West Asia Travel Guide
West Asia, often referred to as the cradle of civilizations, is where human history first bloomed. From the ancient Mesopotamian cities to the bustling metropolis of Dubai, from the sacred lands of Jerusalem to the modernity of Tel Aviv, it’s a region where every stone has a story to tell, and every horizon beckons with tales of empires, prophets, and legendary heroes.
Dive into West Asia, where the echoes of ancient chants blend with the rhythm of modern life, offering an immersive journey through time itself.
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Quick Facts About West Asia
- There are 18 countries in West Asia, encompassing a diverse range of cultures, landscapes, and histories.
- The largest country in the region is Saudi Arabia, covering approximately 2.15 million square kilometers.
- Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf, stands as the smallest country in West Asia.
- What is considered the Middle East:
- The Middle East is not a continent but a region at the crossroads between Europe, Asia, and Africa. It is a commonly used term that is quite loosely defined.
- It includes the whole Arabian Peninsula, along with, in the north, most of Turkey, Iraq, and the Levant (which includes Israel, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, among others). In the East, Iran is also most of the time considered part of the Middle East. In the west, Egypt, geographically part of Africa, is often included in the Middle East as well. Some consider the Middle East to reach even beyond these countries, as far as Libya, Sudan, and Afghanistan.
- Key geographic facts:
The Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter: This vast sand desert is not only the largest in West Asia but also in the world, predominantly spanning Saudi Arabia.
Tigris and Euphrates Rivers: These historic rivers, known as the twin rivers, have been the lifeline for ancient civilizations like Mesopotamia.
Dead Sea: Situated at the lowest point on Earth’s surface, this hypersaline lake is on the border between Israel and Jordan, renowned for its therapeutic properties.
Caucasus Mountains: Straddling the border between Asia and Europe, this mountain range separates Russia from countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan. Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak, is part of this range.
Caspian Sea: The world’s largest inland body of water, this sea is bordered by five nations, including Azerbaijan and Iran.
Red Sea: Connecting the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal and Indian Ocean via the Bab el Mandeb strait, it’s bordered by several West Asian countries, including Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Persian Gulf: A mediterranean sea in Western Asia, it’s an extension of the Indian Ocean. Countries like Iran, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates have coastlines along this gulf.
Zagros Mountains: This impressive mountain range spans Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, acting as a natural barrier and influencing the climate of the region.
Anatolian Plateau: Found in Turkey, this plateau is bordered by mountains and forms the core of the country.
Hajar Mountains: Dominating the landscape of northeastern Oman and parts of the United Arab Emirates, these mountains offer breathtaking vistas and cooler climes.
- West Asia is linguistically diverse with major languages including Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew, and Kurdish among others.
- Many countries in the region are multilingual, with Armenia and Azerbaijan, for instance, speaking Armenian and Azerbaijani respectively, yet also widely conversing in Russian due to historical ties.
- West Asia is the birthplace of many of the world’s major religions, including Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
- While Islam is predominant in most countries, there are significant Christian communities in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and Israel predominantly practices Judaism.
- Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion, has its roots in Iran, and small communities of practitioners still exist today.
West Asia, A Region of Many Records
World’s Oldest City: Damascus, Syria, often lays claim to being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, with a history spanning over 11,000 years.
Highest Natural Salt Column: Iran’s Dasht-e Kavir houses the world’s tallest natural salt dome, the Namakdan salt pillar, which reaches a height of over 40 meters.
One of the World’s Oldest Churches: Located in Armenia, the Echmiadzin Cathedral, dating back to the early 4th century, is considered one of the oldest cathedrals in the world.
Rich Oil Reserves: The Persian Gulf is home to some of the world’s largest oil reserves, with countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE playing pivotal roles in the global oil market.
