This is a great country to visit, with a huge amount of history and incredible scenery, not to mention the beaches and sophisticated ports.
Read about my Turkish travels:
As well as being the most famous city in Turkey, (though not the capital), Istanbul is the world’s only city spanning two continents. Istanbul is Turkey’s link to Asia, straddling the Bosphorus Strait, which links the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea. With 15 million inhabitants Istanbul is the largest city in Europe and home to 19% of the population of Turkey. Well that’s what Wikipedia says. Taxi driver Volcan tells me it’s home to 30 million, which is half the population of Turkey. Take your pick.
Istanbul is a relatively recent name for this huge city, as far as the rest of the world is concerned. (It was previously incarnated as Byzantium and then Constantinople). Although Istanbul was usually referred to using this name by the Ottomans. It’s Greek, literally for ‘to the city.’ This ancient city was founded as Byzantion by Megarian Greek colonists in the seventh century BC. It was renamed by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, first as New Rome (Nova Roma) in 330 AD. Then megalomania set in and he changed the name to Constantinople (Constantinopolis). The city flourished, with its strategic location between the Mediterranean and Asia and the Silk Road.
The city served as the imperial capital for almost sixteen centuries: Roman/Byzantine Empires followed by the Ottoman empire. In 1923, after the Turkish War of Independence, Ankara replaced the city as the capital of the newly formed Republic of Turkey. In 1930, the city's name was officially changed to Istanbul.
Given its history and several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it’s unsurprising that Istanbul is the world's eighth most visited city. As you would expect, this is a vibrant and multi-faceted city. I’ve also got to know it quite well, in my imagination, by reading Barbara Nadel’s fascinating Inspector Ikmen mystery series, nearly all set in Istanbul. In reality, this is my second visit to Istanbul. The first time was as part of a tour around Anatolia. Now I have a few days to wander and revisit the sights.
My hotel is a timber Ottoman mansion house, ideally located in the narrow cobbled streets of the old old town, on the European side. This area goes back 4,000 years. (The old town to the west is only 300 years old.) Non negotiables here line the refurbished (it’s ongoing) Sultanahmet Square area. This, as a whole, is a UNESCO site.
I'm having a late breakfast on my hotel roof terrace, overlooking the mouth of the Bosphorus, seagulls my steadfast and hopeful companions. It’s like being in Brighton. Ships wafting across the water. The magnificent Blue Mosque filling the window to my right. Sadly, it’s cloudy. Even the birds are shivering. I just had my PCR for the next part of my trip to Azerbaijan. Baku. The doctor comes to the hotel for 18 dollars. Very civilised.
The staff are ultra polite and friendly. The room is filled with dark wooden furniture and the walls decorated with 1930s style flower strewn wallpaper. The stairs reek. I thought it was drains at first, but now I’ve decided it’s Turkish tobacco.
The official name of the iconic Blue Mosque is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and it’s an Ottoman era (1616) still functioning mosque. Hand-painted blue tiles adorn it's interior walls, and at night the mosque is bathed in blue as lights framing the mosque’s five main domes, six minarets and eight secondary domes.
Next in line, the enormous Hagia Sofia. For 900 years this was the greatest church known to Christendom. It was built by the eastern Roman emperor Justinian I, as the state church of the Roman Empire in 537. It was considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture, then the world's largest interior space and amongst the first churches to employ a fully pendentive dome. Hagia Sophia became the model for Orthodox church form, and its architectural style was copied by Ottoman mosques a thousand years later.
The Ottomans rededicated Hagia Sofia as a mosque, for a time, but it was replaced by the Blue Mosque. In the time of Ataturk, it became a museum. But it’s now a mosque again. It’s huge and crowded.
North of these two famous mosques is the opulent Topkapi Palace Museum (next to the archaeology museum). There’s some gorgeous intricate decoration and tile work in the four remaining courtyards that form the main structure. In addition, plenty of interesting and evocative explanation: the Grand Vizier’s Reception Room, the Hall of Eunuchs. The Room of Circumcision. During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, there were 1,000 women living in 250 rooms of the harem here. It was the home of the Ottoman sultans from the early times of the empire, though later sultans preferred the lower slopes of the Bosphorus.
There’s much more to see in this historic Sultanahmet area. Ruins of towers, columns crumbling walls and half buried mosaics lurk round very corner. And there are also the views of the boats and bridges across to Asia. South west of the Haghia Sofia is the impressive sixth century (floodlit) Sunken Palace cistern. (This is the largest of several Istanbul cisterns and was built by Justinian). It’s atmospherically lit and the water levels low, so that tourists can access it without getting soaked. But not during the time of Covid.
Volcan takes me to see a section of the walls of Constantine, which used to enclose the whole of the old city. They have crumbled in parts, or been removed to make way for other building works, but there are still sections with towers, gates and 12 metre high defences. They succeed in keeping Istanbul safe until the ottomans breached them, finally. It took them two months. Volcan says that this is the second longest wall in the world after The Great Wall of China. That comes in at 13,000 miles and Istanbul’s’ walls are currently three and half miles long. I think that is another piece of information open to challenge. Even Hadrian’s Wall is 73 miles long.
A favourite stop in the Fatih district (more than once) is the labyrinth that is the Grand Bazaar, with its tempting glass lamps and pyramids of bright ceramics. It's said to be the world’s largest covered market, with 64 streets, 4,000 shops, and 25,000 workers. It’s much too easy to get lost once you’ve wandered though one of the many stone gateways and GPS inside is hopeless. I have to resort to finding someone who can speak English when I want to navigate my way out.
But, even more compulsive, is the surrounding warren of open stalls and booths that spill down the slopes to the north. Textiles, clothes, (mannequins which are just heads or only bodies), carpets, jewellery, Turkish delight piled high and slabs of cheese. Stacks of roast corn on the cob and chestnuts dipped in chocolate. Boys in braided jackets stirring deep tubs of ice cream. This is where the Turks do their shopping. It's an absolutely huge area in all, utterly chaotic, frantic and fascinating
They lead, eventually to the cavernous (it seems that very little here is small) and vibrant spice bazaar, the Misir Carsisi. Visible from the bottom of the slope several more mosques – their minarets slicing proudly through the horizon. There’s the New Mosque, built in 1665! And the largest of them all, built on a third hill, the Suleymaniye Mosque, another classic Ottoman design.
Beyond this, the Golden Horn, the grandly named estuary of the Bosphorus that separates the old city in Fatih from the northern districts on the European side – Beyoglu and then Beksitas of Football fame. Galatasaray is a little further on.. The main crossing is the ugly grey two tier Galata Bridge, which skims the water. It’s lined with seafood cafes along the bottom and crammed with men wielding fishing rods above. Though I’m not sure there’s much connection between the two.
Another slog up steep steps, (Istanbul’s built on a lot of hills,) is the Galata Tower. It was a watchtower for the old Galata quarter, which was surrounded by walls. It’s a well-known landmark, visible from Sultanahmet and a symbol of Istanbul. You can climb it, if you don’t mind still more stairs and the long queue.
North, past even more juice bars, restaurants and small shops to Istiklal Caddesi. This is Istanbul’s Oxford Street. But Istiklal is pedestrianised, the long lines of plate glass shop fronts sitting beneath restored Ottoman houses. It’s heaving and there are buskers and street dancing to distract the crowds from their shopping. It wends its way up to Taksim (Independence Square), weaving past churches, mosques and other buildings of note, as does the nostalgically old-fashioned tram, which runs through the middle. And it’s a long walk from my hotel. Thankfully, there are plenty of eating places there to choose from.
The Bosphorus is the hugely important, narrow, natural strait that connects the Black Sea (and the countries bordering it, which includes Russia) with the Sea of Marmara, and, by extension, via the Dardanelles, the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. It's an international waterway just 700 metres wide and 31 kilometres in length. And it forms part of the continental boundary between Asia and Europe, dividing Turkey by separating Anatolia from Thrace.
The idea of a bridge crossing the Bosphorus and linking Asia and Europe isn’t new. Darius the Great suggested it (according to Herodotus). Mandrocles of Samos once engineered a pontoon bridge across the Bosphorus, enabling Darius to pursue the fleeing Scythians and position his army in the Balkans to overwhelm Macedon. Leonardo da Vinci actually submitted plans to build a suspension bridge across the straits in 1503. But the first Bosphorus Bridge proper wasn’t actually constructed until 1973. There’s a Welcome to Asia sign.
I’m exploring the Anatolian side with Alex from Moscow, Tonya from Ukraine (they’re together) and taxi driver Volcan, who has put a trip together for us. We’re hugging the edge of the Bosphorus, en route, though Beyoglu, passing numerous more mosques interspersed with Ottoman mansions and palaces. The sultan’s summer palace, the Beylerbeyi Palace, is a peeling pale pink edifice just below the Bosphorus Bridge, The traffic is terrible; it’s very slow going.
