabic dinner, but what sets this safari apart is the presence of a dedicated conservation guide who will make sure that your tour and any encounters with native wildlife are informative and insightful
4. DISCOVER NUBIAN HERITAGE IN ASWAN, EGYPT
Nubians trace their origins to one of the earliest civilisations on the planet. Their ancient homeland, Nubia, once stretched along the River Nile and covered swathes of present-day Egypt and Sudan. Today’s Nubians are concentrated in southern Egypt, especially in Kom Ombo and Aswan’s Nasr al-Nuba. Visit the Nubian Museum in the city, and sign up for the Trip To The Nubian Village In Aswan offered by Journey To Egypt, which introduces you to a native family and gives you a glimpse of their ways of life.
5. VISIT THE SUMELA MONASTERY IN TURKEY
After four years of restoration, the Sumela Monastery in the northeastern province of Trabzon in Turkey reopened its doors in July this year. The Greek Orthodox monastery is an architectural marvel with mythological significance, and dates back to the fourth century. Perched high in the Black Sea region, at least 1,000 metres above sea level, it hangs like an extraordinary jewel in the Altindere Valley. Various historical incidents, including an 88 year-long pause on religious services and a major fire in 1930, have only added to its legendary standing among Turkish attractions.
6. EXPLORE ABHA LIKE AN INSIDER
In sharp contrast to the vast desert wilderness in its neighbourhood, the tiny hill station of Abha in Saudi Arabia is famous for its greenery and misty mountain tops. Take a cable car ride down to Habala, the ancient ‘hanging village’ built halfway down a cliff face and accessible only by ropes, or visit the decaying Asiri mud houses as you drive up to the Green Mountain. This compact hill town is also the ideal base to explore the Asir National Park, which is home to 170 species of birds. Drop by Rijal Almaa Heritage Village, 45 kilometres west of Abha, for a traditional meal and a glimpse of 60 palaces built from natural stone, clay, and wood. Also visit the nearby town of Khamis Mushayt, famous for its agricultural riches, silver Bedouin jewellery, and coffee and spice crops.
7. FIND THE ABANDONED TOWN OF Al Madam IN THE UAE
Midway between Dubai and Sharjah, the village of Al Madam is rumoured to be haunted. Deserted under unknown circumstances, the last remaining houses of the village—laid out eerily neatly in two rows—and a bright green mosque are flooded with sand today. The village was once home to the Al Kutbi tribe, and the rumours of a djinn having taken over the village adds to its allure. Sign up for the Ghost Town Sharjah Tour offered by Marriott Bonvoy Tours & Activities to find out for yourself.
8. RELISH AN ORGANIC IFTAR IN ABU DHABI
The Emirates Bio Farm in Al Ain is the largest private organic farm in the UAE and an unlikely venue for iftar. Every Ramadan, the organic farm that lies nestled amid sand dunes turns into a sought-after setting for feasts. Start your day with a one-hour tractor tour where you can watch how okra, eggplant, pumpkin, coriander, and other veggies are organically grown. The iftar spread uses fresh produce that you can help in picking, and is served inside a functioning greenhouse. Expect many traditional but organically-tweaked Ramadan dishes such as pumpkin kibbeh, hot mezze, beetroot mutabal, and a Bedouin style lamb dish slow-cooked underground for over five hours.
9. ZIP-LINE AT JEBEL JAIS, RAS AL KHAIMAH
UAE’s highest peak, Jebel Jais, lends itself to adventures galore. It’s no surprise that a part of the region has been transformed into the Jais Adventure Park, a unique destination for aerial daredevilry. While the drive from Ras Al Khaimah to Jebel Jais itself is scenic enough to warrant a visit, the activities offered at the destination—perched at an altitude of 1,934 metres—are the showstoppers. On the Jais Sky Tour, you cover five kilometres in a series of seven zip lines, all the while enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the breathtaking cliffs and
canyons in the region. This zip-line tour also takes you to a 15-metre-long sky bridge, UAE’s highest at 1,250 metres above sea level and 300 metres above the ground. If you need even bigger thrills, try the Jebel Jais Flight, which holds the Guinness World Record for being the longest zip line on the planet.
10. GO OFF THE GRID IN SOCOTRA, YEMEN
Somewhere between Somalia and Yemen, Socotra is the main island of an isolated archipelago of the same name in the Indian Ocean. Long protected by the traditions of the Socotrans, the island is now afflicted by geopolitics and climate change. Nevertheless, its extraordinary ecology and stunning coastline make it an excellent offbeat destination. Owing to its far-flung location, Socotra is home to plant species that are now too ‘strange’ for the rest of the world—a third of its botanical life is, in fact, endemic. The main attraction is the umbrella-shaped dragon’s blood tree that lives only within the remnants of the prehistoric dragon’s blood forest and uses its leaves to grab moisture from the misty air. The tree gets its name from the red resin it exudes from the bark when cut. This and other endemic flora make Socotra a nature lover’s paradise.