- The Rub-al-Khali desert, also known as The Empty Quarter, is the largest continuous sandy desert in the world. It covers a large part of Saudi Arabia, and parts of Yemen, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
- Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, is the world’s tallest building at 828 meters / 2,717 feet. It was opened on 4 January 2010 and cost 1.5 billion US dollars. At 555.7 meters / 1,823 feet, At The Top, Burj Khalifa Sky is the world’s highest outdoor observation deck. It is located on the 148th floor and opened in 2014.
- The Dead Sea, shared between Israel and Jordan, holds a few world records. Its shoreline is the world’s lowest land, with an altitude of -430 meters / -1,412 feet below sea level.
Along its shores, the Enot Tsukim Nature Reserve, in Israel, is the lowest nature reserve in the world.
The road along the Dead Sea is also the lowest road in the world. The Jordan River, ending in the Dead Sea, is the lowest river in the world.
Finally, the Dead Sea itself is the world’s deepest hypersaline lake, with a depth reaching -378 meters / 1,240 feet.
- The Masjid-Al-Haram, or Great Mosque of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, is the largest mosque in the world. It is famous for being the destination of the Hajj pilgrimage and one of the holiest places of Islam. The mosque has been continuously expanded and is now the world’s most expensive building, valued at 100 billion US dollars.
- The Al-Ahsa Oasis, in Saudi Arabia, is the largest oasis in the world. It covers an astonishing area of 85 square kilometers / 33 square miles and is home to 2.5 million palm trees.
- In the mountains of Ras-Al-Khaimah, in the United Arab Emirates, can be found Jais Flight, the longest zip line in the world. The zip wire spans 2.83 kilometers / 9,290 feet and starts from the top of Jebel Jais, the highest point in the UAE. The average speed in this zipline is 160 km/h / 100 mph. Cool place for us adventure junkies!
- The World, off the coast of Dubai, is the world’s largest man-made archipelago. It consists of 300 islands taking the shape of a world map. The project was put on hold after the financial crisis hit the UAE. Today, the project has resumed and the first 5-star hotel opened on one of the islands. As of today, only a handful of islands are developed.
10 Handpicked West Asia Highlights
10 fantastic places and experiences in West Asia, in no particular order.
Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia: A testament to the region’s rich history, Al-Ula is home to the archaeological marvels of Al-Hijr (Madain Salih), a UNESCO World Heritage site with monumental tombs carved out of golden rock. Recent developments have further opened up the region’s mysteries, including the mirrored Maraya Concert Hall and numerous luxury resorts that blend seamlessly with the otherworldly desert landscape.
- Discover Petra in Jordan, one of the most prominent archaeological sites in the Middle East. Petra was built around 300 BC and was the capital of the Nabateans. Walking through the narrow gorge to arrive in front of the gorgeous Khazneh, or Treasury is a highlight of a trip to Jordan.
- Venture into the Empty Quarter and be blown away by the vastness of this sea of sand. It is most accessible from Oman or Abu Dhabi. Experiencing the beauty of the Arabian Desert is unforgettable and should not be skipped if you travel in the region.
- Discover the fabulous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and be dazzled by its size and architectural beauty, with its 82 domes made of pure white marble.
- Take a hike on Socotra Island, Yemen, off the Horn of Africa, and discover mind-blowing landscapes and botany treasures such as the iconic dragon tree, and giant desert roses. Its exceptional biodiversity and percentage of endemism led UNESCO to declare it a World Heritage Site in 2008.
- Explore the Wadi Rum Desert in Jordan, and get a feel of what it’s like to be on Mars. Don’t believe me? The Hollywood movie The Martian, with Matt Damon, was filmed there! Whether or not you liked the movie, you will definitely be awestruck by the grand, colorful landscapes of Wadi Rum.
- Fly a hot air balloon in Cappadocia, Turkey, and watch the sunrise above the unique desert landscapes and their fascinating Fairy Chimneys. If you have time, don’t hesitate to go hiking in the region as well.