The Turkish parliamentary republic was replaced with a presidential system by referendum in 2017. Since then, the new Turkish governmental system under president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party, the AKP, has often been described as Islamist, divisive and authoritarian. People are cautious about what they say. Istanbul is not only the biggest city in Europe, it has the largest court house and the biggest jail. Nevertheless, Turkey’s economy, is now the twentieth-largest in the world by nominal GDP, and the eleventh-largest by PPP. President Erdogan has a new palace up one of the hills here. We creep past it to the summit of the highest hill in Istanbul. It’s also the bearer of the largest Turkish flag. There are commonplace, fluttering on various hilltops.
On top, there’s a grand, if cloudy, view of both the European and Asian sides of the city. The Bosphorus winds beneath us, the Black Sea just out of sight to the north. I've discovered there are 3,113 mosques in Istanbul. I'm not surprised. The largest and newest is out here at Uskedar. The Grand Çamlıca Mosque was completed and opened in March 2019. It cost ten million USD to build.
Sweet apple tea to warm up. And a lokum (Turkish delight) shop, massively overcharging unwary tourists delivered here by their guides. I didn’t price it up properly beforehand. Rookie error. Nevertheless, the pomegranate and pistachio flavour is delicious.
Back down to the Galata Bridge and a boat trip up the Bosphorus, to the second bridge. (there are now three bridges and two tunnels). We get to see the exquisite facades of all the Ottoman mansions and mosques we’ve driven past earlier and another fort. Mostly, from inside the boat. It's decidedly nippy on deck.
Breakfast food is a little surprising . I haven’t exactly got what I ordered. I was given a very long list of items to place ticks against and I ordered omelette with cheese and mushrooms and a side of fried potatoes. I’ve got plain omelette with sliced luncheon meat.
With its café culture, Istanbul is also a great place for Turkish mezze and kebabs, meatballs (kofte) tender marinated meat, sesame sprinkled pide (thin Turkish Cornish pasties or calzone) and the salty yoghurt drink called ayran. Some say that that their cooking is second only to French. The Turks boast that it's the best in the world. It is very good, but it's largely meat based. and eggplant features heavily. I don’t think I will be squaring up to aubergines again for a while after this visit.
Next up, Baku and Nagorno Karabakh.
(Read more about Turkey here.)
Saudi Arabia, officially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), has been on the bucket list for a long time. Until very recently, it was only possible to visit on a business visa. And women weren’t allowed to drive or travel unaccompanied. Tourist visas were finally issued in 2020 and the dress rules relaxed. Women given a little more freedom. And then came the Time of Covid, when all the visas were withdrawn. It’s now open again and I’m lucky enough to be one of the first official tourists to visit. Though I'm also apprehensive. This country has one of the worst human rights records in the world.
The area that is modern-day Saudi Arabia formerly consisted of mainly four distinct historical regions: Hejaz, Najd and parts of Eastern Arabia (Al-Ahsa) and Southern Arabia. They were united by King Abdul-Aziz of the House of Saudi, in 1932. Saudi Arabia has since been an absolute monarchy, effectively a hereditary dictatorship, governed along Islamist lines.
Saudi Arabia spans the vast majority of the Arabian Peninsula. It is the biggest country in the Middle East, and the second-largest country in the Arab world (after Algeria). But most of its terrain consists of inhospitable arid desert, generally best avoided.
The new tourist e-visa is fairly easily acquired. It turns up almost as soon as I’ve completed the online form and paid my money. The cost now includes mandatory Covid cover insurance. It’s also compulsory to register vaccination status on the Muqeem Portal and download the Tawakkalna App which captures this status, tracks you and is a required passport to enter many buildings.
These two are a little more problematic, Google Chrome thoughtfully translates the Muqeem Arabic into English for me. Except it’s not very accurate. The page is reversed – vaccinated visitor becomes 'dungeon visitor' and Jeddah (port of entry) becomes 'grandmother'. I revert to Firefox and manage to progress as required.
I’m stared at relentlessly on my flight from Bahrain, hair uncovered. But the reception in immigration is fast and friendly and there’s no request to search my bags.
The Tawakkalna App can only be initiated properly on arrival. Which is fine, if your texts are switched on and the verification code arrives. Which mine doesn’t. It doesn't like foreign phone numbers. I borrow his number from the nice man on hotel reception.
I’ve met up with my tour group. There are seven of us. Married couple Andy and Andrea (she has a mischievous face and a very infectious giggle), art teacher Veronica, graphics designer Tony, ex chain of care homes owner Peter and veteran German traveller, Tom. Our doughty leader is Steve and our Arab guide is Emad.
Saudi Arabia is the only country with a coastline along both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf and Jeddah developed as a port on the Red Sea. As a result, it’s the most multicultural, least conservative city in the country. So it’s a good place to begin.
I'm expecting a walking tour of Jeddah, starting on the corniche. But the local motto is ‘Jeddah is different’ and so is our tour.
Much of the land here is reclaimed and there are huge stretches of building site littered with cranes. But the work is literally ongoing and our guide Emad can't find a way though. We drive relentlessly up and down six-lane highways, the sea tantalisingly out of reach. I have a stream of photos of sculptures on roundabouts.
I can see pedestrian walkways and a gaily patterned bicycle lane winding alongside the corniche. No-one is using them, but then it is very hot - 35 degrees and more. There are a plethora of modern Moorish/Spanish style block hotels and malls chock full of designer shops. Sometimes it looks more like Florida than the Middle East. I think we’ve passed a branch of every American and British chain I’ve ever heard of. The Saudi economy (based on oil but now expanding into investment – Disney, Newcastle United (!) etc ) is the largest in the Middle East and eighteenth-largest in the world.
Up north, we stop at a building site. This is where they are planning to construct Al Walid, the tallest tower in the world. At a kilometre high it will outreach the Burj Khalifa in Dubai by 200 metres. At the moment, we have to use our imaginations.
Back down south. We've been driving for an hour and a half now. Jeddah is sprawling, but it’s also a case of déjà vu, déjà vu, déjà vu. I've decided we must be rehearsing for the Saudi Grand Prix, which will be held for the first time, in Jeddah, in December. Finally, a stop at the white, so called Floating Mosque. It’s on reclaimed land, prettily situated on the bay, and will be passed 50 times, as the F1 drivers lap the corniche.
Then, more six lane highways, further south to the Central Fish Market, on the main harbour. For the most part, this is manned by grinning Bangladeshi workers in uniform. Blue for stallholders and red for those washing and gutting the catch.
The white slabs are covered in gleaming fish of all hues and sizes. Emad takes our orders and we troop into a restaurant to feast on our selection. Lobster, popcorn shrimp, hammour and nagine. It’s absolutely delicious. We're eating in a new category of dining room. The Men with Foreign Women room. Emad stands guard while we go to the toilet.
More engaging, is the old historic centre of Jeddah, called Al Balad. The mud brick and coral houses, with their wooden balconies and ornate decorations are unique. They're also teetering and bulging dangerously. I wonder how many have collapsed. Sadly, they are being systematically torn down and rebuilt in the style of the originals. The area is a sea of hoardings and rubble.
Some of the original houses are museums, with cases full of fifties bric a brac and portraits of the Royal family to explore. We have to wait for prayers to finish before we can go in. Strong mint tea to drink on the roof of a tea house, with a great view of the carnage. Then through the souq here, endless rows of modern glass fronted booths punctuated with mosques so old they’re ground floor is below street level.
Finally, the ethnographic Taibat Museum. Several floors of elaborately linked chambers with reconstructions of costumes and way of life from all areas of the country, even the Red Sea (lights, nets and stuffed fish). Pottery, artefacts and koranic texts. There are plenty of charming (if not exactly sophisticated) exhibits to see.
Emad points out the passing solo women in their cars. Women have only been allowed to drive for the last two years. Change is being expedited by the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MSB) and is reported to be happening fast. Too fast for some of the older generation Emad says. Saudi Arabia has one of the world's youngest populations, with approximately 50 per cent of its population of 34.2 million under 25 years old. Emad isn’t averse to moving with the times himself. He’s actually a heart and lung surgeon who has worked at hospitals in both London and the States. He’s now looking at a new career as a tour guide.
The world's second-largest religion, Islam, emerged in the area known today as Saudi Arabia. In the early seventh century, the Islamic prophet Muhammad united the population of Arabia and created a single Islamic religious polity. Following his death in 632, his followers rapidly expanded the territory under Muslim rule beyond Arabia, conquering huge and unprecedented swathes of territory (from the Iberian Peninsula in the West to modern-day Pakistan in the East) in a matter of decades.
Saudi Arabia is sometimes referred to as "The Land of the Two Holy Mosques" in reference to Al-Masjid al-Haram (in Mecca) and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (in Medina), the two holiest places in Islam. (Jerusalem is the third.) Mecca is reputedly the birthplace of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The Hira cave atop the Jabal al-Nur (Mountain of Light) is just outside the city and is where Muslims believe the Quran was first revealed to Muhammad.
