In recent years, the term ‘Middle East’ has come to replace the conventional practice of recognising said region as two separate entities – Middle East and North Africa.
The Middle East originally being Egypt (which is geographically located in North Africa), the rest of the Arab world and Israel, Turkey, and Iran.
North Africa referred to the Arab countries located in North Africa, like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.
Recognized today to address the trans-continental region that starts from the shores of the Atlantic in the West to Afghanistan in the East, the Middle East is home to 411 million people, encompassing four distinct cultures – Arab, Turkish, Iranian, Persian, Kurd and Israeli ( Arab, Turkish and Iranian – all seemingly similar but uniquely distinct). The countries of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt is largely home to Berbers, Arabs and Egyptians.
Situated at a location central to Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Middle East has been the gateway for many travellers, traders, explorers and conquerors for a long time. As a result, the population of the Middle East has come to host an amalgamation of vibrant cultures, ethnicities and languages.
A fantastic choice to spend your days away from the daily grind, the Middle East offers you dazzling cities at the edge of mesmerizing sand dunes and cobalt blue seas. Teeming with a newfound energy, the Arab peninsula shows you the best of the past and the future, offering you contrasting experiences of modern skyscrapers to sprawling remains of ancient civilisations. Walk among majestic monuments that speak of the grandeur of the region, to give you glimpses into culture and history to experience the hospitality of the descendants of the desert tribe.
Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Turkey, United Arab Emirates
Navigating through such vivid cultures which offer a plethora of experiences like no place else, can be a daunting task, however we can arrive at solutions for journeys of a week or two considering your travel styles, and the time you have on hand.
Basics- Quick facts
Population – The population of the Middle East is estimated to be around 411 million. Iran is the most populous country; with Turkey not far behind while Bahrain being the least populous.
Cairo is the most populated metropolitan city, followed by Istanbul.
Language – Arabic is the most common language in this region spoken by around 280 million people. Followed by Persian though mostly concentrated in Iran, it is spoken by a significant population in the United Arab Emirates as well. Hebrew is predominantly concentrated in Israel and its neighbouring countries. Turkish is the national language of Turkey and is widely used in the nation-state.
However, the Middle East is also home to a countless number of lesser-known languages including Berber and Azeri.
While English is spoken in tourist areas, it is best to pick up a few phrases in the local languages for an authentic experience.
Currency – Units of currency differ across the region.
USD, Euro, GBP are all accepted in most countries throughout the Middle East, however, it is probably best to use local currency especially in local markets.
Youth between the ages of 15 to 29 make up more than 28% of the population of the Middle East.
Even though only about 15 per cent of the land is suitable for cultivation; agriculture serves to be the most important economic activity. Wheat, barley, rice, figs, and citrus fruits are major crops, along with coffee cotton and tobacco. Rearing of livestock is equally important to the economy.
The discovery of vast oil deposits revolutionized the Middle East’s economy. More than half of the world’s oil reserves are located in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has the largest deposits and is the world’s leading oil producer and exporter. Iran, Iraq, and the small Persian Gulf state of Kuwait are the other major producers.
In most Middle Eastern countries food plays an important role. Food is the language through which history is narrated, social distinctions are made known, the change of seasons is conveyed and important lifecycles are marked.
The Middle East is called the ‘Cradle of Civilization’, having seen the most prosperous of days under the rule of the Egyptians, Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians.
Bahrain – An archipelago, Bahrain is mostly known for its fine white beaches and its towering skylines.
Egypt – Fondly known as the Mother of the world, Egypt is home to spectacular old-world monuments, remains which narrate of the once most powerful civilization in the world and captivating landscapes – borders which open in to the Red Sea, the waters of the Nile know as ‘father of life’ and the sprawling desert.
Israel – Drive from the vast expanses of a desert to lush landscapes home to historic sites and adventure all within 90 minutes, in other words, don’t miss out on Israel.
Jordan – Full of surprises, and the perfect balance between the old and the new, Jordan is the perfect place to experience history and culture at its finest.
Morocco – While no words can justify the wonder that is Moroccan food, if that’s not a reason enough to visit this spectacular country, also know, it is home to the surreal Sahara desert, striking landscapes and a colourful and vibrant culture.