- Take a walk in the city of Shiraz, Iran, and get immersed in the Persian civilization. Watching the sunrise in the prayer room of the Nasir-Ol-Molk Mosque is an unforgettable experience, as the sunlight breaks through the incredibly colorful stained glass windows.
- Mud Volcanoes of Azerbaijan: Gobustan National Park’s intriguing mud volcanoes are a rare geological sight. With occasional eruptions sending flames and mud into the air, these natural wonders make for a fascinating visit, set against a rugged desert landscape.
Nemrut Mountain, Turkey: A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nemrut Mountain’s summit is dotted with massive statues of ancient gods, built during the reign of King Antiochus. The location is especially popular for sunrise and sunset, as the golden hues cast an ethereal glow over the relics.
When to Go to West Asia
West Asia exhibits a range of climatic conditions, from the arid deserts of the Arabian Peninsula to the temperate zones of Turkey and the Caucasus.
While summer can be excessively hot in the Gulf states, reaching temperatures above 40°C, the winters are mild and pleasant. Coastal areas, like Lebanon and Israel, enjoy Mediterranean climates, with hot, dry summers and mild, rainy winters. The highlands of Iran and Turkey can get snowy and chilly during winter. Given this diversity:
- Fall (September to November) and Spring (March to May) are ideal for visiting most countries. The weather is moderate and suitable for outdoor exploration.
- Winter (December to February) is a prime time for those looking to experience the Gulf’s milder temperatures or enjoy winter sports in Turkey and Iran.
- Summer (June to August) can be scorching in many parts, though it’s a good season for the Black Sea coast or the mountainous regions.
For more precise information, do refer to our more detailed article: Best time to Visit The Middle East, and the individual country guides to see when is the best time to visit these destinations!
Traveling to West Asia
West Asia’s rich history and diverse cultures make it a captivating region. However, certain areas can pose significant risks due to political unrest, civil conflicts, and other issues. Take a look at our list of the safest Middle East countries to visit.
- Stay Updated: Regularly check your home country’s travel advisories and local news.
- Avoid Conflict Zones: Areas like Syria, Yemen, and parts of Iraq are currently deemed high-risk for travelers.
- Respect Local Customs: Understand and adhere to local customs, especially in conservative regions.
- Travel Insurance: Ensure comprehensive coverage, including evacuation in emergencies.
- Stay Discreet: Avoid displaying signs of affluence or drawing unnecessary attention.
- Local Contacts: Keep contact details of your embassy and local emergency services.
- Avoid Night Travel: Especially in unfamiliar areas.
- Stay Hydrated: The heat can be extreme. Carry water and protect against sun exposure.
- Be Wary of Scams: As in many tourist areas, be cautious of potential scams or overcharges.
- Follow Health Precautions: Consider vaccinations, and be cautious of street food.
Getting There and Around
- Air Travel: Major international airports include Dubai International (UAE), Ataturk International (Turkey), and King Khalid International (Saudi Arabia). Carriers like Emirates, Turkish Airlines, and Qatar Airways connect West Asia to the globe.
- Road: The region has an extensive road network. While renting a car is possible, ensure you’re familiar with local driving habits.
- Buses and Coaches: Reputable companies like Kamil Koç (Turkey) and SAPTCO (Saudi Arabia) offer intercity services.
- Rail: Iran and Turkey have decent rail networks. The Tehran-Istanbul train is a popular route.
- Ferries: Coastal countries offer ferry services. For example, ferries operate between Turkish and Greek islands.
From the luxury skyscraper hotels of Dubai to the historic boutique accommodations in Jerusalem, West Asia offers a wide array of lodging options. In cosmopolitan hubs, you can find renowned international chains, while countries like Oman and Jordan offer desert camps for a unique experience.
Budget travelers can find hostels and guesthouses in major tourist areas. Prices vary significantly, from ultra-luxury suites in Qatar or UAE to budget rooms in cities like Tbilisi, Georgia. Always research and book in advance, especially during peak seasons.