The Masjid al-Haram, is home to the Ka'bah (House of God), believed by Muslims to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael. Pre Islam it contained a back meteorite believed to be mystical and other pagan idols, but it was rededicated by Muhammed. This is Islam's holiest site and the direction of prayer for all Muslims (qibla), cementing Mecca's significance in Islam. Unbelievers are not allowed to visit Mecca and until recently have not been able to go to Medina either. (This hasn't always deterred travellers. Richard Francis Burton was one of the first Europeans to visit Mecca while in disguise as a Pashtun.) We’re told that things have now changed and today we’re going to find out if this is true.
We’re on the Haramain high speed (shinkansen style) train. The train links Medina and Mecca and the name means Double Haram -Two Cities. It was built for the pilgrims – ceremonial Hajj and less onerous Umrah involve visits to both This is an obligation for all able Muslims.
The journey to Medina is uneventful. The train is fast, on time and there is little to be seen through the heavily shielded widows. Now, for some reason, we have a 50 seater coach to accommodate our tour group of seven. I’ve got four seats to spread out my belongings. Medina is another cream city on a muddy sand backdrop, with a few scattered mountains as a backdrop. More renovation works. More diversions. We’ve now done so many U turns I’ve named our coach The Boris Bus.
We’re circling the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi several times, until we’re positively giddy, The minarets are tantalisingly glimpsed through fences and down side streets, as the driver stops to ask about the best route. Eventually, we stop just outside the enclosure and peep through the fretwork. Headscarves definitely required here. Just to make sure I’ve added a black bandanna face mask and sunglasses. Leader Steve, kindly says I look terrifying.
There are gorgeous intricate canopies, numerous glittering pillars and, to one side, the green dome of the holy mosque that contains Mohammed’s body. Pilgrims stream in and out. ‘You’re the first foreigners I’ve seen here in 20 years,’ declaims a Pakistani guy. An excited Moroccan woman wants her picture taken with us. Sadly, the restaurants with views over the enclosure are closed, or so we’re told. But we’ve already seen more than I had expected.
Elsewhere, there are more diversions round construction and when we do arrive anywhere more often than not we have to wait whilst one of the mandatory prayer sessions finish. The Quba Mosque may be the first mosque in the world that dates to the lifetime of Muhammad in the seventh century. Its first stones were said to be positioned by Muhammad when he escaped from the city of Mecca. The escape in the year 622 AD is known as the hejira and is year 0 in the Islamic calendar. At that time Medina was known as Yathrib and was a Jewish settlement.
This mosque is believed to be where the first Friday prayer was held - led by Muhammad. According to Wikipedia, the Mosque of the Companions, which I saw in Massawa in Eritrea, is also a contender for oldest mosque. Whatever, Quba is an important and holy mosque. Offering prayers in the Quba Mosque is equivalent to performing one Umrah. After we’ve waited for prayers to finish (and Emad and the driver have disappeared to participate) we wander over the pigeon filled square to have a look We’re the first non Moslem visitors ever, it seems. The door guardians are happy to participate in photographs, to celebrate this event, but the younger of them is fervent in his opposition to our entry and cannot be persuaded to so much as let us peek inside.
So, we’re off to the Masjid al-Qiblatain or 'Mosque of the Two Qiblas', to try our luck again. This is believed to be the place where Muhammad received the command to change the Qibla (direction of prayer), from Jerusalem (as this is where Muhammed ascended to heaven) to Mecca. This mosque also dates back to ancient times. Sort of. It was built during the year 2 AH (623 AD), one of the few mosques in the world to have contained two mihrabs (niches indicating the qibla) in different directions. However, in 1987, during the reign of King Fahd, the mosque was completely torn down and rebuilt. The old prayer niche facing Jerusalem was removed, and the one facing Mecca was left.
We're hoping they will let us look inside here. But it’s shut. Maybe they’ve been warned we’re coming?
The young man at the Quba Mosque has followed us, filming our departure and then phoned the tourism authority to complain about foreigners hanging around. No-one seems quite sure what to do with tourists in Medina. Our scheduled visit to the museum about Muhammed is off. Only pilgrims allowed. So is our traditional dinner. We’ve been confined to barracks. The tourist police inquire when we are leaving and are told, ‘Tomorrow’.
'Good', they reply.
We chance our arm at one more stop on our way out of Medina. Uhud Mosque is built on the site of Muhammed’s second battle, against the Meccans (there were three). Adjacent is the Hill of the Archers,– a crucial part of the battle plan. The archers were supposed to cover the rear, but they deserted their posts in search of booty and Muhammed was severely wounded.
There is a graveyard (tombs here are unmarked), adorned with lists of rules and exhortations from the ultraconservative Wahhabi religious movement within Sunni Islam. Wahhabi has been described as a "predominant feature of Saudi culture", although the power of the religious establishment has been significantly eroded in recent years. Everyone is climbing the hill, for the view, even though the sign forbids it. A police car is circling, but we depart Medina without any further drama.
The desert road, the old Incense Route, leads north through anthracite coloured rocky dunes and low mountain ranges – this is volcanic territory. First stop is a Hejaz Railway station. This Ottoman railway, was built to bring pilgrims from as far away as Syria and is famous for T. E. Lawrence’s sabotage attempts. Together with local tribesmen, he succeeded in disrupting services several times. I’m playing the Lawrence of Arabia them of course.
The station is fenced off, but there’s a hole in the netting just big enough to crawl through. There are reconstructed wooden carriages attached to an old locomotive. And no-one appears to castigate us. On our perambulations round Medina we stopped at the terminus. Naturally, the museum there was closed for renovation.
Driver Omar is Syrian and is bemused by us tourists and the long route. His usual job is ferrying pilgrims on Umrah. He is not averse to long telephone conversations while he’s driving the wrong way and struggling with Google and Emad’s directions. He amuses himself the rest of the time by eating sunflower seeds, spitting or flicking the shells onto the coach floor.
Lunch is at Khaybar, a small desert town in a fast food meets traditional Arab joint, called King Camel. It’s plate glass, metal railings and shiny scarlet carpet. It has ordering booths a la McDonalds. But we sit traditional style on the red plush and the food is placed on the floor on huge platters. Tender camel meat in a pilaff, and the usual dips and salads. And a chef cooking sweet and creamy rosewater soaked kanafa over flames. Our welcome from the local people continues to be both astonished and friendly. Steve is bemused and very touched to be given a watch by a young man insistent on rewarding him for bringing tourists to the country.
Khaybar was the scene of another ancient battle, this time between the Jews, who had introduced agriculture and ran the local date palmerie and the Moslems, led by Muhammed. The Jewish community were beaten and forced to agree to hand over half their annual profits. They were eventually totally ousted. We drive to see the old village on the site of the battlefield. A policeman arrives and tells us we cannot go in as the buildings are being renovated. There is no sign of any activity.
Plan B is to search out a viewpoint of the battlefield and the ruins of the Jewish Khaybar Fort, but Google fails to do the job again. After driving across rocky lava strewn desert for some time and past the ruined village three times it is agreed that we should give up and depart for our final destination, Al Ula.
The sun has set when we arrive at the Shaden Desert Resort, but the illuminated formations in the gorge are a stunning welcome. The hotel spills along the narrow chasms - my home is a luxurious mock Bedouin tent. There’s also a sundeck and swimming pool. Men only. Grrrr.
The territory that now constitutes Saudi Arabia was the site of several ancient cultures and civilizations. The prehistory of Saudi Arabia shows some of the earliest traces of human activity in the world. AlUla is a good place to start looking. However, The Royal Commission has taken over tourism in the AlUla area and the itinerary is changing almost literally minute by minute. Emails are flying into Emad’s phone. Steve flinches every time it pings.
This morning is billed as an exhilarating 4 WD ride through the canyons of the desert. Sure enough, we pile into Toyota Landcruisers. They’ve been restored and all the upholstery is covered with flapping plastic. And we proceed at leisurely pace. A stop for coffee by the road first. There is a little sedate off-roading to take in some more incredible rock formations. Mesas, buttes and hoodoos abound. Strung together like huge lines of pudding, dripping with sticky toffee. The highlight is The Rainbow, an arch that frames the landscape beautifully. The best view involves a scramble up some steep slopes and an inelegant slide down some shale. Then some more coffee.
A gap in a pair of giant rock pillars guarding the road. It’s explained that a large camel belonging to one of the prophets on an expedition attempted to pass through the original narrow gap, which widened to allow passage. The poor animal was still ungratefully slaughtered for meat.
