The news media doesn’t paint a particularly flattering picture of the Middle East. But ask anyone who’s explored the incredible temples and tombs of Luxor, navigated the labyrinthine alleys of Marrakech’s intoxicating Medina or bobbed serenely in the waters of the otherworldly Dead Sea and you’ll hear an entirely different story. This month we debunk some of the myths about one of the world’s most misunderstood regions.
First things first, the pyramids of Giza (and the nearby Great Sphinx) are among the most awe-inspiring and fascinating sights on the planet, and they should be on everyone’s bucket list. The ochre dunes of the Sahara (Egypt and Morocco) and Wadi Rum (Jordan) deserts also have to be experienced to be believed. But there is loads more to these three countries than pyramids and sand dunes.
Due to its high salt content, people can float easily on the surface of the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is nearly 10 times saltier than the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
The temples and tombs of Luxor, in Egypt, are often described as “the world’s greatest open-air museum” and there are few experiences as romantic as cruising down the River Nile like a character from an Agatha Christie novel. The Red Sea, meanwhile, boasts gorgeous beaches – and some of the best SCUBA diving and snorkeling on the planet.
The 2,300-year-old ruins of Petra in Jordan are another absolute must-see for anyone who has even a passing interest in the history of human civilization. Floating in the super-saline waters of the Dead Sea is also hard to beat. And Jordan has Roman Ruins, too.
While Morocco does boast some incredible Roman and North African ruins, not to mention a particularly evocative slice of the Sahara, the country is best known for its bustling and intoxicating towns and cities where life goes in much the same way as it has done for centuries. From the maze-like Medina (old walled town) of Marrakesh, through to the magnificent mosaics of Meknes and the stupendous souqs (markets) of Fez, Morocco is a culture vulture’s delight.
Marrakech holds some astonishing historical sites, such as the Menara Gardens first established in the 12th century.
We understand that some folks enjoy feeling at least a little at home when they travel. While it’s true that the Middle East is predominantly Muslim and that the overwhelming majority of people speak Arabic, the region is also the birthplace of Western religion and it has a fairly recent colonial history so English (or, in Morocco, French) is widely spoken.
Between 10 and 15% of Egyptians identify as Christian and – thanks to 80 years as a British colony – almost all educated people in Egypt speak fairly decent English. Jordan boasts one of the oldest Christian communities in the world: numbering around half a million people, they coexist happily with the rest of the population, much as they have done for thousands of years. Jordan also endured a period of British rule and English remains widely spoken – in fact it’s a compulsory subject for all high school students. Morocco has a tiny Christian population, but the impact of French colonialism lives on. Not only via the fact that French remains a lingua franca, but also in the country’s cuisine, art, and architecture.
When going on tours and excursions (such as the beautiful Karnak Temple above), we provide local English-speaking guides that showcase each site with their passion and expertise to their visitors.
Don’t get us wrong. Some parts of the Middle East and North Africa are dangerous – too dangerous for our liking. While we’d love to be able to take guests to Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, the sad reality is that these countries will likely remain off most travelers’ radars for some time to come.
But to characterize the entire region as unsafe is a gross exaggeration. The United Arab Emirates, for example, was recently ranked the second-safest country in the world! The U.S. Department of State lists both Jordan and Morocco as Level 2 risks – the same ranking as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Egypt is ranked one notch higher but this is “due to the Embassy’s limited ability to assist dual national U.S.-Egyptian citizens who are arrested or detained.”
Of course things can go wrong when you travel; but things can also go wrong at home. We work with trusted local providers who’ve been showing tourists around their home countries for decades. Your safety is their number one priority, and they will always err on the side of caution.
The guides aren’t the only locals you’ll get to know!
When it comes to gender equality, there’s no denying that Middle Eastern countries tend to rank towards the bottom of the Global Gender Gap Index, and that some nations like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia have abysmal records when it comes to women’s rights. While some of the customs in Middle Eastern countries may shock or surprise Western women, it’s no more dangerous for women than many other parts of the world.
This fascinating article points out that the problems Western feminists are most concerned with are generally different from those facing Middle Eastern feminists. Islamic law has always given women full legal capacity once they attain puberty: even in medieval times Muslim women enjoyed the right to own and manage property, to sue and to be sued, and to enter into contracts and conduct business. Generally, Middle Eastern women enjoy something close to legal equality with men in political life, access to education, professional opportunities, and salaries.
In contrast, Middle Eastern women have been severely disadvantaged in the areas of family law and inheritance. Here women are accorded fewer rights than men and are subordinated to male authority. While women can only have one husband, men can have multiple wives. Child and forced marriages are common. And divorces are notoriously hard to come by.
If you’re still concerned about visiting the region, you can rest assured that SA Expeditions will take every precaution to ensure that your Middle Eastern experience is as safe and seamless as possible. Upon arrival you’ll be met at the airport and taken directly to your accommodations. Once you’ve settled in, your local expert guide will be with you every step of the way to make sure you experience the best the Middle East has to offer in comfort and style.
Granted, the Middle East gets pretty sweltering in the summer months. But some parts get decidedly chilly in winter. And spring and fall enjoy remarkably pleasant temperatures across the region. Add to this the fact that the region sees very little rain and you have a rather appealing climate for travel.
Taroudant, Morocco is a gorgeous ancient walled city located right at the base of the snowcapped Atlas Mountains.
The best time to visit Egypt is between October and April when temperatures are moderate, but you’re still guaranteed sun. During spring and fall, daytime temperatures will reach 77-86°F – but you should pack some warm clothes for the evenings.
The best times to visit Morocco and Jordan are fall (September-November) and spring (March-May). We all know about the summer sun, but it can get bitterly cold in the desert areas in winter (snow is common in both countries).
We hope that this journal entry has soothed some of your worries about visiting the Middle East, and left you dreaming of a bucket-list adventure to this exotic and mesmerizing region. Please check out our most popular Middle East itineraries here. Or reach out to one of our Destination Experts about crafting a bespoke Middle Eastern odyssey that’s tailored to your needs and interests.