Buvette Masthead

The magnificent Middle East: one for the bucket list

Josephine Walsh

A lot of my friends did more than raise their eyebrows when I told them I was going to Israel.

My family were pretty nervous when I told them I was going to Jordan, and the main question I got when I told people I was going to Lebanon was ‘Why?!’

There are plenty of negative stereotypes about the Middle East: it’s highly unsafe (especially for women), the language and cultural barriers are insurmountable, and it’s just a boiling hot place with not much to see. My experiences travelling to Lebanon, Jordan and Israel couldn’t be further from these misconceptions.

The Middle East is a must if you love culturally vibrant travel.

The Middle East is an ancient landscape bursting at the seams with culture and history. A cradle of civilisations, it’s also where I’ve experienced some of the most wonderful hospitality, delicious cuisine and breath-taking natural beauty in the world.

To provide some context, I am no stranger to travel. I travelled to Lebanon with my husband in November 2016 to visit a friend (the travel advice was the same as it is currently), and we stayed in Beirut, Tyre and visited Byblos. I went by myself to Jordan in September this year where I joined a small group tour which covered Amman, the Dead Sea, Petra, Wadi Rum and Madabah. After Jordan, I went to Israel for a week where I explored Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on my own, and I also did a short day-tour which ventured out to Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea.

Sure, there were times when it was personally challenging, and there were instances of culture shock. But I’d argue that this can happen anywhere you travel, whether it’s glimpsing the poverty in Fiji, getting heckled at a restaurant in Rome or being hyper-aware of the heightened security presence in Paris.

I felt safe during my time in the Middle East, and it’s gifted me with my most rewarding and profound travel experiences. I’m not claiming to be an expert on the complex political situations in the region, and you should definitely refer to travel advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and do your research. However, as long as you’re well-informed, respectful and aware of your surroundings, the media hype shouldn’t deter you from travelling to this magnificent region, especially if you’re a solo female traveller.

Here are some reasons why I absolutely adore the Middle East based on my time in Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.

The natural beauty is breath-taking

I can honestly say that Jordan possesses some of the most beautiful and unique landscapes in the world. Obvious highlights were glimpsing the Treasury building for the first time, watching shooting stars soar across a dazzling night sky whilst lying on camp mattresses in the desert of Wadi Rum, and staring down vast rocky valleys towards the Dead Sea.

The Martian-like desert of Wadi Rum in Jordan.

If you’re lucky enough to have dipped in the Mediterranean whilst in Europe, it’s a completely different experience in Israel. Tel Aviv’s beaches are the verandah to the city’s buzzing nightclub, market and cultural scene, and are well-loved by locals and tourists alike. Ein Gedi is a natural wonder, a tropical oasis in the heart of the desert, and is just a few hours’ drive from Jerusalem.

The ancient Phoenician city of Tyre, a few hours south of Beirut, is a picturesque town set on a glorious coastline, where on a clear day you can glimpse Israel. Here you can wander through ancient Roman ruins, including a massive Roman hippodrome, one of the largest in the world. Some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen were from Beirut, which prior to the civil war, was referred to as the ‘Paris of the Middle-East’ due to its French architecture and thriving cosmopolitan vibe.

The Necropolis of El Bass in Tyre, Lebanon, The city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its ancient historical importance and significant archaeological remains from Roman times.

There’s so, so much more to the cultural landscape than what you read in the headlines

You don’t have to look far for a glimpse into the complicated political and historical landscape of this region – it’s woven into the very fabric of the places and its people. The Middle East is a tapestry of threads weaving together local nomadic cultures, intense periods of foreign occupation, and several religions which were literally born here.

Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque in Beirut, Lebanon.

Byblos, just north of Beirut, holds claim to being one of the oldest cities in the world. Continuously occupied since 5000 BC, at the Byblos Castle you can actually peel back the layers of this ancient city to glimpse Ancient Neolithic pottery, Egyptian, Assyrian, Hellenistic and Greco-Roman archaeological remains and evidence of Crusader, Mamluk and Ottaman occupation. Walking through the ancient Nabatean city of Petra is one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had, and was so much more pleasant due to the lack of bustling crowds and large tour groups. I got up at 3:30am in the morning to hike the cliffs of ancient Masada, and watch the sunrise from the fortified palace of King Herod the Great, as well as battled the crowds at the Jerusalem Old City to watch people praying at the marble slab where Jesus’ body was laid.

Masada is an ancient fortress in Israel’s Judean Desert which dates back to 30 B.C.

You can take tours or read about the history and the politics of this region to get a handle on it. But the moments that will leave a mark on you are the lived experiences. My Palestinian taxi driver in Jerusalem showed me his Jordanian ‘travel document’ because he is not eligible for a passport in his own country. I stood on bullet-marked Hamra Street listening to church bells ringing and the calls to prayer from several nearby mosques, whilst guards watched over the busy street with rifles over their shoulder. My Jordanian tour guide told us about how when he was younger, he could fill up his car for less than a dollar, because Iraqi oil was so cheap under Saddam Hussein.

Sure, I don’t agree with many things that happen in the Middle East. But that’s also how I feel about the United States, Europe and even Australia. Only by learning about and experiencing different viewpoints can we understand them, and build a more tolerant society.

The food is fit for kings, and the hospitality unparalleled

The culinary offering in the Middle East is insane, and there is so much more to stuff your face with than kebabs and hummus. Food is a way to bring friends and family together, and I was surprised by the warmth of the hospitality I experienced during my travels.

The Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem is one of the liveliest in the city, and has a thriving nightlife center alongside over 250 local vendors.

Beirut is home to thriving food and nightlife scenes. I loved experiencing Armenian cuisine, like spiced meatballs, fried meat dumplings and savoury pastries. There are also a huge number of places where you enjoy traditional Lebanese food, and the markets (known as shuk or souks) are a great way to get amongst the hustle and bustle of a city and experience local flavours.

On my first day in Tel Aviv, I wandered into modern Israeli streetfood café Miznon, where after telling the friendly barman this was my first meal in Israel, the entire kitchen completely lost their minds and started pouring free arak shots (arak is a rocket-fuel spirit like sambucca, and each country in the Middle East has their own variation). They welcomed me to the city and gave me a free and fabulous pita bread stuffed with delicious lima beans, hummus and roasted cauliflower.

Shakshuka is a popular Middle Eastern dish of deliciously seasoned baked eggs, often served with a fresh salad and flatbread.

In Petra, a local family cooked our tour group a divine meal of maqluba, a divine upside-down dish of flavoured rice, fried vegetables and chicken, served with yogurt and Arab salad. It was a truly special experience to sit in the living room with complete strangers and eat a lovingly home cooked meal whilst we talked with this local family through our tour guide.

By plunging head-first into cultures that differ significantly from our own, in discovering the reality and nuances of religious ideology and practice, in making new friends and fleeting acquaintances with people we would never normally encounter, I believe we gain genuine insight into how we have more in common with other people than we realise.

There is no better place than to do this than the Middle East.

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Josephine Walsh

Jose Walsh is a digital communications specialist who also runs her own blog, mapleandmabel.com. She has a passion for museums and the arts, a deep love of travel and more shoes than sense. Having worked in museums for the past seven years, she loves finding new ways to connect people with their cultural institutions. She loves meeting new people, hunting for a decent espresso, and planning her next adventure. More about the Author