The Middle East is where it all began for the three big monotheistic world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Infusing almost every aspect of daily life in the region, from the five-times-daily call to prayer and cultural norms to architecture and disputes over historical claims to land, these three religions provide an important backstory to your travels in the Middle East.
Birth of Islam
Abdul Qasim Mohammed Ibn Abdullah Ibn Abd Al Muttalib Ibn Hashim (the Prophet Mohammed) was born in 570 AD. Mohammed’s family belonged to the Quraysh tribe, a trading family with links to Syria and Yemen. By the age of six, Mohammed’s parents had both died and he came into the care of his grandfather, the custodian of the Kaaba in Mecca.
At the age of 40, in 610, Mohammed retreated into the desert, and Muslims believe that he began to receive divine revelations from Allah via the voice of the archangel Gabriel; the revelations would continue throughout Mohammed’s life. Three years later, Mohammed began imparting Allah’s message to Meccans, gathering a significant following in his campaign against idolaters. His movement appealed especially to the poorer, disenfranchised sections of society.
Islam provided a simpler alternative to the established faiths, which had become complicated by hierarchical orders, sects and complex rituals, offering instead a direct relationship with God based only on the believer’s submission to God (Islam means ‘submission’).
By 622, Mecca’s powerful ruling families had forced Mohammed and his followers to flee north to Medina where Mohammed’s supporters rapidly grew. In 630 Mohammed returned triumphantly to Mecca at the head of a 10,000-strong army to seize control of the city. Many of the surrounding tribes quickly swore allegiance to him and the new faith.
When Mohammed died in 632, the Arab tribes spread quickly across the Middle East, in very little time conquering what now constitutes Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel and the Palestinian Territories. To the east, Persia and India soon found themselves confronted by the new army of believers. To the west, the unrelenting conquest swept across North Africa. By the end of the 7th century, the Muslim armies had reached the Atlantic and marched on Spain in 710, an astonishing achievement given the religion’s humble desert roots.
Shiite & Sunni
Despite the Prophet Mohammed’s original intentions, Islam did not remain simple. The Prophet died leaving no sons and no instructions as to who should succeed him. Competing for power were Abu Bakr, the father of Mohammed’s second wife Aisha, and Ali, Mohammed’s cousin and the husband of his daughter Fatima. Initially, power was transferred to Abu Bakr, who became the first caliph, or ruler, with Ali reluctantly agreeing.
Abu Bakr’s lineage came to an abrupt halt when his successor was murdered. Ali reasserted his right to power and emerged victorious in the ensuing power struggle, moving his capital to Kufa (later renamed Najaf, in Iraq), only to be assassinated himself in 661. After defeating Ali’s successor, Hussein, in 680 at Karbala, the Umayyad dynasty rose to rule the majority of the Muslim world, marking the start of the Sunni sect. Those who continued to support the claims of the descendants of Ali became known as Shiites.
Beyond this early dynastic rivalry, there’s little doctrinal difference between Shiite Islam and Sunni Islam, but the division remains to this day. Sunnis comprise some 90% of the world’s Muslims, but Shiites are believed to form a majority of the population in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran. There are also Shiite minorities in almost all Arab countries.
For Muslims the Quran is the word of God, directly communicated to Mohammed. It comprises 114 suras, or chapters, which govern all aspects of a Muslim’s life.
It’s not known whether the revelations were written down during Mohammed’s lifetime, although Muslims believe the Quran to be the direct word of Allah as told to Mohammed. The third caliph, Uthman (644–56), gathered together everything written by the scribes (parchments, stone tablets, the memories of Mohammed’s followers) and gave them to a panel of editors under the caliph’s aegis. A Quran printed today is identical to that agreed upon by Uthman’s compilers 14 centuries ago.
Another important aspect of the Quran is the language in which it is written. Some Muslims believe that the Quran must be studied in its original classical Arabic form (‘an Arabic Quran, wherein there is no crookedness’; sura 39:25) and that translations dilute the holiness of its sacred texts. For Muslims, the language of the Quran is known as sihr halal (lawful magic).
Five Pillars of Islam
To live a devout life, Muslims are expected to observe, as a minimum, the five pillars of Islam.
Shahada This is the profession of faith, Islam’s basic tenet: ‘There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the Prophet of Allah’. This phrase forms an integral part of the call to prayer and is used at all important events in a Muslim’s life.
Sala (sura 11:115) This is the obligation of prayer, ideally five times a day: at sunrise, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and night. It’s acceptable to pray at home or elsewhere, except for Friday noon prayers, which are performed at a mosque.
Zakat (sura 107) Muslims must give alms to the poor to the value of one-fortieth of a believer’s annual income.
