Places with photo galleries in Middle East
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.
Nizwa is an ancient town once protected by an old desert fort. Even today the old souq (market) is still the centre of trade and traditional goods are changing hands as they did a century ago. It even becomes better on Fridays when it's goat auction day. From early morning, Bedouins come in to buy and sell. In an open arena goats are dragged around by their owner in front the observing audience. A potential buyer calls over the goat, squeezes its testicles and decides whether to buy it or not. Besides the goats and the occasional camel, the other attractions are the colourful Bedouin women who attend the market. Some have their face covered by a finely decorated cloth mask, half as an out-of-this-world fashion statement and half as protection from the strong sun. They sure will make an impression.
Muscat is the only real city in Oman. It is accountable for a third of the country's population, but even 1 million people doesn't feel that big when it's spread out as Muscat is. Rather than one dense city, Muscat is made out of connecting towns, each with its own vibe. The walled old town of Muscat is where the Sultan's palace is. Mutrah is the picturesque area along the waterfront where you also find the covered market, the so-called souq. The corniche is particularly nice with great views over the harbour and on a backdrop of craggy mountains. Further inland you find the buzzing neighbourhood of Ruwi which is Muscat's "Little India". For a modern feel (read Starbucks and similar cafes), head to the area along the coast at Shatti al-Qurm. Muscat is a fine mix of new and old, without being as rich in history as Sanaa in Yemen nor as sparkling as the other oil-money-spoiled capitals in the region.
In contrary to other oil state metropols like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Doha is still in the developing phase, and probably will be for many years to come. The center is a mix of brand new exotic looking skyscrapers and dusty construction sites, sprinkled with equal dusty empty lots. Since 2000 more than 30 skyscraper taller than 100 m have been erected, though some are not yet completed. The tallest will be Qatar National Bank Tower with 510 m (114 stories) when it completes. It seems that any concept can be realized, leaving the skyline of Doha, even as today, as a quirky mismatch of wonderful architecture among glass monsters, which can only have been created by people with too much business on their minds.
Souq Waqif is Doha old market place. The souq and the area around it are in the final phase of a makeover to make it all look like an iconic old Arabian souq. At first it can feel a bit disappointing when a closer look reveals that the adobe buildings are made of cement and home to chain coffee shops, among others. But when you start exploring the souq, you will happily realise that it is a real souq - not just a tarted up tourist market. Locals do come to buy tools, nuts, spices, perfumes and the latest fashion in abayas (the black cloak for women), and old porters will push their way through the narrow lanes with their wheelbarrow full of cargo. The pet and bird corner is surprisingly well-stocked, where you might catch a glimpse of some falcon chicks. The main street is lined with coffee shops, restaurants and tea houses where you can take it all in while puffing a shisha (waterpipe).
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.
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.
Well aware that people hardly qualify as a place, we list them anyway for they make the country what it is. Many visitors' finest memory of Syria is the people, for they are extremely friendly and welcoming. You are constantly met with courtesy and curiosity, and of course endless invitations for tea. If you look a bit lost, strangers will take you by the hand and lead you to your destination. A shy "al-salaam alaykum" and a smile will open many doors and get you a lot closer to the soul of Syria than any visit to a ruin will.