The Middle East today is home to some of the world’s most modern and fastest growing cities with new skyscrapers constantly shooting upwards in the likes of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha. However the region is also blessed with some amazing historical sites and in this post we’re going to look at a few of the greatest ancient wonders in the Middle East.
Note that some of these are in relatively isolated locations. To reach them, you may need to first fly to a major hub such as Dubai and then connect with a regional airline like flydubai to get closer to your final destination.
5 of the best Historical Sites in the Middle East
First up, we have the former capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Located in the south of Iran, near the modern day city of Shiraz, the ruins of Persepolis have survived for more than two millennia and offer a glimpse into life at the start of the first great Persian Empire.
At its peak, Persepolis was the ceremonial centrepiece of a vast territory which stretched from the Balkans in Europe to the Indus River which flows through India, Pakistan and China. It was larger than any empire that had preceded it at the time and although the city was taken by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, some elements of a grand palace complex remain to this day and it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
One of the most famous and best preserved sites in the Middle East, Petra is a must visit for history lovers. It’s estimated that the area around Petra has been inhabited for a staggering 9000 years. Originally established by nomadic Arabs as a major trading hub, you don’t even really need to have much interest in the region’s history, to appreciate its beauty. With ancient tombs and temples carved into pink sandstone cliffs that form a narrow valley, it’s an archaeological site like almost no other.
Petra is situated in the south of Jordan and it takes around three hours to reach it by road from the capital Amman. It’s also only around 25 km from the Israeli border and it’s quite easy to combine a visit to Petra with one to Jerusalem, next in our countdown. It does cost 50 JD (approx $70) for a one-day ticket to Petra though, making it one of the most expensive historical sites in the world.
Jerusalem’s Old City, Israel
No rundown of the ancient wonders in the Middle East would be complete without mentioning Jerusalem’s Old City. A small walled area in the heart of Jerusalem, this place is central to the Jewish, Muslim and Christian religions. The Western Wall and Dome of the Rock are among the holiest sites in the whole world and attract visitors and pilgrims from far and wide.
A city within a city, the area is divided into four quarters – Jewish, Armenian, Muslim and Christian. It’s slightly unique amongst most other major historical sites in the Middle East, in that it has been swallowed by 21st Century urban life with Jerusalem currently home to around one million people.
The Lebanese city of Baalbek is another famous archaeological site in the region. Perhaps better known by its historical name of Heliopolis, its iconic Temple of Bacchus is one of the best examples of Imperial Roman architecture that you will find today. There are a series of other temples in a small Roman district – the most notable of the others being the Temple of Jupiter.
Baalbek is only 70 km away from Beirut Airport which has reasonable international connections and is easily and affordably reached from Dubai via the budget airline flydubai.
Mada’in Salih, Saudi Arabia
Finally we have Mada’in Salih, perhaps one of the lesser known of the ancient wonders in the Middle East, at least outside of Saudi Arabia. Previously known as Hegra, the settlement was the southernmost city in the Nabatean kingdom and second largest after Petra. It became Saudi Arabia’s first world heritage site in 2008, thanks to its well-preserved monumental tombs and decorated facades.
This is another slightly isolated location with Mada’in Salih roughly 350 km from the nearest major Saudi city – Medina. It’s around 600 km to the south of Petra.
This article was published in February 2021.