Then, an oasis farm and café with the usual Arab lounging area, the unusually spicy Arab coffee and dates of course. The owner has connections with the royal family and is wealthy enough to have her own menagerie as an added attraction. There are peacocks, bantams, a giant tortoise (relatively young at 38), goats, gazelles (just about visible with binoculars) and ostriches. We’re told that another pen adjacent to the ostriches contains Australian ostriches. They look like emus to me.
And another café. This one is reached via a siq, a long chimney schism in the rock like the one at Petra. There’s a sandy opening, surrounded by sheer rock face and yet more divans.
And now it’s lunch. A palmerie, The Authentic Place, still more divans and carpets and succulent spicy chicken under the shade of the tall palms, the leaves cross-crossed above us. It would be a very pleasant place for a snooze before our planned stroll through the oasis. (What some exercise?). But the phone has pinged again. We’re going to the ruins of Dadan.
The cars take us back to the coach. The coach takes us to the ticket booth at the Winter Park. Then, we have to get on the official tourist bus to the Dedan ruins - ‘A Journey in Time’.( Well, it doesn’t go for 45 minutes.) The commission are determined to provide the ultimate tourist experience. Take it or leave it.
I decide to go back to our coach to fetch my laptop and write up today’s experiences whilst I’m waiting. ‘Knock on the back of the bus to wake up Omar’, instructs Steve. So I do. Except it’s the wrong bus and the wrong driver. When I do track him down, Omar is having a party on his own in our coach. Cooking on his gas stove, platters of dates and sweetmeats, smoking his shisha.
At least the wait gives us time to admire the rock formations. There are plenty of tall thin towers around this spot. Andrea suggests we produce a coffee table book called Phalluses of Saudi Arabia.
Eventually arriving at Dedan we get to look at rock tombs from a great distance. The lion tombs are those belonging to the VIPs. We transfer to another bus then, to view what I think is called a sink. I haven’t a clue. The explanation is incoherent and indistinct. From an even greater distance. It's dusk and hardly anything is visible now.
Then a bus journey of about 100 metres back to the entrance to Dedan. The guide (or rawi) suggests looking for more information on Goggle. So Google now has a new name. and this is what I’ve done.
‘Dedan was an ancient oasis city that was once the capital of one the oldest kingdoms of Arabia. It benefited from its strategic location along the ancient frankincense trade road between ancient Yemen and the Levant and the abundant underground water resources.
The historical importance of Dedan and the Dedanites goes back to the early 2nd millennium BC through the time of the Madianites, Dedan then became the capital of the Lihyan peoples between the mid-5th century BCE and the mid-4th century BCE (dates are still being debated by scholars). Although the Lihyanite kingdom took over the power in north-western Arabia they continued using the Dadanic script and language.'
I’m told that dwellings built more than 2 000 years are now visible. There’s the remains of a palace and temples. Monumental statues four metres high. I'm unable to confirm this.
Yet another bus to the “open library” of inscriptions in the rocks at Jabal Ikmah dating back as far as 1000 BC. Except it's dark now and we can’t see anything at all when we’ve clambered up the (many) steps. People are waving their phone torches around desperately. This is the only time each day they offer this tour at the moment. Mad.
I’ve read that Elephant Rock is iconic. I’ve been promised a visit there all day. It’s best at night I’m told. There are lots of little cafes and it’s lit up. We finally arrive and our entrance is barred. It's closed for renovations. It’s just too frustrating for words.
I peep over the fence from the height of our coach…and that’s it.
I've been told to be ready outside my tent with my bags to be picked up by the golf buggy that goes between the tents and reception /restaurant. Naturally, it’s 15 minutes late. I've decided to dub this The Sit Around in Saudi Tour. Today, we're visiting Mada'in Saleh or Hegra, the first UNESCO heritage site designated in Saudi Arabia. It’s a Nabataean city, sister to Petra in Jordan. The Nabatean kingdom filled the gap between the Dedanites and the Romans, presiding over the Incense Route. A bus to the Hegra site. Another Journey In Time coach. We have to sit on it for over half an hour before it goes. 25 minutes to get to the site.
Then another bus round Hegra. First stop is another siq at Jabal Ithlib. The sun lights the path just once a day giving rise to a so called mystical path. Close by is the Diwan, a meeting room in the rock - a place which hosted sumptuous banquets.
There are nearly 100 tombs to follow. We get a close up view of 18 of these at Jabal Al Ahmar. They have intricately carved entrances decorated with birds flowers and lions. Some of the eagles and urns are peppered with bullet holes. The Islamic extremists objected to the depiction of animal life. And others were just hopeful that there was gold in them there urns. They were disappointed.
The grand-daddy tomb further on is the isolated and unfinished monolith that is the burial place of Lihyan, Son of Kuza. It’s sometimes referred to as the Lonely Castle and it features on all the posters. We troop around the canyons and rock faces. There's filming going on in front of one of the important tombs. We're forbidden to go there. But that's the only thing ruled out so far So we're doing quite well today. And it's a glorious setting presided over by a string of stunning hoodoos.
Things have been going too splendidly. Emad is persuaded to abandon Tik Tok and phone around to find us somewhere to eat in AlUla. We follow a guide to the chosen restaurant to find a closed sign. We wonder who Emad called. Eventually, another traditional café is identified and we make our repast - chicken and rice (khabsa).
A stroll around the very newly renovated Old Town next. The main street is a string of modern stalls and cafes, with an Arab vibe. There's even a Dunkin Donuts. They front the 900 or so traditional Adobe dwellings that were old AlUla. The bulldozer is busy doing its work behind the hoardings, but there are plenty of ruined walls to be admired - a crenellated fort on a hill providing a suitable atmospheric backdrop. Or there would be if we bought a ticket and took a tour. Which would involve another Journey in Time bus back to where we are standing now. Fortunately, we spy a restaurant with a terrace and a cooperative waiter. So we get the view free.
Next, we set off for Ha'il. Somehow or other the journeys all seem to take much longer than expected. This is flat desert over a newly tarmacked and relatively quiet road. A few camels wander on the horizon.
Ha’il is a sprawling conurbation holding some 900,000 people. It’s evolved as a caravan stop on the pilgrim route, the centre of the area once ruled by the House of Rashid, in north Najd. It was conquered by the Saudis and incorporated into one kingdom by King Abdul-Aziz in 1932.
Today, it's an agricultural area, with a couple of reconstructed forts, Arif and Qishlah. There are good views from Arif, where three of the group manage to get locked into a chamber, causing a few minutes consternation. And there’s a cosmopolitan downtown area with the Barzan Souq that’s gradually opening up after Thursday evening prayers. The shops are modern, concrete and plate glass, but there are the usual rows of overly bright blingy gold and perfume shops. Some specialise in the local favourite, oud – to burn or to spray, Groups of young women, eyes gleaming from behind their niqabs, call out welcomes and ask for selfies.
It’s a neon lit comfortable hotel with little atmosphere, especially in the rooms. It’s typical, in Arab countries. Hot water is provided by individual water heaters. The green agenda isn’t even in the planning stages here, it seems. I’ve not seen one solar panel, despite the relentless sun and searing heat of the desert. Plastic water bottles abound and are replenished by the half dozen. As fast as Steve encourages the use of refillable water bottles and tap water (which he assures us is perfectly safe) Emad emerges beaming, with more plastic bottles ,and distributes them around the bus. Cutlery nearly everywhere is plastic and here even the breakfast crockery is throwaway plastic.
Dinner in the Asian Feast hotel restaurant. The manager is attentive and tells me I need to re-register my room card, as it’s been near my phone. No it hasn’t, I think, but I go along with it, even though I can’t remember my room number. Andy and Andrea helpfully supply it. Slight alarm bells are ringing, but I tell myself I’m just being paranoid. But no, half an hour later my door bell rings and he’s there with a plate of fruit I haven’t ordered. The chain’s now across the door.
Just over an hour north of Ha’il is Jubbah, famous for its UNESCO designated rock art, spread over two sites at Jabal Umm Simmam. There are the usual proliferation of petroglyphs and inscriptions, dating back as far as 10,000 years. They depict camels, cattle, African mammals (which used to wander up this way), ostriches and an ancient king or two. Possibly more interesting are the very graphic Kama Sutra type scenes. We’re not sure how old these are, but they are not referred to in any of the literature.
Another traditional Arab meal on another traditional estate. The words chicken and rice have become synonymous with lunch. As usual, we start in the lounge area or majis, where coffee (qahwah) is served. The custom is to have your teeny cup filled three times - just a sip each time -and then to shake it to show you have had enough. Coffee is always accompanied by dates. And sometimes it’s followed by tea.
As usual, there’s a tour to finish. In this case it’s a look round the old high rooms, rafters burnt black by smoke. (Nevertheless, there’s still a TV on the wall). Another little museum of 50s bric a brac. The piece de resistance is a working irrigation system. A pair of delightfully fluffy white camels in harness, stroll disdainfully up and down. This operates a series of pulleys, which enable two leather skins to scoop up water and cascade it into a channel.
