UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Middle East
Jeddah is a very spread out city, just like Riyadh. But contrary to Riyadh, Jeddah has a more chilled vibe - maybe because it's located on the shore to the Red Sea. The long corniche is really nice, particularly at sunset when families are having picnics on rugs. The floating mosque is popular with muslims from all over the world, who are here on Hajj. However, the real gem of Jeddah is the UNESCO enlisted old quarter Al Balad (pictured). For most parts the houses still stand skewed and dilapidated with colourful latticed balconies and ornately carved wooden windows. Of course, Jeddah also has its fair share of crazy oil-money funded sights, like the tallest flagpole in the world (170 m), tallest water fountain in the world (260 m, only in the evening) and what will become the tallest skyscraper in the world, if it ever gets finished.
This petroglyph site is considered to be the absolute best in Saudi Arabia and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The archaeological rock art site covers a vast area with several rock outcrops covered in petroglyphs. The collection contains three phases of rock carvings: Large men and women figures from the Neolithic and iron age around 10,000 BC, medium sized animals from around 5500 BC, and inscriptions from around 3000 BC. The site is fenced off, so check the opening hours before driving out here.
Magnificent Madain Saleh, also called Hegra, is Saudi Arabia's version of Petra (in Jordan). Madain Saleh was the second largest city in the Nabatean kingdom after Petra and was thriving during the 1st century AD. It was a key city on the trade route to and from the Mediterranean, and the taxation made the city flourish. The civilization left more than 100 tombs carved into sandstone outcrops. The more important the person was, the more spectacular the tomb had to be. Some tombs are just a few meters tall with little ornamentation, while the biggest tomb is more than 20 meters tall. Many tombs feature inscriptions that record who it was for and who made it. Like Petra, Madain Saleh is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage.
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 café. A great city that you can keep exploring.
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.
Bosra is an ancient city that became a major metropolis in the Roman Empire, acting as capital for the Province of Arabia. Caravan routes passed here, making it an important trading city during the Middle Ages. The main attraction is the huge and perfectly preserved Roman theatre which could seat 6000 spectators with an additional 3000 standing. Today, it looks even more enormous in the small town that Bosra has become. It's a surprisingly nice and friendly place, where people are still living among the Roman ruins. Come in the afternoon when the tour buses have left and you will get the whole place to yourself.
The UNESCO list "Old Walled City of Shibam" is quite possibly the architectural highlight of Yemen. The 16th century fortified town is renowned for it's mud-brick skyscrapers, earning it the nickname "Manhattan of the Desert". One would assume that such a magnificent site would be inundated with tourists. But instead, due to difficulties getting there and a number of reported attacks on tourists, the site is all but deserted. All tourists must be accompanied by a (free) armed escort at all times when outside their hotel. This makes it a little difficult to mix with the generally friendly locals. But sitting on the hill as the last beams of sun reflect off the ancient town make it all worth while.
Yemen has long been a place of Islamic scholarly learning. And perhaps no place better exemplifies this than the dusty town of Zabid. With some disproportionate 80 mosques for the tiny town, it must certainly be in the running for most religious buildings per capita. Even today, there are several medressas attracting religious student from around the world. But for the average traveller, it is the old world markets, winding streets and magnificent carved brick walls that will leave you amazed. Sadly, the town is in danger of losing it's UNESCO listing due to "40% of its original houses have been replaced by concrete buildings". It is with great hope that the world will not lose this historic gem.
The icing cake buildings of the UNESCO listed "Old City of San'a" look almost good enough to eat. Wonderfully beautiful, each building has been pain-stakingly decorated as if in some ancient game of trying to beat the neighbours. Most fortunately, many of the building have been made into hotels, allowing for mush more than an outside glimpse. But the true glory comes from merely wandering around the labyrinth of streets. Some streets are occupied by a single old man whose face shows the history of the country, others overflow with shoppers in one of the best markets in the region. While it is rare to find beauty, history and life all in one place, San'a most certainly delivers all these more than any traveller could ever dream of.