Once called the Middle East, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel have become popular travel destinations. Visited by themselves or in combination, most travelers return satisfied and surprised by their travel experience. For many, they have been on a truly remarkable holiday with a difference. So why is this so? To best answer this, we need to know a little more about these countries and how to travel to and within them.
*How to get there
Most travelers come by air. The national capitals of Damascus, Amman, Beirut and Tel Aviv all have international airports that are serviced by a range of international and Middle Eastern carriers. Both bus and private car travel is possible between most of the countries. Generally these are via a number of single crossing points like Syria-Lebanon and Syria-Jordan (at Derá on the new highway that links the two countries). Land routes exist to bordering countries. Land travel into/from Israel is more restricted. The most common point of entry is via the King Hussein (Allenby) Bridge from Jordan. Syria has a somewhat dated rail network. Some services only run weekly but those on the popular central routes operate several services each day.
*How to get around
Trains, buses and taxi’s form the centerpiece of Middle Eastern travel services. Car hire with a guide is provided by many local tourist operators. They generally are cost effective and worth considering. Use Google to find them and always ask for (and check) references. Most will require half of the booking fee wired to them before they will confirm the bookings. A number of international companies including the overland companies offer tours. Again check with Google. A number of universities offer summer archaeological digs. Many of these are fee based and no experience is required.
*When to go
The Middle East enjoys a Mediterranean climate but the summers are hot and the winters cold, especially in the north. March to May is the best time to visit. Those who want to soak up the sun will find the coastal areas mid summer comfortable as temperatures are often influenced by cooler coastal breezes. The area suffers from winter rainfall that can make sightseeing difficult and snow covers the mountains between Lebanon and Syria mid winter.
Syria – Syria is modern, easy to travel in and relatively safe. It’s affordable if you keep away from the more expensive five star international hotels. It has a myriad of charms with excellent food, breathtaking scenery, tons of places of historic interest and friendly people. English is generally spoken in most hotels and markets in the major centers. Damascus is the major attraction with its wonderful markets and historic mosques and palaces. The Umayyad Mosque and the nearby mausoleum of Saladin (one of the greatest heroes of Arab’s history), are a “must see”. Plan a couple of days to enjoy Damascus. Consider at staying in one of the renovated boutique hotels that have sprung up in the past ten years. Many of these are ancient palaces in the Old City and are well worth the little extra cost. Do take the time to drive out to Palmyra for the site of the city that built to rival Rome. Homs with its water wheels in on the road to Apamea. This has an avenue of two kilometers of granite columns. Both are worth visiting and are part of 20 or more major archaeological sites that can be visited by tourists. Wandering around ruins of forts, mosques, churches and palaces provides a wonderful insight into what life was like two thousand years ago. Looping back towards Damascus is the most famous of the Crusader castles, Krak des Chevaliers. It is remarkably intact and it will be enjoyed by castle enthusiasts.
Jordan – Jordan has a huge selection of fascinating history to offer the tourists. It is steeped in the history of the Old Testament. The ancient cities of Petra and Jerash date back to Roman times when they were great trading cities along the Silk Road. Jerash is the “Pompeii of the East” and needs a little background reading to fully appreciate the historic context of the site. Take your time to explore it; you are walking through centuries of history. Although Amman is the relatively modern capital of Jordan, you’ll find the satellite city of Salt with its narrow streets and quaint houses is worth the visit. Jordan has a fascinating history of craft, Bedouin weaving, embroidery, pottery and ceramics, jewellery and glassblowing. These crafts are still very much part of Jordanian life today. The Bedouin hospitality and wonderful local cuisine is legendary.
Driving south from Amman you’ll find the now spreading town of Petra. To walk down the half mile long suq, you will be surprised by the beauty of the pink stone Treasury at the entrance of the old city of Petra. It will take your breath away. Read about Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who discovered Petra in 1812, before you go. His is indeed an amazing story. South of Petra is the now modern port of Aqaba made famous by Lawrence of Arabia. West of here you’ll find Wadi Rum where the film of Lawrence’s war-time exploits was made. Here, an option is to stay with the Bedouins in their cloth covered black tents. They are remarkably comfortable. Take a camel ride out to the secret camp where Lawrence planned his desert campaigns. You might return a little saddle sore but you will have really “ridden” in the footsteps of history.
Lebanon – Lebanon is a relatively small country. The highlights are generally along the coast. Here is the colorful coastal town of Byblos and further north is the ancient Crusader city of Tripoli with it’s interesting souqs (markets), mosques and hammams (baths). Turning inland, you will pass through the picturesque villages of the Qadisha Valley, through the Cedars and on to historic Baalbeck which has magnificent Roman ruins said by some to be the best preserved in the world, The route continues through the vineyards at Bekaa and then Umayyad ruins of Aanjar. Nearby is the charming village of Deiral-Qamar and the Beiteddine palace with its wonderful gardens.
Israel – Don’t ignore Israel as a possible travel destination. Access difficulties can be overcome by careful planning or with the help of an experienced travel operator. It’s the Holy Land and steeped in history. Most visitors head for Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jericho but there lots of little know archaeological sites like the old Roman capital of Galilee called Tzipori. In Jerusalem, the old City of David, The Citadel and Church of the Holy Sepulcher with the nearby Wailing Wall, draws the most tourists. What is believed to be the oldest church in the world is in Bethlehem. A silver star marks the place where it is believed that Christ was born.
Some tourists choose to visit the Dead Sea. It is off Highway 90 west of Jerusalem. Personally, although unique, I think that it is overrated. Those with more time might consider visiting Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Further a field you’ll find Masada with its spectacular ruined fortress.
Take care in Israel photographing or showing interest in border and military installations or personnel. You’ll get used the very obvious security presence.
All these countries have different visa requirements. Generally Israel does not require a visa for most western countries. Tourists are allowed a stay of up to 90 days. However, it is necessary to avoid getting your passport stamped upon entry or exit as this causes problems of entry into Lebanon and Syria. Ask the border officials to stamp your entry permit instead. Better still, put Israel last on your itinerary. Jordanian visas can be obtained upon arrival at the airport and at most border crossings. It is best to get Syrian visas in advance. USA, most EU, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand passport holders can get a visa to enter Lebanon at the border. Jordan allows entry/exit to Israel via the King Hussein (Allenby) Bridge without a multi-entry visa.
The countries of the Middle East are attractive and exciting travel destinations. The people that you’ll meet are friendly and if your leave politics aside, you’ll have a very enjoyable travel experience. Middle eastern cooking is a highlight and in all countries you’ll find an amazing array of low cost local restaurants. Try the local beers and wines and few of the specialized drinks like Arak (Lion’s milk) which is commonly served with mezze. Talk to your travel agent or check out travel sites on Google. You are guaranteed to have a holiday of lifetime.
The author was in the Middle East in 1986 and Syria and Jordan in 2007. You can read about his fascinating journey in his book Following Marco Polo’s Silk Road. It will make a great Christmas present for someone who loves traveling.
The author was born in UK, brought up in South Africa, married in London to a New Zealander and now lives in Sydney, Australia. He has travelled to more than 70 countries and is the author of a book that describes his travels along the Silk Road called Following Marco Polo’s Silk Road.
Brian lives in Sydney, Australia
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