The Middle East is a world region in Western Asia and North-eastern Africa. The term was created by British military strategists in the 19th century, and definitions of the Middle East vary; it is not simply a geographical term, but also a political one, connoting that it separates Europe ("the West") from the Far East, and the traditional trade route of choice between these two extremes.
As one of the wellsprings of human civilisation in the ancient and medieval worlds, the birthplace of several world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Bahai) and an area of much modern economic and political importance, the Middle East remains a popular destination for travellers.
Ethnically, the region is extremely mixed. Arabs, Jews, Persians and Turks are the largest groups, but there are several substantial minorities — Kurds, Armenians and others — with their own languages, customs and sometimes their own countries. Every invading army — from Alexander and the Romans through Genghis Khan to the 19th century colonial powers — has left descendants behind. There are also substantial numbers of workers from other countries coming to the region for higher pay — mainly Afghan, Pakistani for jobs like construction labourer, with Egyptians, Filipinos, more Pakistanis, and some westerners in the more skilled jobs.
Almost every country in the Middle East has a Muslim majority (with the notable exception of Israel which has a Jewish majority), with Iran, Iraq and Bahrain mainly Shia, other areas mainly Sunni, and both with minorities of the other — and the legal systems in most of these countries are influenced by Islamic Law; a few are entirely based on it.
North Africa is similar to the Middle East in many ways — language, religion, culture and some ethnic groups. Some writers include Egypt, or even Sudan and Libya, in their use of the term "Middle East".
On the other side, Central Asia also has much in common with the Middle East. Ethnic groups and languages are different, but the religion, much of the food, clothing, and architecture are similar. Iran could be counted as part of either region; at one point most of Central Asia was part of the Persian Empire.
The border between southeastern Europe and the Middle East is also unclear. Many writers include Turkey in their usage of "Middle East" and we include it above, but parts of Turkey are very much European. Large parts of Turkey and all of Lebanon and Israel are also clearly Mediterranean regions. On the other hand, several countries usually considered European — Greece, Cyprus and to some extent the Balkans — also have Middle Eastern aspects to their culture.
Countries and Territories
| Bahrain |
| Iran |
| Iraq |
| Israel |
| Jordan |
| Kuwait |
| Lebanon |
| Oman |
| Palestinian Territories |
| Qatar |
| Saudi Arabia |
| Syria |
| United Arab Emirates |
| Yemen |
Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, Azerbaijan are also often considered part of the Middle East, as a sort of border region between Europe and Asia. Egypt is as well, but this is more tenuous, as even Sinai is geologically and politically part of Africa. Even the inclusion of Iran is to a degree controversial—it is often considered to be a Central Asian nation.
- Amman — experiencing a massive change from a quiet sleepy village to a bustling metropolis
- Beirut — a true cosmopolitan city, the commercial and financial hub of Lebanon
- Baghdad — once a favored destination on the 'hippie trail' and packed full of sights, now one of the most dangerous cities on Earth
- Damascus — credited with being the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world, the old-walled city in particular feels very ancient
- Dubai — most modern and progressive emirate in the United Arab Emirates, developing at an unbelievable pace
- Jerusalem — containing the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Old City, this city is sacred for Jews, Christians and Muslims
- Mecca — forbidden for non-Muslims to enter, this is the holiest city in Islam mostly known for the Hajj
- Riyadh — with most forms of entertainment banned, few sights of interest and a brutal climate, Riyadh is mostly a city to just watch
- Tehran — a bustling metropolis of 14 million people, it is a cosmopolitan city, with great museums, parks, restaurants and warm friendly people
- Dead Sea — the water is far too salinated for marine inhabitation - hence the name - and it keeps you afloat
- Empty Quarter — the name Empty Quarter explains pretty well what it is.. a vast, inhospitable, empty desert
- Madain Saleh — a Nabataean city hewed out of rock in the same style as Jordan's far more famous Petra
- Palmyra — stunning ruins and a lush oasis adjacent to the city
- Persepolis — the ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire during the Achaemenid dynasty, close to modern Shiraz
- Petra — one of the 'New Seven Wonders', Petra is the breathtaking capital of the Nabataean kingdom from around the 6th century BC
- Samarra — archaeological and Shi'a holy sites, including the tombs of several Shi'a Imams in Iraq
- Sea of Galilee — known for its Gospel associations with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, thus a pilgrimage destination for Christians
- Shibam — known as 'Manhattan of the Desert', a unique, sixteenth century, mud-built, high rise apartment buildings complex
The largest hub for flights in the region is Dubai, from where you can reach virtually any point in the Middle East. After Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi also have good intercontinental connections. Tel Aviv is served by flights from most Western countries, though due to the political situation, it is not possible to fly from there to anywhere in the Middle East besides Egypt and Jordan. However, there are direct flights from large European hubs to most major cities in the region.
