Goal = 52 countries in 52 weeks.
Often travellers are skeptical about visiting the Middle East, given its somewhat constant state of turmoil and uncertainty in regards to tourist safety. We were still quite eager to explore the rich history and ancient world wonders of this region despite these concerns, but rather than trying to navigate through potentially dangerous areas on our own we opted to join a small group tour. One of the best parts about a group tour is meeting like-minded fellow travellers to share the experience with and make lifelong friends!
We met our group in Amman, the capital of Jordan to begin the first section of our journey through the Middle East. Cosmopolitan and contemporary, yet steeped in biblical history, this vast city was a lovely welcome to the Arabic nation. Amman has some amazing ancient sites, right in the city centre.
The Roman Theatre is a beautifully restored smaller version of the classic Roman Colosseum, seating 6,000 and dating back to the 2nd century, whilst the Jordan Museum had some fascinating pieces including the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. Our favourite though was the Citadel, situated high on a hill with incredible sweeping views overlooking the city. Dating back to the bronze age, this site was previously used as a fortress and contains the Temple of Hercules and the Ummayad Palace.
Not far from Amman, an hour north you can find some more stunning ruins in the city of Jerash, an ancient walled town that remarkably reflects life from 2000 years ago. Such a contrast from the natural beauty and landscapes of Asia, we spent hours marvelling at our first taste of ancient civilisations. The ruins were so beautifully preserved and immediately transported you back in time.
The next day we began our journey south, stopping at Mt Nebo which is best known as the place where the prophet Moses is said to have seen the promised land and is supposedly buried. From this sanctuary, you get spectacular views of the Dead Sea all the way to Israel.
Following this stop, we were super excited to head to the infamous Dead Sea for that miracle float! Being the lowest point on Earth at 420m below sea level, the Dead Sea is technically just a really salty lake nicknamed “dead” due to the lack of life in it. The density of the water and the high salt content makes you float on top of the water, no matter how hard you try to sink! This bucket list experience was highly entertaining and had to be followed by a mud bath in the nutrient rich natural minerals found here.
From one “must see” destination to the next, the following day we were even more excited to explore the lost city of Petra. It’s not hard to see why the jewel of Jordan was named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, with it’s intricate series of tombs and temples carved directly into the rock.
Upon entering the rose red city, you walk for a mile along a narrow canyon type path known as the Siq, until you are greeted with the impressive sight of the iconic Treasury, frequented by trading back in the 6th century BC. For an even more jaw-dropping view of the Treasury, you can hike an off trail path up in the hills to reach a vertigo-inducing point overlooking the building from the top of an opposing cliff. This hike also gave us the unique opportunity to meet a local Bedouin (Desert Dweller) who we shared stories and tea with!
Another challenging but highly rewarding hike is up many many steps to the stunning Monastery. This high up site is a real gem and is second only to the Treasury is terms of grandeur and preservation. After a whole day adventuring around this marvellous site and almost 25km of walking, we were well overdue for a hearty meal that night!
Our final destination in Jordan was the extraordinary desert scene of Wadi Rum. The day was spent on a jeep safari exploring the rugged moonscape of towering rose coloured sand dunes, natural rock bridges and beautiful scattered rocky peaks. Arabic inscriptions carved into the rock walls were abundant, and could be traced back to ancient civilisations. Camping under the stars was of course a must, and despite the desert cold it was truly a magical experience.
Part of the reason we loved Jordan so much was the food! We had no idea Jordan was so well known for it’s tasty dishes, but boy do we agree now. Pita bread and hommus is a classic staple of most Middle Eastern countries and is simple but delicious and always readily available. Falafel and tzatziki was also a common dish and is world’s apart from the versions we eat back home. Fresh, cheap and cheerful, perfect snack on the go.
We’ve found street food to be generally amazing wherever we’ve gone and Jordan was no exception. Downtown Amman was full of stalls selling various types of ara’yes, which are little toasties filled with spicy mincemeat. So good, we had double serves! Kofta, either lamb or beef grinded down and mixed with an assortment of spices and shaped into cylinders of meat, was lovely to chow down on at night, often served with a freshly grilled vegetables and rice for a perfect rounded meal.
Our hands down favourite dish (also the national dish of Jordan), was definitely mansef – soft, slow cooked lamb smothered in a savoury dried yoghurt sauce served on a bed of rice. Mouthwatering! As for beverages, no Jordanian meal is complete without a piping hot mint tea or a thick, strong arabic coffee. The coffee took some getting used to but kept you buzzing all day!
Our Middle Eastern exploration continued as we crossed the border by ferry from Aqaba (Jordan) to Nuweiba (Egypt). This ferry crossing was 100% one of the most interesting experiences we have encountered all year. Frequently delayed, an exact departure time could not be given so the waiting game was commenced as we were told to please have patience. Several trips later from the hotel to the ferry port to check on the status, we finally boarded the ferry at around 6am (18hrs after the predicted initial departure).
Our Jordanian group leader was prohibited from accompanying us on the ferry and we were set to meet our Egyptian leader once we’d arrived in Nuweiba, so being the only tourist group on the ferry we were escorted by security to a different level separate to the remaining passengers, and filed past a large group of men in handcuffs being watched by police for trying to cross the border without proper documentation…. Extremely tired, a little anxious and very caffeine deprived, we eventually arrived in Egypt and began the tiresome process of visa payments and passport checks. But hooray, a new country to explore!
