From the Pyramids of Giza to the prehistoric cave art of Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria, the Middle East boasts some of the most important cultural attractions in the world. Serving as invaluable symbols of religious, cultural, and national identity, these historic sites attract visitors from around the world.
Home to some of the earliest human settlements, which were established as mankind migrated from Africa, the Middle and near East provides links to the Spice Route, Silk Road, and other early trading routes. However, after decades of conflict, the future of many of these important historic sites has been placed in jeopardy.
In recent years, UNESCO has strived to preserve the MENA region’s rich cultural heritage, making ambitious efforts to repair or re-create what has already been lost. In this article we explore a selection of highly impressive Middle Eastern UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
1. The Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
The sole surviving Wonder of the World, the Pyramids of Giza need little introduction, ranking among the best-know monuments on earth. The site’s extraordinary pyramids, funerary monuments, and temples are must-see attractions that draw sizeable crowds throughout the year. Although the three main pyramids—Cheops, Mycerinus, and Chephren—are the most famous, there are more than 130 others located throughout the country.
Also known as the Great Pyramid, Cheops is believed to be constructed from more than 2 million stone blocks ranging in weight from two to more than 50 tons. Historians still speculate how exactly these blocks were moved to their current location. They believe that more than 100,000 people were involved in the Pyramids’ construction.
While experts once thought that the Pyramids of Giza were built using slave labor, some historians now believe that they may have been constructed by paid workers. Like all Egyptian pyramids, the Pyramids of Giza are located on the River Nile’s west bank, since it is on this side of the river that the sun sets in the evening, symbolizing the realm of the dead.
2. Palmyra, Syria
According to UNESCO, Palmyra was one of the ancient world’s most important cultural cores. Indeed, the city has been described as the heart of several ancient civilizations, merging local traditions with Persian and Greco-Roman influences.
Of the six UNESCO World Heritage Sites currently located in Syria, every single one has sustained damage in the country’s decade-long civil war. Palmyra suffered some of the heaviest damage after ISIS took control of the region in 2015, destroying the 2,000-year-old pagan Temple of Baalshamin, as well as the Mesopotamian-era Temple of Bel.
Palmyra attracted as many as 150,000 visitors annually before the civil war started in 2011. Russian-backed Syrian forces eventually drove ISIS from the site. However, to date, reconstruction efforts have been limited due to continued conflict in the region.
3. Ephesus, Turkey
The most famous and frequently visited ruins in the nation, the ancient city of Ephesus is in Turkey’s Central Aegean region near the contemporary city of Selçuk. The excavated remains reflect the region’s checkered past, from classical Greek to Roman times.
Ephesus was originally founded in the 10th century BCE by an Athenian prince. Under the stewardship of Androklos and his successors, the city expanded and prospered, until it was assaulted by the Cimmerians and ravaged in 650 BCE.
Highlights of the World Heritage Site include the Temple of Hadrian, which was finished in 118 CE; the derelict shell of Library of Celsus; the Cave of the Seven Sleepers; and the classical theatre, where historians believe that Saint Paul preached to the pagans.
4. Al Aqsa Compound, Jerusalem
Long recognized as the heart of Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—the old city’s steps, alleyways, and cobbled streets are filled with history. Jerusalem under occupation, and soldiers are a common sight. Despite this, the city continues to thrive, with significant numbers of international tourists visiting year-round.
The Al-Aqsa compound is in the center of Jerusalem, filled with beautiful stones and olive trees. The Dome of the Rock can even be seen. When the call to prayer rings out, religious pilgrims and locals alike flock to the mosque. With guards stationed at the door to the compound, tourists are usually only granted entrance one day a week, usually on a Sunday, although this is subject to change at any given time.
5. Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria
Situated on a vast plateau in the Sahara, the Tassili n’Ajjer National Park contains one of the world’s most amazing collections of prehistoric cave art. Comprising somewhere in the region of 15,000 engravings and paintings spanning approximately 10,000 years, this ancient artwork provides precious early records of animal migration, climatic changes, and the evolution of humanity.
The collection includes examples from distinct rock art traditions, including works from the “round head” period that is the oldest artwork on site. These pieces are engraved representations linked to ceremonies and rituals conducted by the hunter-gatherers of the day. Newer, 3,000-year-old illustrations from the cattle period depict social aspects and daily life in prehistoric times.
Encompassing eroded sandstone “rock forests” make the landscape look alien and unfamiliar. As a result of these unusual formations, Tassili n’Ajjer National Park is also of considerable geological significance.