11. BEAT THE SUMMER HEAT IN MASFOUT, AJMAN
The smallest of all the emirates, Ajman has been the last one to don the glitz of UAE. It’s fairly new to tourism, so it still has some tricks up its sleeve. These include two glorious inland enclaves, Al Manama and Masfout—the former agricultural, the latter mountainous. Masfout, a 90-minute drive from the capital, skirts the Oman border and leads you to the foothills of the Hajar Mountains. Owing to its high altitude, it offers a respite from the heat. The rugged landscape here lends itself to mountain biking, hiking, and picturesque picnics.
12. KAYAK THROUGH THE MANGROVES OF AL THAKIRA, QATAR
When you’re in Qatar, you must explore the Al Thakira Mangrove Forest, around 60 kilometres north of Doha, on a kayak. The four-hour-long excursion starts with a walk or ride through compacted sand and salt flats to reach the fishing village of Al Khor. The dirt track ends on the beach, where the mangrove forest begins. Navigating the wild network of mangroves on a kayak is the best way to study this ecosystem. At Purple Island you can spot unique crabs, fish, and birds like flamingos and herons. If you wish to linger, book one of the ‘Sunset to Full Moon Kayaking’ events on Viator and enjoy an unforgettable night on the island with a traditional barbecue dinner and camping under the stars.
13. TAKE A CULINARY TOUR OF CYPRUS
The island country of Cyprus is home to a compelling culture, and food is a huge part of it.
Eating at a mageirio is the ideal way to acquaint yourself with the local cuisine. A mageirio is a small, lesser-known, casual eatery that serves only homecooked Cypriot food. Join Gastronomy Cyprus on one of its culinary trails and head to Nicosia’s suburbs to pick fresh local produce at a farm for your picnic basket that you can savour by the Xyliatou Dam. Later, visit the scenic village of Larnaca to sip on the finest Cypriot coffee, get tipsy on a dessert wine called Commandaria at a winery in Vouni, and learn to cook dishes like souvlaki (meat grilled on skewers), sheftalia (firecooked lamb or pork sausage wrapped in caul fat), and tiropita (a cheese pie).
14. WITNESS THE HISTORY OF CIVILISATION AT BYBLOS, LEBANON
About an hour north of Beirut, Byblos is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, bearing witness to the beginnings of the Phoenician civilisation. The UNESCO-listed coastal town has witnessed a stream of uninterrupted construction right from the first settlement dating back to 8800 BC—relics of Bronze Age temples, Persian fortifications, the Roman Road, Byzantine churches, and other historic structures can be found here. Wander through the old souq, marvel at the 12th-century Crusader Castle, tour the ruins of ancient civilisations, and take breaks at the beautiful harbour.
15. GO GLAMPING ON YOUR TERMS IN ISRAEL
Glamping Israel is reputed for its bespoke glamping offerings and pop-up hotels. Pick the site of your choice (Mitzpe Ramon and the Ramon crater, Arava and Judean Desert, Sea of Galilee, Ella Valley and the Jerusalem Mountains), the group size, and the season. Then, the company recommends the ideal lodging option—teepees, tents, caravans, mud house —and arranges for everything. Imagine a weekend brimming with wine and gourmet meals while you stay in a vineyard in the middle of the Negev Desert or at the historic Tower of David—you’re bound only by your imagination.
16. ATTEND A POTTERY WORKSHOP IN BAHRAIN
If you are looking to take home some artisanal pots or try your hand at pottery yourself, you must visit the A’Ali town in Bahrain. Pottery is said to have been popular in the island nation since 500 BC, as evidenced by excavations in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Dilmun Burial Mounds. Deep in the heart of Bahrain, amid these 4,000-year-old burial mounds, stands the biggest pottery handicraft centre. Nada Pottery in A’Ali offers sessions with Maitham, an artisan who’s been practising the craft since he was 12 years old. A two hour session with Go Peep lets you try your hand at an old-school pottery wheel.
17. TRY BEEKEEPING IN UMM QAIS, JORDAN
Community-based tourism is picking up pace in Jordan, and the little village of Umm Qais offers a range of such immersive experiences. Don a beekeeping suit, and accompany bee enthusiast Yousef Sayyah to the Yarmouk Forest Reserve where you sip on pomegranate juice sweetened with fresh honey as he passionately introduces you to the fascinating queendom of bees with a sneak peek into their hives. As you take a closer look into one of the colonies to search for the queen, hear Sayyah elucidate on their teamwork, ecological importance, the pollination process, and the healing properties of natural bee products. Once you’re done helping him in harvesting the honey, you can enjoy the sweet taste of success, literally. Umm Qais is also famous for the ruins of the Decapolis city of Gadara.
18. CATCH A SHOW AT A ROMAN THEATRE IN ANTALYA, TURKEY
Founded around 1000 BC, the ancient Greco-Roman city of Aspendos is best-known for its Roman theatre, one of the most remarkably preserved of its kind in the world. Designed by Greek architect Zeno and built in the second century AD, the theatre seats up to 7,000 people and is used as a venue till date. Catch the two-hour Fire of Anatolia show, which celebrates Turkey’s history, myths, music, and dance in summer. Featuring an award winning 120-strong troupe performing folk and acrobatic dances, ballet, and belly dances, it makes for an experience of a lifetime.
