UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Middle East
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Acre Old Town
If looking for a mixture of history, religion and warfare, the fortified town of Akko (Acre) will suit all your needs. Dating back thousands of years, being a pillar of the Baha'i Faith and having nearly every major empire claiming rights to the place, Akko has been at the forefront of history since there was a history. Today, the UNESCO listed town is a pleasure to stroll around. An easy day-trip from Haifa or even Nazareth, the markets, fortifications, Khans and underground tunnels will have any visitor entertained for ages. On the outskirts of town is the temple of the most important person in the Baha'i faith. Although the gardens are not as impressive as the ones in Haifa, they still make for a lovely stroll.
At under 200 years old, the Baha'i faith could be considered one of the world's youngest faiths. But what they lack in age, they make up for in grandeur. The Terraces of the BahÃ¡'Ã Faith in Haifa (commonly referred to as the Baha'i Gardens) is arguably one of the most visited sites in Israel. The magnificently 18 garden terraces (plus one for the Shrine of the Bab) are both serene and exciting at the same time. The UNESCO listed gardens are open to the public (on a free tour) and it's totally worth it. Perhaps most refreshing, the entire area is 100% free. No admission costs. No tips or gratuities accepted.
Church of the Nativity
Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestine
Irregardless of your religious leanings, one cannot discount the significance of the birthplace of Jesus. Tucked away in the back alleyways of Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity was built on the place where Jesus of Nazareth was born in a manager over 2,000 years ago. Palestine's first, and so far only, UNESCO listed site, the church is said to be the oldest continually operating church in the world. Lacking in the grandeur if compared to the Vatican or similar structures, the Church still sees its fair share of visitors. Sneaking in between the seemingly endless stream of tour buses is half the challenge but worth it for a moment at one of the most important spots in Western culture.
Old town of Jerusalem
The old town of Jerusalem deserves more than this single article. There is so much history and religious important places packed into one spot that it's hard to do more than scratching the surface. By being the holiest place on earth for Christians, Jews and the third holiest for Muslims (after Mecca and Medina) it's a place of controversy, something we won't dwell with. Go there as a traveller and just suck up the atmosphere. It's pure madness; hordes of tourist getting charmed by vendors, strangely outfitted religious characters rushing trough the narrow lanes and teenage soldiers with pimples and guns. With all the most-see sites like Western Wall, Temple Mount with the Dome of Rock and the church of the Holy Sepulchre taken the attention, there are a lot of wonderful strange sites that are half hidden. Try to find where the last supper took place, the birth place of Virgin Mary or the Ethiopian Monastery Deir-Sultan. No matter what your belief or expectations are, Jerusalem will blow you away.
Petra will no doubt be one of the highlights of any trip to Jordan, maybe even the reason to come here in the first place. Spectacular imposing tombs carved right out the rock face dating back to the civilisation of the Nabataeans about 2000 years ago. Winding narrow canyons leads into the area, and magnificent views over the desert and the tombs will reward you from the top of the surrounding mountains. Petra is taken right out of Indiana Jones, literately. But all this "amazingness" attracts a fair share of, let's face it, annoying fellow visitors. By arriving early, leaving late and general doing the sights in a non-obvious direction not only will you catch the best light, but you will also pretty much get the place to yourself. Off-the-beaten-track places not to be missed are the monastery Al-Deir with its many viewpoints, the viewpoint above the Treasury and the winding canyon trek through Wadi Muthlim (see photo gallery).
The most impressive ruin in Lebanon. Besides being located in the middle of "modern" Baalbek town, the site can offer several magnificent Roman's temples. The one for Jupiter is the grandest, unequalled in the world, with columns soaring 23m into the air, where six still stands today. The foundation consists of some of biggest building block, some weighing about 800 tonnes. It is thought that it have taken more than 120 years to complete the temple complex, though different Roman Emperors still added to the complex centuries after. Another temple is the one of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. Smaller than Jupiter's, but still bigger than Parthenon in Athens, it's one of the best preserved in the world with beautiful decorations, where you can still make out the fine details - along with semi-ancient graffiti.
About 40 km north of Beirut
This ancient town claims to be the oldest inhabited city in the world. About 7000 years ago, long before the Greek and the Romans, this town started out as small fishing settlement and turned into a powerful city-state with flourishing trade. To this day it still has its small port, apparently also the oldest in the world. The ruin of the old town does not look like much, which is one of the charming characters of this tranquil site. A "newer" crusade castle (12th century), half a roman amphitheater and a few columns are the main leftovers, but it is the maze of crumbling walls covered in vegetation that makes Byblos special. In spring time the whole place burst into colours with wildflowers.
Aleppo is the iconic Middle Eastern bazaar city, with an amazing souq (market), an impressive citadel right in the middle, old Mercedes in the streets and friendly people. In its heydays, it was one of the most important trade centres on the Silk Route, but even today you can still shop-till-you-drop for local stuff like olive soap. Rise to the top of the tower in the citadel to get panoramic views of the town and visit a hammam (public bath) or some of the old traditional houses that are open for visitors. The new part of town attracts the young and rich, where they go double dating over tea and apple nargileh (water pipe) in a Starbuck's look-a-like cafÃ©. A great city that you can keep exploring.
Krak Des Chevaliers (Qala'at al-Hosn)
Travellers like the castle of Krak Des Chevaliers. It's a real fortress placed high on a hill with double walls, round watchtowers and everything. It was originally built in 1031 by a local emir, but invaded by the crusaders in the tenth century, who made it an important stronghold on the route to the Holy Land. During that time, it was extended with an outer wall which made it impenetrable. In the end, the castle got sieged by Mamluk forces in 1271, and the outnumbered crusaders withdrew and left the castle to the Mamluk sultan. They continued the enforcement of the castle in their oriental style, so today it's a big mix of everything.
This set of marvellous ruins of an ancient city is the icon of Syria. The place started out as an oasis town in the desert, but became a mandatory stop on the flourishing silk route. The city grew rich and powerful and even managed to become a "free city" within the Roman Empire. Then queen Zenobia came to power and rebelled against Rome. She managed to beat up some Roman forces and invade the whole of Syria, Palestine and Egypt, before the glorious days were over and in 271 AD Palmyra was again under Roman control. Even today, it's easy to imagine how impressive the city must have been for visitors. In typical Syrian style, the site is informal with no entrance (except for the Temple of Bel), fences or explanations but it only adds to the magic of the place.