For me, the highlight of this day trip is the Nefud Desert scenery, as we wind through an apricot sand sea of small barkhans.
Dinner is khabsa - again.
The Hutamayah Crater is off the road to Buraydeh and near the small eerily quiet town of Tabah. But no-one is quite sure exactly where it is. Emad solicits directions and the coach lurches along a dirt track and into a low caldera, past an even more deserted village and a dilapidated date farm, before we decide we must be in the wrong place. Back to the main road and past a sign that indicates Volcanic Orifices. Ah that must be it. The coach creeps another long desert track, this time coming to a halt on the rim of a deep crater, veined with green swirls. There’s a sparkling stretch of salt lake in the centre. It’s impressive and deserves a circumnavigation. Though true to form on this tour the path at the far end disappears inland, covered in steep shale, and we have to do a U turn.
Back to the bus. This time we have to reverse out and Omar attempts several times to turn the bus round. The last attempt results in catastrophe. The back wheels are firmly embedded in the sand. Emad has phoned his local friends, he says, who are sending a truck to tow us out. It’s another long wait. We watch out for the clouds of dust that signal the arrival of vehicles. A friend of Emad's turns up first. with a pick up. and attempts to attach a rope. Whilst he is planning his rescue the local fire men (Civil Defence) arrive with a slightly bigger pick up (their trucks are lime green here), snort derisively at these puny efforts and elbow him out of the way. Tow rope in place they attempt to move forward. The rope snaps with a loud bang.
More of Emad’s friends put in an appearance in assorted Landcruisers, leap out, dig for about 30 seconds and then stand round gossiping and drinking coffee. Time ticks by. Finally, John Wayne and the Second Cavalry to the rescue, as the back up to the Civil Defence team arrive. This time they have a super big proper fire engine tow truck. Finally, we’re pulled out and on our way. The ultimate U Turn. It’s more exciting than the rock art.
It’s now mid afternoon on Friday and all the local restaurants are closed. We’ve missed out on our khabsa so we descend on a supermarket and fill up on coca cola, crisps and ice cream.
We’re skirting Buraydeh, the capital city of the ancient province of Najd and heading to the souq at Mussawakaf. It's been rebuilt in traditional style with mud walls and triangular merlons up top and is utterly delightful. No-one seems to mind us wandering around with our cameras. There’s an auction of car boot style items stacked on trestle tables in the centre. All men. There are also men dancing and manning other stalls, selling items like gas masks from the Iraqi war. Up the other end of this large open area are benches and tables with women and one or two families enjoying picnics. I’m plied with cakes and biscuits.
And then dinner at our hotel at Unayzah. It’s khabsa.
Buraydeh is said to be the biggest camel market in the world. For my part, I’ve never before never seen so many camels (and goats and sheep). A heaving mass of animals winched in, flailing in the air, craning their necks for all the world like small dinosaurs, hobbled, squashed into cramped rows. The incessant bellowing. The indignity. The odd attempt to escape quickly curtailed by masters current and new, wielding their sticks. Red and white check cloth headed men weave in and out stern, proud, concerned as they buy and sell. The auctioneer’s voice firm above the caterwauling of the beasts. Enthralling and disturbing. Poor camels.
Half way to Riyadh from Buraydeh (if you drive the indirect route ) are the heritage museums of the twin towns -Shaqra and Ushaiger. Both were settled by Bedouins some 1500 years ago. Shaqra has a mud walled fort and several restored house, a mosque and a notable well. Both offer stunning examples of Najdi architecture, with its distinctive triangular windows and roofs, and ornately carved wooden doors. Some still bear the names of the families who lived there.
Ushaiger became a popular stopping point for pilgrims crossing to Mecca, thanks to its springs and low-brimmed olive and palm groves. More rural than Shaqra, It’s a living museum, draped with traces of an ancient way of life. Encased in thick mud walls, Ushaiger is a labyrinth of winding alleyways, shaded pathways and timber-framed walkways.
Our last stop for the day on our way to Riyadh is billed as a memorable sunset view from an escarpment. Except that Emad can’t find the spot. We follow a road that peters out. The sun disappears behind the low dunes. There is no view. It’s more the Edge of Reason than the Edge of the World.
Riyadh is the capital and largest city of Saudi Arabia. Emad says that the government’s new plans for the future- Vision 2030 -hope to increase the population from 8. 5 million to 30 million as the countries economy diversifies. Petroleum was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938 and followed up by It has since become the world's second largest oil producer (behind the US) and the world's largest oil exporter. This is the only Arab country to be part of the G 20 major economies.
The Vision 2030 Homepage tells me that it is planned to expand the population to 15-20 million. It’s still a huge increase. MSB wants Riyadh to one of the biggest city economies in the world and incorporates a greening programme into his vision. He says, ‘We also aim to have Riyadh become among the world’s most prominent cities in terms of quality of life, tourism, and services in one way or another’. As you might expect Riyadh is a modern glitzy city, especially at night, when all the malls and scrapers are lit up.
A visit to the Al Masmak Palace Museum explains the history of the Saud empire and the establishment of the three Saudi states, the alter two founded from Riyadh. The storming of Masmak Fort in 1902 gave the Al Saud’s control of Riyadh. Royal family portraits are proudly displayed. This was a residence of King Abdul Aziz.
The city wakes up slowly on a Sunday, the first day of the working week. It turns out that some things aren’t open at all. The national museum was supposed to be the visit highlight. But it’s closed. Some of the hoardings confirm this. 'We haven’t changed the website yet', they admit. Though Google seems to know.
The adjacent Murabba Palace Museum is open, however. Abdul Aziz moved there from Al Masmak. The mud brick, white painted palace was the first building to be erected outside the walls of the old city.
Between Al Masmak and Murabba is the huge Deera Square, affectionately known as Chop Chop Square. At unannounced times, police and other officials will clear the area to make way for public executions to take place.
The other highlight of Riyadh is the 302 metre-high Kingdom Centre, more colloquially known as The Bottle Opener. It has a slightly curved sky bridge connecting two towers: it’s a weird sensation walking over it and gazing out. There aren’t that many scrapers - Riyadh is another low beige city melding into the desert. It’s walls were last demolished in the fifties, after being rebuilt several times.
This is a country which isn’t quite sure if it wants tourists yet. There’s plenty to see. Whether it’s open when you get there, or you’re allowed to enter is a different matter. Masks are currently mandatory in indoor public areas in theory, but in practice this rule is often not reinforced. The Tawakkalna App is also checked in theory, but in practice it’s phenomenally difficult to activate. Besides, the person in charge of checking often gets bored after looking at the first couple or so and everyone else just troops in. Let’s see if it all settles down as Vision 2030 develops. For now, I’m heading home.
Bahrain is the third-smallest nation in Asia, after the Maldives and Singapore, but it isn’t quite what I expected. I wasn't exactly anticipating a stereotypical desert island with one palm tree in the middle. Just a flat, arid island in the Persian Gulf, with maybe a few palms, joined to Saudi Arabia by a causeway. (I can see it twinkling below, as we land in the dark.) But it turns out to be an archipelago made up of 50 natural islands and an additional 33 artificial islands. They’re still reclaiming land – one project currently underway is a Palm Resort, like the one in Dubai. To be fair to me, the area known as Bahrain Island is definitely the largest by a long way.
UK citizens qualify for a visa on arrival and also don’t need a PCR test to get on the plane, but you do have to get one as soon as you arrive. It’s mandatory to download the BeAware app and book everything via that. (I'm not sure I would have chosen that name. At a swift glance it says Beware Bahrain). And you have to fill in a vaccination declaration form on the app too. It’s all relatively straightforward.
The flight attendants are all dressed as if they are working in an operating theatre- totally covered in PPE. And the food is pretty bad. They’ve forgotten to put any gravy on my lumps of tasteless beef. But otherwise it’s comfortable enough on my Gulf Air plane.
The airport is modern and calm and there’s hardly any queuing. Even the line for the compulsory PCR on arrival test isn’t too taxing. The clerks are super friendly and my result arrives before breakfast next day - all as promised. The only irritation is the argument with the taxi driver taking me to my hotel. He smiles, refuses to turn on his meter and charges me 8 dinar (about £15) for a two kilometre trip. (The return, metered fare is 3 dinar).
The airport, and my hotel, are on Muharraq Island. It’s home to artificial beaches, restful gardens, dhow shipyards and a small restored Islamic fort. Arad Fort was built to defend its own island (though it wasn’t successful in keeping the Portuguese out), but is now joined onto Muharraq. I’m told there are some nice sunset views across the bay to the scrapers of Manama. So I decide to go look on my last afternoon. I can testify to the views, but not the sunset. I fall asleep and set off too late. Then I go the wrong way and eventually arrive, just as it gets dark.