Oman – Arid mountains, deserts, dolphins and dazzling souks and Omani hospitality make for a breathtaking break.
Palestine – Home to diverse landscapes from arid hills to green meadows, and ancient Christian monasteries.
Turkey – With immersive landscapes, treasures of the ancient Roman and Ottoman Empire, and an enchanting, beautiful array of mosques, museums and bazaars, Turkey is the bridge between the East and the West.
United Arab Emirates – From distinct skyscapes, imposing, exuberant monuments, historical ruins, varied geography and busy markets – UAE has it all!
Food for thought
The importance of Jerusalem, Israel’s capital is far greater than its size, holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Turkey, Egypt, and Israel are the most industrially developed countries of this region.
The countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia have also been known as the Atlas Lands, for the Atlas Mountains that dominate their northern landscapes, although each country, especially Algeria, incorporates sizable sections of the Sahara desert.
The Arabian Desert is the second largest, second only to the Sahara. Most of the desert is in Saudi Arabia, extending into Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Yemen and Qatar.
Food & Culture
Religion – As the birthplace of three of the largest religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism), in the world, The Middle East holds religion to be one of the most basic forms of identity.
Islam is the most practised religion in this region except in areas of Israel (where 82% of the population practice Judaism), Christianity is also practised in areas of Lebanon, Egypt and Israel.
The spread of Islam in regions like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and neighbouring countries came with the expansion of the Arab empire.
Smaller minority religions include Bahá’í Faith, Druze, Yazidism, Mandaeism, Gnosticism, Yarsanism, Samaritanism, Shabakism, Ali-Illahism, and Zoroastrianism are also present in the Middle East.
Art and Architecture – Art has been a huge part of the Middle Eastern culture since the time of the ancient civilizations, diverse and reflective of the diversity of its many regions.
Contemporary Middle Eastern artists often work in contexts fraught with conflict, taking inspiration from situations close at home such as war zones or at the crossroads of tradition and rapid development. Many artists in the Middle East find an array of challenges in promoting their art including freedom of expression.
Stunning examples of Islamic architecture, encompassing a wide range of mosques, tombs, forts, public baths and gardens dot the Arab peninsula.
From Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to buildings which speak of African influences in the citadel of Cairo to spiralling minarets in Iraq to perfectly landscaped gardens of Persia and the towering skyscrapers of Dubai, the architecture of the Middle East speaks volumes about its immersive culture and history.
Customs and Traditions – Situated at a location central to Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Middle East has been the gateway for many travellers, traders, explorers and conquerors for a long time. As a result, the population of the Middle East has come to host an amalgamation of vibrant cultures, ethnicities and languages.
Religion plays a large part in the rhythm of daily life. Shops in different neighbourhoods close on Fridays for the Muslim holy day, Saturdays for the Jewish Sabbath, and Sundays for the Christian day of rest.
The family is an important part of the culture in the Middle East, traditionally comprising of an extended family of cousins, grandparents, second cousins, cousins-in-law, nieces, and nephews living together. Largely seen in rural areas, relocation to the cities has changed some of these traditional structures and the number of people living as a nuclear family in urban areas is increasing.
Food plays a very important role in the Middle East and is a gateway to its culture.
Most Arabs shake hands every time they meet you and every time they leave you.
Small talk and ritual greetings are normal. Middle Easterners often greet each other with a number of ritual phrases and fixed responses. Ancient custom governs these interactions and is considered important to establishing friendly relations.
Demonstrating friendliness, generosity and hospitality become expressions of personal honour, going back to the days of nomadic desert tribes.
Expect the actual eating of a meal to come at the conclusion to an evening’s festivities. Touch food and pass it with your right hand only. In some areas, Middle Easterners consider it impolite to eat everything on one’s plate. Leaving food becomes a symbol of abundance and serves to compliment the host
Mosques are considered to be shelters for homeless people. Do not walk directly in front of people praying. Dress appropriately and do not take pictures of people praying.
Food – Located at crossroads between Africa, Europe, and Asia, the cuisine of the Middle Eastern countries is influenced by its surrounding regions because of its active role in the spice route. Religion has also changed the cuisine as neither Jews nor Muslims eat pork, making lamb the primary meat.