Public transport is poor compared to other regions of the world including other parts of Asia. The majority of locals would use plane or car travel to get between countries.
Should you wish to enter Bahrain on land, the only way is via the King Fahd Causeway which extends from Saudi Arabia into Bahrain. Bear in mind that while Bahrain issues visas on arrival, provisions for this in Saudi Arabia are not available to non Gulf nation passport holders.
Rail travel in the Middle East is limited and whilst most countries have limited passenger services between cities, there is very little between countries.
Istanbul is the best starting point for rail journeys to a lot of areas in the Middle East. From here, a service to Aleppo in Syria operates from which one can take a connecting service to Damascus. There is a train that connects Damascus with Amman in Jordan. A service from Istanbul also operates to Tehran which includes a 4 hour ferry journey across Lake Van. In general, these trains tend to operate weekly or at most bi weekly.
All other countries in this region have no international rail services.
This is a more practical option than trains in the Middle East as they are less prone to delays and breakdowns and have far more extensive coverage of the region.
- From Istanbul to Cairo classic overland route
- Hajj — the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina
- Ferries across the Red Sea
Arabic is the primary language of the region, and the main language in all Middle Eastern countries except Iran (where Persian predominates), Turkey (Turkish) and Israel (Hebrew). Even in those countries, Arabic is fairly common as a second language; in Israel, Arabic is a second official language. Yiddish, Kurdish, Azeri, Armenian and several other languages are also spoken in some regions.
English is moderately common in tourist areas and generally rare elsewhere. In Turkey, some German is spoken because many Turks work in Germany.
Cookery provides obvious evidence of the extent of Middle Eastern influence. Turkish doner kebab, Greek gyros and the shawarma of the Arab countries (everywhere from Oman to Morocco) are all basically the same dish. A traveller going overland from Europe to India will find very similar dishes — notably flat breads and kebabs — in every country from Greece to India. These are also seen in Central Asia and even China. Many Greek dishes are closer to Iranian cooking than to Italian.
Planning a visit to the Middle East can be complicated in various ways:
- Some countries and territories in the area, such as Iraq and the Gaza Strip, are in a state of war and should not be visited. See War zone safety if you must go.
- Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, do not issue tourist visas except for a few expensive tours.
- Some countries in the region have strict Islamic Law, with heavy penalties for homosexuality, adultery and other offenses.
- Many countries in the region do not recognize the state of Israel for many reasons. These nations may refuse you entry if you have an Israeli visa or an Israeli stamp in your passport, or even a visa for another country that was issued in Israel. The Israeli authorities will generally help you avoid these problems by providing a visa as a separate document so it is not in your passport, however now this has been discontinued; see the Israel article for details. Only Turkey, Egypt and Jordan have official relations with Israel.
- For most of the area, suggestions in Tips for travel in developing countries apply
- Turkey and Cyprus — with lots of border posts and extensive transportation alternatives, southern Turkey is well linked to Syria. It may also be possible to take cruises to the island nation of Cyprus from Syria as well as Lebanon.
- Egypt — with buses from Israel and ferries from Jordan, Egypt is an easy trip from the region.
- South Asia — the "Hippie Trail", after traversing Turkey and Iran from one end to another (and dipping into Iraq at a time in history) goes onward to Pakistan.
- Central Asia — an off the beaten path destination, which is accessible by buses from the Iranian city of Mashhad (which terminate in Turkmenistan and Afghanistan).
- Caucasus — the lush and beautiful Caucasus is a short hop north from Iran.