19. DIVE IN A SINKHOLE IN DAHAB, EGYPT
Once an idyllic Egyptian destination with a laidback lifestyle by the sea, Dahab owes its newfound popularity to the many stunning diving sites in the area. The most famous of these is the Blue Hole, a 120-metre-deep submarine sinkhole located eight kilometres north of Dahab on the coast of the Red Sea. Only technical divers can access the deeper portions—the site is notorious for diving fatalities—but budding adventurers can explore the outer lip, which brims with colourful marine life. A 20-minute boat ride takes you to the reserve of Ras Abu Galum, home to a blue lagoon where you can swim to the reef wall to interact with a variety of aquatic creatures. For an online glimpse of what awaits you on these shores, take a 360° video tour of the SS Thistlegorm, a British Merchant Navy ship that was bombed by the Germans in 1941 and lies undisturbed on the seabed off the coast of Egypt.
20. FOLLOW THE INCENSE ROUTE IN ISRAEL
The Incense Route in Israel, a path spanning more than 1,930 kilometres, was used by traders to carry frankincense and myrrh from Yemen and Oman, through the Negev Desert, to the Mediterranean port in Gaza in the third century BC. It is believed that the Nabateans primarily controlled this route. But recent findings of inscriptions and milestones suggest a ‘lost part’ of the route is allied to the Pertinax and Severus rulers. Set up your base at Six Senses Shaharut and book a hiking trip with them to see what’s left of the ancient route—the beautifully preserved city of Avdat known for its Byzantine-era ruins; Haluza, most of which rests beneath massive sand dunes; a network of crumbling churches; the old caravan stop of Khan Saharonim; and the gloriously isolated Shivta.
21. SEE THE WORKINGS OF AN ANCIENT IRRIGATION SYSTEM IN IRAN
For your trip to Iran, you must earmark the Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System. This striking system of caves, pools, dams, and tunnels built into natural rock is a centuries-old plumbing system that is still being used to divert water for irrigation from River Kârun. Its most impressive component is a series of ancient water mills powered by man-made cascading falls. Water streaming out from different directions at this UNESCO World Heritage Site looks no less than the work of a wizard, considering that it started taking shape in the fifth century BC. The elaborate system of waterworks was completed by different civilisations over centuries of development and modification.
22. DISCOVER ARCHAEOLOGICAL GEMS IN MLEIHA, SHARJAH
The town of Mleiha in Sharjah is home to many ancient ruins and rock formations. Fossil Rock is an ecological landmark rising over sand dunes with marine fossils dotting its crevices; Jebel Buhais is a rocky outcrop with a 2,000-year-old Iron Age fort as well as an 8,000-yearold Stone Age necropolis; the Valley of the Caves dates back to the Stone Age; and there are burial grounds from the Bronze Age on this priceless land. The Mleiha Archeological Centre offers a range of guided treks and tours, offering visitors a deeper understanding of UAE’s history and early life in the desert.
23. MEET FLAMINGOS AT AL WATHBA WETLAND RESERVE, ABU DHABI
The Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, set up in 1998, is the first protected reserve in Abu Dhabi. It is recognised as one of the 2,000 remaining wetlands in the world and popularly called Flamingo City. Many species of flora and fauna thrive here, but the nearly 4,000 flamingos that visit during autumn and spring are the main attraction. Between October and April, make the 50-kilometre drive from mainland Abu Dhabi to take a self-guided walking trail of up to three kilometres, to observe the flamingos from a designated hide.
24. MARVEL AT THE MIRROR HOUSE IN KUWAIT
One of the world’s richest countries per capita, Kuwait is home to a thriving art scene. The Mirror House has been pivotal in boosting the artistic image of the nation. It is the home of the husband-wife artist duo Khalifa Qattan and Lidia Qattan. Italian-born Lidia began transforming her house into the piece of art it is today in 1966. The exterior of the house and the interiors of the ground floor are covered with mirror mosaic, while the first floor houses an art gallery. The rooms follow themes like Planet Earth, Zodiac, Universe, Knowledge, My World, Corridor of the Nations, Shark Basin, Sea World, and Stairs to Inspiration.
25. VISIT THE PECULIAR PYRAMIDS OF MEROË IN SUDAN
Few know there are as many as 200 pyramids in eastern Sudan, along the banks of the Nile. Considered Nubian, the Meroë pyramids have narrower bases and steeper slopes than their Egyptian cousins. Meroë was once a massive city bursting with traders and masons. It doubled as the capital of the Kingdom of Kush. Today, these dusty tombs, some of which host tombs of kings and queens, stand solemnly as the only proof of the ancient city’s prosperity. Built over 2,300-2,700 years ago, they are slowly being reclaimed by the sands of time. Real Sudan offers scheduled, private, and custom tours in the country.