The capital and largest city is Manama, on Bahrain Island, though its hard to tell where one sliver of urbanization ends and another begins. The only gaps between buildings are the areas of reclaimed land, bulldozers sitting ready. I take my cue from the many linking causeway bridges.
My second misconception is my plan to walk to the tourist sites. There aren’t that many of them, but they’re very spread out and much too far away. Besides, its 35 degrees outside, which is roasting after autumnal England. So I commandeer a driver – at a rate set in advance, this time.
It soon becomes apparent that Manama consists of an ever increasing number of fancy skyscrapers and a large number of giant shopping malls. Some of them full of very expensive shops. Bahrain made its money first through pearls and fish and then through oil and gas. But it has also developed the first post-oil economy in the Persian Gulf, the result of decades of investing in the banking and tourism sectors. Many of the world's largest financial institutions are based here. It’s definitely a high-rise, high income economy. Some of the top end hotels seem to be having a Las Vegas style competition to produce the most extraordinary glittering edifice. The winner is probably the swirling, almost hexagonal tower that is the Wyndham.
Though the most promoted building is the Bahrain World Trade Centre, with its sail like twin towers. It features on all the photographs of Bahrain and is the first skyscraper in the world to integrate wind turbines into its design. (Don't ask me where they are.)
But Manama isn’t entirely scrapers. There’s a fascinating older centre with a labyrinth of winding streets forming the souq. It’s a great place for a wander, shady cafes, drinks booths serving a huge range of juices and my favourite lemon and mint sherbets. And hundreds of open stores and stalls serving a wide range of goodies. As always I’m drawn by the colourful and fragrant spice shops. ‘Saffron, saffron’, the hopeful vendors call after me.
There’s a cool modern souq too, in a double storeyed white building – the Bab el Bahrain. This is more tourist orientated and the stall holders therefore more persistent in their entreaties: ‘Come in - looking is free…’
More expectations confounded. Bahrain has some interesting historical attractions. It is the site of the capital of the ancient Dilmun civilization, which dates back 4,000 years to the Bronze Age. There are seven stratified layers, relating to the Kassites, Greeks, Portuguese and Persians and it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005.
I had never heard of the Dilmun Civilisation before, but I’m lucky enough to get a guided tour of the excavations. The Danish archaeologist in charge, Steffen Lauersen, (he’s written published books on the subject) shows me the walls, halls and streets of the various places he is uncovering, He says they chiselled the giant blocks with tools made of natural bronze alloy. It’s an unexpected, but hot and dusty treat. They only have one small awning to provide shelter.
The Dilmun ruins abut (and run underneath) a large Islamic fort, the Bahrain Fort. This was renovated by the Portuguese, who ruled Bahrain from 1521 until 1602. There are some beautiful Islamic arches and more great views across the jade water.
In the late 1800s, following successive treaties with the British, Bahrain became a protectorate of the United Kingdom. In 1971, it declared independence. as an emirate an converted to an Islamic constitutional monarchy in 2002. Most of the signage is in English. ‘Suitings Corner’, over a tailor’s shop is my favourite.
And of course there are plenty of mosques. The Al-Fateh Mosque is one of the largest mosques in the world, with the capacity to accommodate over 7,000 worshippers at a time. The dome is currently the world's largest made of fibreglass. The mosque was built by the late Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa in 1987 and is named after Ahmed Al Fateh. Ahmed ibn Muhammad ibn Khalifa was the first monarch or hakim of Bahrain, commonly referred to as Ahmed al-Fateh (the conqueror).
Bahrain has a reputation for being seedy - the place where the Arabs go to ’let off steam’. It’s also known for violation of human rights. I did not see any of this. Perhaps I was lucky and didn’t look hard enough. The people were friendly, I felt safe and I had an interesting visit.
Saudi Arabia next.
Lebanon is officially known as the Lebanese Republic (Al-Jumhuriyah al-Lubnaniyah). It is the smallest recognised country on the mainland Asian continent.
Lebanon ranks the highest among the countries in the Arab world in terms of GDP per capita. Lebanon was known as the “Switzerland of the East” during the 1960s because of its financial soundness and diversity.
An estimated 8-16 million Lebanese live outside Lebanon, sending home money, while the population of the country is 4.5 million.
The US dollar is accepted alongside the Lebanese pound (also known as the lira). It is pegged at 1500 lira.
The country has the largest population of Christians of any Middle Eastern country. Currently, the population is 60% Muslim and 40% Christian. The country’s parliament is equally divided amongst the major religious groups. All 18 recognized religious sects in Lebanon are represented in Parliament. The president must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim. At times, the country has operated without a President, due to the mass exodus of Christians from the country.
Lebanon was amongst the earliest areas in the world to know civilisation. It was invaded in turn by the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, followed by the Mamelukes, the Ottomans and the Turks. It attained independence from France, finally emerging as a sovereign state in 1943. An Israeli invasion followed, to be succeeded by Civil War between 1975 and 1990, due to tensions between Christians and Muslims. Both Syria and Israel were actively involved and sent their troops to the region.
The advice given on travel to Lebanon changes often. Currently, there is political unrest and ongoing demonstrations, some of which have been violent. There is also the ongoing risk that conflict with Israel will escalate or the situation with Syria will deteriorate. The FCO advise against all but essential travel. Petty crime and theft exists, of course, but is said to be less common than in many countries.
My visit was trouble free and the locals exceptionally friendly, though the Hezbollah presence , especially as one moves east, is very evident.
This is a mountainous country with some dramatic scenery. Because of the uncertain situation and taking into account advice from friends I did a group tour visiting the classic highlights:
I’ve booked a group tour to Lebanon, after swearing never to do a group tour again. This is because Shane from Central Asia was here a few weeks ago and he says it’s hard going for women on their own. Lebanon is only just beginning to open up to tourism again after civil war, Israeli incursion and involvement in the war in neighbouring Syria. The FCO still deem part of the country to be out of bounds to sensible visitors. It’s territory number 200, so I feel there should be some sort of cautious celebration.
It’s not an auspicious beginning however - there’s no one to meet the five of us who have convened in the arrivals hall at the airport and after an hour of phone calling we give up and commission a cab.
Beirut, the capital of Lebanon likes to call itself the Paris of the East. It has a mellow seaside vibe, palm trees, a corniche and new yellow stone buildings springing up around patches of excavated ruins. There’s still huge amounts of war damage and constant reconstruction, especially around the Financial District and Martyrs Square. Here, three different types of Orthodox Church, as well as Church of England, Maronite and Moslem places of worship are built in close proximity. During the war, the protagonists shot at each other across Damascus Street until the cease fire was agreed and they all hugged and kissed instead. Ten percent of the then three million population of Lebanon died.
Our hotel is in a lively quarter of Beirut, crammed with pavement cafes and shish smokers. Our breakfast food is a mixture of Arab and European cuisine, but barely adequately cooked. They hope to detract from the paucity of the offering with a bizarre centrepiece - a chocolate fountain. Lebanon is the most western influenced Arab country I’ve been to. The ‘New Souk’ is a huge glossy mall, with high arched ceilings and restaurants charging exorbitant prices, while the adjacent streets are lined with shops bearing brand names that I recognise all too well.
The seaside towns of tiny Lebanon are spaced a useful forty kilometres apart, along the narrow coastal plain. The highway is cut into the arid mountains that run almost into the sea. First, a stop to view the impressive formations that are the Raouche (pigeon) Rocks. Think Durdle Door or Praia da Rocha. The rocks are is claimed to be the remains of a sea monster the Greek hero Perseus killed to save Andromeda. He turned Medusa’s head on the monster and so it became stone.
Banana and orange trees line the route, framed by the turquoise Mediterranean. Pierre, our guide, says it will be nothing but hotels in ten years’ time. We also pass numerous huge, barbed wire surrounded camps for Palestinian refugees. Their living conditions are very poor - they’re only allowed tin roofs, so as not to impede coastal development when they finally leave and their dwellings are demolished.
Sidon is thought to be the oldest of the Phoenician towns . First visit here is the Temple to Eshmoun - the Phoenician version of Aesclepius. Here there are layered ruins, including a Babylonian pyramid, sited in a fragrant wadi just outside Sidon, which is known here as Saida. Next, a crusader castle (Sidon was the centre of many crusader struggles) with a picturesque setting on an islet. The souk in Sidon is refurbished, but seemingly authentic and quaint – brick arches topped with towers - facades with brightly painted shutters. The must-see here is a soap museum, beige bars all stacked like giant fudge slabs.
Pierre is an excitable little Armenian who refers to toilet breaks as technical stops. He has moved swiftly to dismiss the airport debacle as being ‘Nothing to do with me’. But he still hasn’t tracked down one of our party of eleven and two others had to be enticed out of bed before we set off half an hour late this morning. He’s then lost all but one of us in the Sidonian souk - we have to phone him. I’ve decided disorganisation must be a prerequisite for being a tour guide. Lunch here is a falafel sandwich in a corner café, as ’We have too much more to see today’. So we don’t have time to Tyre of Sidon before hurtling further down the coast to its partner Phoenician town.