Similar to Mediterranean cuisine, food in the Middle East is colourful and vibrant and seasonal due to the use the local herbs and spices. Eggplant is the most favoured vegetable of Middle Eastern cuisine
The meat dishes are generally made of lamb, chicken, and beef. Usually, skewered and grilled. Cheeses, legumes, and yoghurt are the main sources of protein. Wheat is consumed in the form of flatbreads or pita. Tea and strong coffee have been a part of the local culture for ages.
The most common dishes in this area are kebabs, baklava, dolma, yoghurt, doner kebab, and shawarma, hummus, falafel, and tahini, baba ganoush to name a few.
Clothing – Clothing in the Middle East reflects a complex set of relations between historical and political change and as markers of changing identity over time, including differences relating to gender, age, wealth, and religious status. The structure and meaning of clothing vary across regions in design, fabric, shape, and ornament.
Based on the region of Middle East you are visiting you’re bound to come across people dressed in a variety of attires.
When travelling in the Middle East dress modestly and carry a headscarf with you (highly recommended for women), which you’ll be required to wear when visiting a Mosque or a holy shrine). Things are more relaxed in cities like Istanbul but ALL mosques require you to be respectful and cover yourselves before entering.
How to go?
Following are the major airports for internation travel to popular destinations in the Middle East
Bahrain – Bahrain International Airport
Egypt – Cairo International Airport, Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport,Hurghada International Airport, Luxor International Airport
Israel – Ben Gurion Airport
Jordan – Queen Alia International Airport, King Hussein International Airport
Morocco – Casablanca Mohammed V Airport, Marrakech Menara Airport, Rabat-Sale Airport, Tangier Ibn Battouta Airport,
Oman – Muscat International Airport
Palestine – Ben-Gurion International Airport – Tel-Aviv
Turkey – Istanbul Atatürk Airport, on the European side,Sabiha Gokcen Airport on the Asian side
United Arab Emirates – Abu Dhabi International Airport, Dubai International Airport, Dubai World Centra, Sharjah International Airport, Ras AI Khaimah International Airport.
*travel to Jerusalem from Tel-Aviv via a shared taxi or private taxi and take a bus to any Palestinian city from the Arab central bus station in the Musrara area.
Best time to go
The seasons in the Middle East are
Summer: June – August
Autumn: September – November
Winter: December – February
The cooler months of October to April are the best time to visit the Middle East as the summers get hot with high humidity levels. As there are no rains in the winter, the weather remains very pleasant.
The cost of travel through the Middle East can greatly vary depending on the region and activities.the average budget in cities like Cairo allocates $25 while in cities like Dubai the average cost is more than $200, with most places averaging around $70 to $90.
Stay: Accommodation in some countries of the middle east, like Egypt and Turkey, can be very affordable at rates of $15- $30 but can also reach about $60 – $140.
Food: The price of food varies greatly from country to the country going as low as $11 to as high as $40, usually between $15 to $28.
Local transport: Local transportation would cost about $2 – $4 in most places and can reach up to $20.
Sightseeing: sightseeing costs vary across the region, depending on the activities, from $30 to easily over $100+.
*Costs are mentioned in terms of USD.
*Costs mentioned are the average rates per day per person unless specified otherwise.
Countries which require prior approval for visa
Bahrain – Travellers must have a passport that is valid for at least six months and a visa to enter Bahrain. Indian nationals can obtain an eVisa valid for 30 days.
Egypt – There is no provision for E-visa or Visa on arrival for Indians as of now (unless travelling in a large group). Visitors must hold passports that are valid for at least 8 months from the date of arrival to Egypt. A tourist visa for Egypt is allowed for 90 days. However, a tourist can stay only up to 30 days from the arrival date in Egypt.
Israel – A tourist visa to Israel is valid for an amount of 90 days. Visitors must hold a passport valid for at least 6 months. Apply 3 to 4 weeks in advance.
Morocco – A tourist visa is issued with a validity period of up to 90 days; all travellers must have a passport that is valid for at least six months.
