A backpacking adventure in the Middle East can be eye-opening, exciting, and at times challenging. As you explore sites of immense religious, cultural and historical significance, you will further your education and gain insights into other less familiar cultures and ways of life. Backpacking through the Middle East is never short of an adventure and you’re likely to experience some incredible hospitality, sample some delectable cuisine and meet some fascinating people along the way.
Fly into Istanbul in Turkey, a city at the crossroads of East and West. The perfect introduction to the Middle East, Istanbul is both westernised and familiar, while at the same time it’s exotic and enchanting. After a good few days haggling in the grand bazaar and marvelling at the architecture, head by comfortable overnight bus to Cappadocia.
Cappadocia: The natural beauty of Central Turkey is breathtaking. Goreme is a good base for a few days sampling delicious Turkish cuisine, walking through the spectacular landscape of “fairy chimney” rock formations and exploring churches cut in rock by the early Christians.
From Cappadocia, head to Antakya for your final night in Turkey before heading over the border by bus to Aleppo in Syria.
Aleppo: Syria probably contains almost everything that comes to mind when you think of the Middle East: Legendary Arabic hospitality, mouth-watering mezze, conservative Islam and rich history and culture. The people here are some of the friendliest in the world, and to really get a feel for the place, spend some time in the cafes and markets (souks). Around every corner, there seems to be a point of historical interest, but just observing the culture and chatting to the locals can be an experience in itself.
Damascus: A must on any Middle Eastern traveller’s itinerary. A few days can be spent in the coffee shops and souks of Damascus, sipping intense Arabic coffee to the sound of the Muslim call to prayer. The Umayyad Mosque is one of the oldest mosques in the world and the architectural beauty is awe-inspiring.
Palmyra: If you’re into ruins, you won’t want to skip Palmyra. These ruins of one of the ancient world’s most important centres of culture are located at an Oasis in the Syrian Desert, and you can get there by bus or taxi from Damascus.
From Damascus, head south and cross into Jordan. Sharing a taxi is relatively easy in Damascus and is a great opportunity to make friends with the locals. Catch a ride in Damascus heading for Amman in Jordan.
Amman: After a day or two exploring this fascinating, hospitable city of contrasts between old and new, continue south by bus to the UNESCO world heritage site of Petra.
Petra: Jordan’s greatest tourist attraction is the vast rock-carved Nabataean city of Petra. Marvel at the awe-inspiring carvings, dazzling red colours and beautiful rock formations as you explore the Petra valley on foot, or on horseback or by camel.
Aqaba: From Wadi Musa (the town to use as base for visiting Petra), head by bus to the Jordanian Red Sea resort of Aqaba. From here, you’ll have access to some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world and the timeless crimson beauty of the Wadi Rum natural landscape. Wadi Rum is virtually untouched by humanity and can be explored by 4×4 vehicle or camel. You can arrange to stay with the local Bedoiun people, spending a night in a tent after a traditional campfire meal.
Into Israel: Allow plenty of time for the border crossing into Israel. It can be helpful to have a clear idea of where you’re heading in Israel and what you hope to do there. Be patient and polite and once the border formalities are done, you’ll want to jump in a taxi and head to the Israeli resort of Eilat.
Eilat: After a couple of weeks in the Arabic countries of Jordan and Syria, Eilat will be a major culture shock. You can see the Jordanian flag and the town of Aqaba from the beach in downtown Eilat but it feels like a different world. Eilat is an Israeli beach resort, with westernised restaurants, bars and nightlife. If sun, sea, sand and partying is your thing, you’ll want to linger for a few days in Eilat.
Jerusalem: The centre of three major world religions, Jerusalem is like nowhere else on Earth. The old city contains sites of huge historic and cultural significance to Jews, Christians and Muslims. A visit to Jerusalem provides an opportunity to explore sites of historic and religious interest, while also gaining an understanding of the background and the issues surrounding the present-day conflict.
Dead Sea: Easily accessible from Jerusalem, Ein Gedi is an Oasis on the shores of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. Due to the salt content, the human body will float on the Dead Sea, an experience not to be missed.
Galilee: Travelling around Israel is comfortable and straightforward and a trip north to Galilee provides opportunity to explore the area where Jesus lived and taught, including the Mount of Beatitudes (where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount) and the Sea of Galilee.
Tel Aviv: Known as ‘the city that doesn’t stop’ because of its reputation for partying, Tel Aviv is the heart of secular Israel and the economic and commercial centre. The highlight is the sandy Mediterranean coastline and the fantastic beach scene where you can relax for a day or two before boarding your flight home.
Assuming you travel independently as a backpacker, this 4 week itinerary through the Middle East is likely to cost in the region of $1500-$2000 if you travel and share rooms with a partner and in the region of $2400-$2700 if you travel on your own.
Author: Andrew Marsden
Travel writer and researcher for Roam The World. Andrew caught the travel bug somewhere between riding a motorbike in the mountains of Northern Thailand and venturing through the souks of the Middle East. He now travels to far-flung destinations as often as possible.