The ferry ordeal was well worth the hassle after seeing the fantastic beaches, sparkling blue water and rugged scenery along the Red Sea. Picture cosy beach huts made from palm trees, long stretches of golden sand, coral reef drop offs, succulent seafood at waterfront bars, freshly squeezed juices and puffing sheesha pipes. Definitely not what you would initially relate to a visit to Egypt!
The laidback resort town of Dahab is a diver’s dream, and actually boasts one of the top ten diving spots in the world known as the Blue Hole. The area gets its name from a submarine sinkhole about 94m deep. Naturally, only highly experienced divers take on this challenge so we were happy enough spending a day snorkelling through the corals and looking down on the endless world of blue.
The charming seaside towns were a welcome treat to Egypt, and after a few days relaxing and recouping our energy, we were ready to hit the colourful, chaotic capital city of Cairo. No trip to Egypt is complete without of course visiting one of the world’s most iconic sights – the pyramids.
What we didn’t realise, is how close to the city of Cairo the pyramids actually are. 18kms to be exact! Usually your views of the pyramids are slightly obstructed by the high rises of downtown Cairo, but as we visited on a cloudy day it worked out better for us! The Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest of the Seven Ancient World Wonders and the only one still intact. Still somewhat of a mystery to this day, it was mind blowing to view in person.
Everyone’s heard of the famous pyramids of course, but what was equally incredible to lay our eyes on and slightly lesser known was the oldest step pyramid located in the area of Saqqara. Saqqara is also home to many tombs of minor royalty; the limestone walls of these tombs are intricately decorated with images of fish, animals, people hunting, farming etc. Further indication of how the artistic nature of the ancient Egyptians was ingrained in their culture.
And of course the Great Sphinx of Giza was mind blowing! A limestone statue of a lion’s body and human head, this unique sphinx sits 73m long and 20m high. Getting up close to this perfectly intact pharaonic tomb with all its mystery and power was one for the bucket list.
An overnight sleeper train brought us to Egypt’s southernmost city Aswan, which runs along the infamous Nile River. The waterfront promenade here is delightful to stroll along at dusk, with many opportunities to stop for a refreshing mint tea.
Aswan is also the gateway to stunning Abu Simbel, another of Egypt’s most memorable sights. Two massive rock temples built into a mountainside by Ramses II, this sight dates back to 1300BC. Located in close proximity to the Sudan border, all tourist buses wanting to visit this sacred site were required to leave before sunrise and had to be escorted by a small army of police and military vehicles…
Eye-opening experience aside, the gigantic Ramses statues guarding the Great Temple at Abu Simbel was one for the memory bank. My favourite learning from this site was that the temple was created in such a way that on two days of the year (King Ramses II’s birthday and his coronation day), the light would shine into the inner sanctuary and light up three of the inside statues seated on a bench, leaving only Ptah, the God of Darkness in the shadows. Eerie!
One experience we were really looking forward to was boarding an iconic traditional Egyptian sail boat (known as a felucca) and setting sail down the Nile River. We were blessed with a warm sunny day, and a nice strong wind which helped to steer the wooden boat on a steady path. The sailing crew were fantastic, providing us with hearty meals and some sneaky beers! I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to watch the sun set on the Nile, to then be topped off with sleeping under the stars. Magical!
Our sailing trip lead us to the city of Luxor, which is home to the magnificent Karnak Temple, one of the world’s most celebrated temple complexes. Built over 2000 years ago, this house of the Gods is made up of many impressive obelisks spread out over many vast avenues.
Luxor would have to be most visited due to the popular Valley of the Kings. Over 60 tombs of well known pharoahs (including Tutankhamun) are buried under the rolling dry hills here, some with such grandeur and intricate details. The most amazing part about these tombs is how beautifully preserved they are and how colourfully visible the ancient hieroglyphics are after 3000 years. The Temple of Queen Hatshepsut (one of Egypt’s greatest Queens) is another highlight in this area, set high against the cliffs creating a grand natural amphitheater.
After many busy days exploring temples and ancient sites, we were glad for another beach retreat. The vibrant seaside town of Hurghada brought us back to the glittering blue waters of the Red Sea, and some more tasty seafood. A boat trip out to the private island of Mahmya for some sun & snorkelling was exactly what the tired travellers needed. Pure bliss!
A short flight had us back to Cairo for an afternoon at the local bazaar (Khan el-Khalili). Khan is one of the biggest and oldest markets in the world, a labyrinth of narrow streets and passageways full of spices, gold, perfumes, textiles and beautiful old books. A quintessential Cairo experience! We also ducked in for a peek at the Hanging Church, Cairo’s most famous Coptic Christian church. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it is one of the oldest churches in Egypt with parts dating back to the 8th century!
Our final destination in Egypt was the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria. The waterfront promenade (corniche) here was another beautiful stroll, as was the view from our waterfront boutique hotel. The lighthouse in the port was actually one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, showcasing the importance of this flourishing city since it’s creation in 331 BC.
Another military escort led our tour bus west to the border of Libya where the El Alamein war museum is located. The area played an important role in WW2, highlighted by Winston Churchill’s famous quote, “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.” A sobering morning spent wandering through the vast memorial site where many Australian and New Zealand troops lost their lives in battle.
A quick stop to the beautiful and strikingly modern Bibliotheca, holding over 8 million books, a last Egyptian meal of seafood (or camel or pidgeon for those feeling more game!) and our journey through the Middle East came to a halt. I cannot recommend enough a visit to these two incredible countries! Armed with an open mind, a sensitivity to local customs, an appreciation for ancient wonders and a respect for religion, an eye-opening experience awaits..