Tyre is known in Lebanon as Sour or Walled City and is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, Though in medieval times the population was tiny. It was one of the earliest Phoenician towns and also the legendary birthplace of Europa, her brothers Cadmus and Phoenix, not to mention Carthage's founder Dido. From here we can see the Israeli border and the peak that is Cana, where Jesus’ first miracle took place. We are also regularly buzzed by Israeli fighter planes.
Tyre has UNESCO world heritage designated ruins, a huge Roman necropolis built over the ancient Phoenician streets and houses. There’s a stunningly beautiful arch and a partially preserved hippodrome, where they filmed Ben Hur. The thorns amongst the stone paving are even more vicious than the ones in the African bush. They’ve gone right through my flip flops.
Both Tyre and Sidon are famous for being the original source of the Phoenician purple dye, extracted from murex (sea snail) shells. The other famous product of this country is the cedar tree. The wood is used for building boats and the resin is apparently excellent for mummification. Very handy with all these sarcophagi to fill. A final rush to the last set of remains in town – more temples and a Roman arena right by the water, glowing serenely in the light of the setting sun.
It’s getting late. Time to re-Tyre. Apologies for all the bad jokes - they are enTyrely gratuitous.
Our next excursion takes us north of Beirut and a little inland to Jetta Caves. Our missing tour member has appeared – with an injured foot he’s been resting. That makes four of us from the UK, five Americans, one Russian Latvian and an Australian. I’ve already visited numerous caves, but these deserve their good reputation. There’s a lake, enjoyed in flat bottom boats, some gorgeous lacy caverns, some of the largest stalactites in the world and, thankfully, an absence of coloured illumination. But photography in the caverns is forbidden, so I’ve no proof. There’s also a toy train and a cable car, serving the upper caves.
Further up the coast is the pretty port of Byblos. It’s the ultimate tourist destination with fish restaurants along the quay (nice views, tourist quality food) and an upmarket reconstructed souk, complete with high–end bars. ‘Today’s offer, buy any two drinks and pay for them both’. English (or rather American) signage is replacing French and is more common than Arabic.. Here, we’re ferried around on a golf cart. That’s quite an assortment of transport in one day. The sloe gin cocktails are very good. Six of us are drinking, but the party is short-lived. Everyone retires to bed at 7.30.
The crusader castle at Byblos is built on top of the Roman ruins, thoughtfully providing amazing views across a row of columns and myriad excavated walls spreading to the sea. This is where the first alphabet originated,. It was developed from Egyptian hieroglyphs, according to the Lebanese, though competing theories attribute its roots to Canaan/ Israel/Palestine or to the Canaanites/Israelis in Egypt.
I’ve adopted my usual practice of avoiding lengthy guide explanations in broken English. So, I’m up the top of the tower looking down onto the rest of the group listening obediently. Pierre was once a history teacher. I’ve anticipated that he will bring my fellow travellers up to enjoy the incredible views once he has finished his monologue. Perversely, he chooses not to and I spend the next hour pursuing the group around the site. It’s huge and every time I set off after the row of bobbing heads in the distance, they have disappeared by the time I arrive at that spot. It’s very frustrating. And hot work. It’s pushing 30 degrees today.
Now, inland, winding through soaring mountains and misty grey olive orchards, a mass of ancient gnarled trunks, and along the top of the Qadisha Valley, home of some of the last remaining cedar groves in the country near the hilltop town of Bsharri.. A wander under the branches is obligatory. Then, a stop at an atmospheric museum dedicated to Khalil Gibran, who was born here. It’s carved out of the rock face and mainly decorated with his art. His writing is much better than his painting.
The major roads are mostly in good condition and often full dual carriageways, but there’s still an obstacle course of parked vehicles to navigate in towns. Pierre always opts for participation, as opposed to patience, in these situations. Most of his interventions consist of superfluous arm-waving, but he has also so far encouraged a struggling female driver to reverse into a bollard and gesticulated alongside a truck taking out an overhead electric cable. Despite the relative affluence most of the cars on the road are from the last century. The model of choice is a 1980s boxy Mercedes.
Lunch is in a friendly Lebanese mezze restaurant in the centre of the largest cedar grove, right at the head of the valley. This falls away dramatically. Its small ledges provide superb settings for red roofed Maronite and Greek Orthodox monasteries.
The summits of the surrounding peaks are sheer, bare of vegetation and dusted with the first snow, icing sugar on gingerbread. We dip over into the Beqaa Valley and the temperature plummets. The furry parka I brought with me from a newly wintry England doesn’t look so stupid now.
Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern country without a desert, but most of the agriculture is located in its portion of the Fertile Crescent, the 129 km long Beqaa Valley. The valley is, astonishingly, part of the Great Rift system, which stretches from southern Turkey to Mozambique. A huge chunk of the area, including the famous Temple of Baalbek, is coloured orange ‘essential travel only’ on the FCO advisory site and Baalbek is perilously close to the red no-go zone abutting Syria, a small kink in the line some official has drawn on the map.
It’s very different to the coast. The buildings are less western in design, Arabic script predominates and yellow Hezbollah flags fly. (We can buy matching T-shirts with guns on if we wish.) There are plenty of army road blocks and the Palestinian refugee camps are replaced by Syrian ones, with similarly squalid living conditions. It’s pitch black as we make our first foray into forbidden territory. It doesn’t help that the driver is clutching his rosary in his left hand as he steers.
In Greek and Roman times Baalbek was also known as Heliopolis (Sun City) and it is truly astonishing. It’s on a par with Karnak and Abu Simbel - an incredible complex of three Roman temples. The local gods Baal and Ashtart were pragmatically (and confusingly) conflated first with Greek and then Roman gods .The Temple of Jupiter (Heliopolitan Zeus or Baal)) is huge and magnificent. . It was constructed (on the foundations of another temple) during the mid -first century.
The Temple of Bacchus, with its amazing carving and complete facades of ornate pillars, virtually escaped demolition over the years, as it was later utilised as a church and a fortress. It’s open to debate whether or not the third temple was actually dedicated to Venus. (or Ashtart) Notwithstanding, Pierre clearly enjoys telling us all about the prostitutes who were imported and the orgies that took place inside. I’m glad I’ve left Lebanon to the end of my ancient Roman occupied countries to visit. It’s going to be hard for other sites to measure up now.
Tourist lunch at Anjar, an Armenian area, in enormous tented restaurant, Al Shams. There are at-the-table tricks performed by a magician,. This is a veritable banquet - the amount of food provided is frankly ridiculous. An assortment of flat breads, salads, hummus, baba ganoush, labneh, kibbeh, fries, melt in the mouth chicken livers, shrimps in creamy sauce, olives, pickles and mixed grilled kebabs. There’s no room to fit all the dishes onto the table and we can only manage to eat half of it. Everyone protests that they are totally full. Then the waiters ask us to move to another table, where desserts are laid out: crystallised sweets and platters of fruit. And of course everyone manages to find room for more. We are assured that the leftovers will be delivered to a Syrian refugee camp.
Our last visit is to the eighth century Umayyad ruins near Anjar. Baalbek is a hard act to follow, but it’s a peaceful late afternoon stroll. And it might burn off a few of today’s unwarranted calories. The toilet block is teeming with cats.
Back at the airport, at the end of another delightful journey. My passport is checked five times and I’m body searched three times. My bags are scanned twice and examined four times. Each check is perfunctory at best. One of the cubicle ladies is too busy skyping her husband to be bothered with patting me down. And no-one has mentioned my laptop – even though there are large posters at the gate warning that these are forbidden on flights from Lebanon to London. That’s all right. I’ve decided to carry on my small (ish) suitcase, as well as my backpack, liquids, the lot. Do as the locals do.
Read more information about Lebanon here
Obtaining a visa for Iran is a tortuous process that first involves filling in a complex form, and getting my photo taken in a headscarf. I then have to gamble on whether the consul in London will be open on the days it said it would be and try to second guess which days will be the most popular. It says it opens at two pm, three days a week. I turn up just after midday to find about thirty people already ensconced along the fence in Kensington Court. It’s a social affair as we gossip and share our travel plans. Just before two we are handed raffle tickets to maintain our order in line and we proceed indoors, the women all sheepishly sliding on headscarves, just in case.
There is a number count down display just like on the supermarket deli counter. But no one calls out any numbers and we are very British and organise ourselves into the correct order. Fingerprints and money are at one counter and then, finally money and form at another. It’s relatively straightforward, except for the whopping £150 fee, much higher than other nations I notice. An Irish girl in front of me pays about a quarter of that. My passport, with visa arrives safely a week later. Along with the information that I will now require a visa to enter the U. S.A. and this will also involve lengthy form filling and a day at the embassy in London.