Oman – Apply to a visa from the Embassy. The duration of the validity would be a month, which has a chance for extension. A medical certificate, as per the requirements of the health ministry of Oman is required to be submitted during the process of application.Processing would take up to 5 days.
Palestinian territories – Apply for a visa at the embassy or for an eVisa. The validity of the visa would be for up to 4 months and would take about 3 days to process.
Turkey – All travellers must have a passport that is valid for at least six months, Citizens of India are eligible to apply for a single entry eVisa which is valid for a stay of 30 days, within 6 months of issue
United Arab Emirates – Apply for the visa at the Embassy or use the option of applying for an eVisa. A single entry visa is valid for 69 days and can be extended, however, a multiple entry visa is valid for 30 days and is not extendable.
Countries which give visa on arrival
Jordan – Indian citizens are eligible for visa on arrival. Which is valid for 14 days. A tourist collective visa is also available upon arrival for groups of more than 5 people, this visa is available for 7 to 14 days.
Top things to do
Nestled between the East and the West, the Middle East is a land of contradictions and complexities. Home to some of the first cities of the world, its sprawling relics take you back in time while contrasting high rises catapult you into the future.
Do not miss out on
The remains of the Dilmun civilization, stretching across 3 acres of the eastern region of the Arabian peninsula gives insights into the bronze and copper ages in Bahrain.
Bahrain National Museum is the oldest museum in the city, dedicated to the relics of the ancient Dilmun civilization. Also home to exhibits which depict the lifestyle and culture of Bahrain during its pre-industrial era, the museum one of the largest in the country.
A visit to the one of the last of the remaining seven wonders is a must. The Pyramids of Giza stand to remind us of one of the richest civilizations of the ancient world, guarded by the great Sphinx.
The Abu Simbel Temple, A monument symbolic of Egypt, the Temple of Abu Simbel, cut out of a solid rock cliff, overlooking the tranquil lake Nasser, has astonished archaeologists and visitors alike with its sheer magnanimity and grandeur.
Jerusalem – An important site of pilgrimage for all the three major religions of the world – Islam, Christianity and Judaism, is an old city, where places such as the Al Aqsa Mosque, the Church of Holy Sepulchre, and the Western Wall teach you the history of religion. Do not forget to visit the numerous museum near the old wall, especially Yad Vashem, a Holocaust remembrance centre.
Jordan screams Petra, one of the seven wonders of the world, this ancient Jordanian city is a spectacular edifice of the ancient world, credited for its skilled water harvesting systems and temples, cut into sheer rock face.
Amman is a city of contradictions, on one side is one of the most modernized cities in the Middle Eastern world, and on the other side is a typical Arab City, complete with chaos, bordering on the desert. Here one can find ruins of ancient civilizations, including Roman theatres and temples.
Nestled in the Rif mountains, Chefchaouen is an artsy village with Andalusian influences. Houses painted a deep blue with red tiled roofs, along narrow streets it’s the perfect town to explore, and a is nothing short of a visual paradise. Great food just adds to the rep sheet.
The Sahara Desert is a must visit while you are in Morocco, forget time as sands shift and enjoy glorious sunsets to find yourself under a sky full of stars.
Marrakech, a bustling chaotic town at the foothills of the Atlas mountains, is home to a large medina, the central square of Djemma El-Fna, the El Badi Palace, and vibrant souks or bazaars. Taste a bit of the local life when you stop by at Marrakech.
Enjoy a camel ride on the Wahiba Sands and meet the native Bedu people and experience snippets of the local lifestyle.
Ras al Jinz, one of the best places to visit in Muscat, you can watch turtles hatching in this reserve if you visit in the months of May to October.
Bethlehem – a site of invaluable significance to the Christian world, is a prime destination on trips to the Holy Land. Home to the Church of Nativity thousands of believers visits the city each year.
The City of David, the site of the old city of Jerusalem, a walled city existing from the Bronze age, believed to be where David built his capital is a fascinating place to visit, currently inhibited, it is a sprawling archaeological site of early Israeli settlements.