Anxiety builds as I read the latest news bulletins on detained dual passport holders (not that I am one) and the instructions about what I must do and wear. I don’t want to get my ankle whipped by the morality police - or worse. My clothes must be loose and cover my bottom. I won’t be allowed into the country unless I’m wearing a headscarf. An entirely new wardrobe is called for.
The flight to Shiraz goes via Istanbul and the passengers adapt their attire as Iran grows nearer. All the women don their scarves, looking embarrassed, as the plane lands. The Iranians behind me apologise: “We’re so sorry you have to do this”.
Iran seemed very safe and calm to me (apart from the traffic in Tehran). But there are not insignificant restrictions for travellers to take into account (see below).
Iran is hardly an undiscovered destination. There are tour groups everywhere we go, each of them accompanied by the obligatory Iranian guide. Ours is called Pooran and she has been doing this a long time; she is extremely knowledgeable but talks interminably and in a monotone without, seemingly, drawing breath. She is also very controlling and our English (well Australian) tour leader is new to this trip. They bicker incessantly, mainly arguing about when and what we are going to do. Consequently, we are late to most places, and some of the drives, across unremitting desert are already very long indeed.
There are twelve of us, five couples/friends and an earnest young man who is half my age. Our reception by the locals is a little wary in Shiraz, even slightly hostile at times, in the markets, but grows warmer as we venture north towards Tehran. At times both men and woman attract our attention to quietly vent their frustration at the restrictions on their own behaviour. Wearing a headscarf is indeed very restricting. It’s hot and uncomfortable, as are the long clothes I’m swathed in. At the large mosques charming Imams affably promote their peaceful view of Islam. It is indisputably very calm everywhere. Maybe because there is no alcohol. The women look very elegant in beautifully tailored long coats and scarves that sit just so on the back of their heads, unlike mine. The men, on the other hand, seem to aspire to look like Mark Wright in skinny jeans and tight T shirts.
Other barriers to overcome:
• There is internet but it’s very limited. No BBC and no Facebook.
• The currency is difficult to understand. It's officially called a rial, and most of the notes printed are in rials but everyone talks and quotes toman, which are the same as rials but minus a nought – got it?
• Thronging groups of visitors at all the main sites - the tourist cafes are crammed. At one hotel there is chaos as all the wrong suitcases are loaded
I get to see Qatar from the back seat of my chauffeur driven car on my two hour round trip into work from the capital, Doha, each day. There is a lot of flat desert. It’s an offshoot of the Saudi Arabian peninsula - mucky brown earth in most directions. The rest of its territory, surrounded by the Persian Gulf, isseparated from nearby Bahrain by the Gulf of Bahrain, a gulf off a gulf. The highway is lined with signs abjuring citizens to do this or avoid that.
The FIFA World Cup 2022 will be held in Qatar, making it the first Muslim and Arab country to host the event. There were plenteous building sites - the new stadia , extremely close to each other. It's not a very big country, with a population of about 2.5 million, (plus almost as many expats.) It's hard to imagine the English football fans whooping it up here.
I was working in a huge town complex founded by RasGas. The school was built to serve the expat employees and was huge too. The teachers were keen and fun. They taught me to pronounce names like the locals. Qatar (ca-tar - emphasis on the second syllable) and Qatari (cattery). So much for the BBC.
Qatar has been ruled by the House of Thani, since Mohammed bin Thani signed a treaty with the British in 1868, which recognised its separate status. Following Ottoman rule, Qatar became a British protectorate in the early 20th century, until gaining independence in 1971. The country has the world's third-largest natural gas reserves and oil reserves. and consequently the third-highest GDP per capita. enabling it to wield disproportionate influence in the world, when related to its size.
Doha, the capital of Qatar, feels very modern and yet somehow alien. In the evenings I stroll along the corniche, and watch the amazing futuristic sky scrapers light up in turn, against the dusky bay. These are added to daily. There's plenty of building work her, too, in this futuristic and rapidly expanding city. Past the Al-Fanar Islamic Cultural Centre, a huge wedding cake topped edifice, which offers crash courses in Islam. The night air is still balmy at thistime of year - and baking hot during the day. A pearl monument - a giant oyster shell - marks the entrance to the dhow harbour at the northern end of the Corniche. Before Qatar found oil, pearling was one of its main industries.
There is a small tourist area, with a Bedouin tent and camels and the Souq Waqif, which is both modern in parts and more atmospheric - some little side streets with local cafes and shish. Even groups of men dancing in the street. The most fascinating area is the falconry quarter. Whole sections of hooded birds, roles reversed, waiting to be preyed on by human buyers.
There is alcohol to be had in the bigger hotels - on presentation of your passport. But I am happy with the lemon and mint sherbet that the locals drink.
Dubai is the largest city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the capital of the Emirate of Dubai. It started as a small fishing village in the eighteenth century and did not really start to grow until this century. It is well located strategically. close to Iran and was an important pearling centre before oil was discovered. Since then, financed by the oil money, Dubai has expanded rapidly. It's now the world's fastest growing city. The population is 83% immigrants - mostly involved in building. It's one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, with the second most five-star hotels in the world and the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. Crime is virtually non existent. So are addresses. You just describe the location as best you can.
Dubai was a British Protectorate until 2 December 1971, when, together with Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain and Fujairah it joined in the Act of Union to form the United Arab Emirates. A seventh emirate, Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), joined the UAE on 10 February 1972, following Iran's annexation of the RAK-claimed Tunbs islands. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the only two of the seven emirates to have veto power.
It is wonderful to be cosseted again. I am out on The Palm in Dubai in a Thai owned hotel. It takes forever to motor round the 'fronds' with the colossal monstrosity that is the Hotel Atlantis looming above. Everything looks artificial, incongruent. Thai architecture, especially, just doesn't work in concrete and terracotta. The white sandy beach, ironically, is all imported. But I don't care. My room is huge and gorgeous. Everything functions. It also contains a large display of local dates that I scoff immediately, so I shall pay a price for that.
I've already discovered that the food is divine. (I don't think I'm biased just because I've just been in Uzbekistan). The subtle flavours in the duck with red curry are incredible. I ate too much on the Trans Siberian, lost the extra weight in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and now I seem set to put it all back on again. Not to mention cost. I have a sneaking feeling that four nights here is going to cost me more than three weeks in Central Asia. But it's great.
There aren't nearly as many cranes here in Dubai as there were five years ago. So I suppose more things are finished. It's certainly looking more and more like Vegas. Is high tea at the Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world, called high tea because it's so elevated? I thought high tea was supper? I am left to come up in the lift all on my own - it literally whizzes. My ears pop as the numbers rotate like a totaliser and I try not to think about the drop beneath me. The buildings below look like toy town, it's so Brobdingnagian that it feels more like being on a plane. The view's not terribly clear. There's a bit of a sand storm going on and, believe it or not a few drops of rain. But the service is excellent, the miniature food keeps coming and it's delicious. Cocktails, champagne, any variety of leaf tea you can think of. 'A newspaper madam?' I spend the whole afternoon up there eating and watching the landscape change.
Directly below the tallest tower in the world I can see the largest mall in the world - The Dubai Mall. So I head down there for the fountain display. Continuing the Vegas theme this is just like the one at the Bellagio, except shorter, and (for my visit) accompanied by Arabian music, which suits the sinous movements very well.
I'm so full I doubt I can eat any dinner...
Up early, joined by a surprising variety of birds that I didn’t know existed here. Hoopoes, mynahs and a teeny little thing that is either of the wren or gold crest family. They obviously (and sensibly) adopt a reclusive lifestyle during the heat of the day.
The breakfast buffet is gargantuan and it is served till eleven. So I decide to eat as late as possible, with the aim of stoking up and skipping lunch. However, everyone else has the same cunning plan and the restaurant is heaving. It's boiling hot, well almost, 44 degrees and humid. My iPad has shut down because it's over heated - in the shade. The sea is like a warm bath, so not terribly refreshing. Moreover, a couple of jelly fish have wafted by, so I stick to the enormous pool, which is also a little on the tepid side, though the jets in the jacuzzi area are powerful and soporifically relaxing.
I have a giant umbrella (I'm almost out of synonyms for extremely large) that reduces the temperature just enough and a view of the Burjs - Al Arab and Khalifa respectively. The Burj Al Arab is the sail shaped seven star hotel that has an island all to itself. The vaerge price of a suite here is $24,000 per night.
Back to the Dusit Thani Hotel. The pool has several pretty subsidiary lagoons complete with hordes of lifeguards garbed in very unbecoming red and white outfits with large floppy hats. They sit stoically on their ladders clutching matching longitudinal flotation devices throughout the hours of daylight. What fortitude in this heat! I doze and read. A little man brings me my favourite drink - lemon juice whizzed up with mint - every half hour.
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