With a unique landscape formed by a millennia of volcanic activity Cappadocia, has houses and churches cared into spires formed by volcanic sediments. Offering hot air balloon rides, this surreal city should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Hagia Sofia, synonymous to Istanbul, the last surviving example of the Byzantine style of architecture, built as a church converted into a mosque and then into a museum, stands today to show spectacularly ornate marble interiors, carved stone arches, and a jaw-dropping central dome.
Mount Nemrut is a must see, this historic site is filled with ancient relics, half in ruins. Dotted by giant statues of kings, lions and eagles statues, this site is located on the Arsameia antique road.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a mosque of mammoth proportions has managed to perfectly manage to achieve the perfect blend of the traditional and the contemporary.Its white marble striking against the clear skies never fails to enrapture. A must visit in order to see new interpretations of Islamic art and architecture.
Head to the Desert to foster your adventurous streak, four-wheel-drive trips and dune-buggy journeys, to sandboarding, hiking, and camel treks and an array of related activities are available. End the day with Bedouin-style dinners to experience the true essence of the desert.
The best way to get the most of your visit to Dubai is to ride a dhow (traditional Arabic boats) down the creek. Sunset cruises are particularly beautiful as you watch the skyline of the city come alive, while the sun dips in the horizon.
Itinerary Suggestion by destination expert
The sunny island of Bahrain is best for a short travel, perhaps 7 days.
Explore the land of the Pharaohs, Egypt in a span of a week or two. (7days/14 days)
Israel and Jordan, home to an amazing historic past brimming with relics of the past would each need about a week to be best experienced. (8 days each)
Neighbouring Morocco, known for its generous Middle Eastern hospitality, and its vibrant culture, can be best explored within a span of 8 to 15 days.
Oman with all its stunning contemporary representations of the Islamic world will enthral every type of visitor while hosting a verity of options for the art enthusiast to the adventurist alike. (7days/10 days)
Visit the gateway between the East and the West to get the best of modernity, and it’s rich vibrant culture and history. A minimum of 10 days is a must to discover the essentials of Turkey.
The face of the modernity in the Arab world, tour the sophisticated cities of the Emirates. With an amazing shoreline on one side and an expansive desert on the other, discover the best of both worlds in a journey of minimum 6 to 8 days.
Travel to two or more countries can be combined according to personal preferences, however it is recommemded to not crowd everything into a short span of time.
Egypt – Morocco: 15/20 days
Egypt – Turkey: 14 days/ 19 days
Turkey – Morocco – Egypt: 11 days/17 days
Israel – Jordan: 12days
Egypt – Jordan – Jerusalem: 18 days
Israel – Jordan – Egypt : 5 days/10days/17 days
Jordan – Israel: 10 days/11 days/12 days
Jordan – Egypt: 14 days
Oman – Jordan: 15 days
Israel – Palestinian territories: 7 days
Jordan – Israel – Palestinian territories: 14 days
Faith-based travel – Catholic – Tel Aviv – Nazareth – Jerusalem – Petra – Amman – 11 days
Faith-based travel – Protestant – Tel Aviv – Tiberias – Jerusalem – Petra – Amman – 11 days
Faith-based travel – Judaism – Tel Aviv – Tiberias – Jerusalem – Petra – Amman – 11 days
The duration and the combination of destinations of these vacations can be tweaked according to interests and convenience.
Local customs in the Middle East call for a conservative clothing style. Make sure you try to blend in with locals as much as possible. Dressing in clothes that are not too revealing would come a long way. Be sure to carry a scarf to cover your head (at mosques or memorials).
During your travels, if you come across any large gatherings or demonstrations take necessary precautions and cooperate with concerned authorities.
Please keep in mind that some parts of the Middle East are volatile and not the safest of places for tourists. Plan your trip well and take care to avoid the places seeped in political or civil unrest.For example, Iran’s border with Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Be respectful of local culture, especially the local religions. Cover your head while visiting a place of worship and wear clothes that go past the ankle. Shorts and Skirts are best to be avoided.
Be wary of the places that can be photographed. Check for signage or ask the locals.
Take care of your surroundings and travel in groups after nightfall.
The hospitable natives of the Middle East would be flattered if you could pick up a few phrases of the local language like Hello, Thank you etc. and show respect, as well as interest and appreciation for their culture.