Sawm (sura 2:180–5) Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, commemorates the revelation of the Quran to Mohammed. As Ramadan represents a Muslim’s renewal of faith, nothing may pass their lips (food, cigarettes, drinks), and they must refrain from sex from dawn until dusk.
Hajj (sura 2:190–200) Every physically and financially able Muslim should perform the hajj to the holiest of cities, Mecca, at least once in their lifetime. The reward is considerable: the forgiving of all past sins.
Call to Prayer
Five times a day, Muslims are called, if not actually to enter a mosque to pray, at least to take the time to do so where they are; the call to prayer is made by the muezzin. The midday prayers on Friday, when the imam of the mosque delivers his weekly khutba, or sermon, are considered the most important. For Muslims, prayer is less a petition to Allah (in the Christian sense) than a ritual reaffirmation of Allah’s power and a reassertion of the brotherhood and equality of all believers.
The act of praying consists of a series of predefined movements of the body and recitals of prayers and passages of the Quran, all designed to express the believer’s absolute humility and Allah’s sovereignty.
In everyday life, Muslims are prohibited from drinking alcohol (sura 5:90–5) and eating carrion, blood products or pork, which are considered unclean (sura 2:165), the meat of animals not killed in the prescribed manner (sura 5:1–5) and food over which the name of Allah has not been said (sura 6:115). Adultery (sura 18:30–5), theft (sura 5:40–5) and gambling (sura 5:90–5) are also prohibited.
Islam is not just about prohibitions but also marks the important events of a Muslim’s life. When a baby is born, the first words uttered to it are the call to prayer. A week later follows a ceremony in which the baby’s head is shaved and an animal sacrificed in remembrance of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to Allah. The major event of a boy’s childhood is circumcision, which normally takes place between the ages of seven and 12. When a person dies, a burial service is held at the mosque and the body is buried with the feet facing Mecca.
Judaism is the first recorded monotheistic faith and one of the oldest religions still practised. Its major tenet is that there is one God who created the universe and remains omnipresent. Judaism’s power is held not in a central authority or person, but rather in its teachings and the Holy Scriptures.
Until the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, Jewish communities lived peacefully alongside their Muslim neighbours in the countries of the Middle East; Iraq was home to a particularly large Jewish community. Tiny Jewish communities remain in some Muslim countries, but most fled or were expelled after 1948.
Foundations of Judaism
The patriarch of the Jewish faith was Abraham who, according to the calculations of the Hebrew Torah, was born 1948 years after Creation and lived to the age of 175. According to Jewish belief he preached the existence of one God and in return God promised him the land of Canaan (the Promised Land in Jewish tradition), but only after his descendants would be exiled and redeemed. Accordingly, his grandson Jacob set off for Egypt, where later generations found themselves bound in slavery. Moses led them out of Egypt and received the Ten Commandments on Mt Sinai.
It was Rambam, the 12th-century Jewish rabbi, who laid out the 13 core principles of Jewish belief. These principles include the belief in one unique God to whom prayer must be directed; the belief that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked; and the belief in the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead. Having said this, Judaism doesn’t focus on abstract cosmological beliefs and rather than a strict adherence to dogmatic ideas, actions such as prayer, study and performing mitzvah, which means adherence to the commandments, are of greater importance.
The Torah & Talmud
The basis for the Jewish religion is the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. The Torah contains the revelation from God via Moses more than 3000 years ago, including, most importantly, God’s commandments (613 commandments in total). The Torah is supplemented by the rest of the books of the Old Testament, of which the most important are the prophetic books.
These books are, in turn, complemented by the Talmud, a collection of another 63 books. The Talmud was written largely in exile after the Romans crushed the Jewish state and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, and within its pages is most of what separates Judaism from other religions. Included are plenty of rabbinical interpretations of the earlier scriptures, with a wealth of instructions and rulings for Jewish daily life.
The most obvious Jewish custom you’ll experience in Israel is Shabbat, the day of rest. It begins on Friday night with sundown and ends at nightfall on Saturday. No work of any kind is allowed on Shabbat, unless someone’s health is at stake. Tasks such as writing or handling money are forbidden. Starting a fire is also prohibited, and in modern terms this means no use of electricity is allowed (lights can be turned on before Shabbat starts but must stay on until it ends). Permitted activities include visiting with friends and family, reading and discussing the Torah, and prayer at a synagogue. Sex is also allowed; in fact, it’s a double mitzvah on Shabbat.
God’s laws, as recorded in the Torah, govern every facet of an observant Jew’s life, including issues like the prohibition of theft, murder and idolatry. There are other commandments to which Jews must adhere, such as eating kosher foods and reciting the shema (affirmation of Judaism) twice daily.
Some Jewish sects are easily recognised by their clothing, although most Jews wear Western street clothes. The most religious Jews, the Hasidim (or haredim), are identified by their black hats, long black coats, collared white shirts, beards and peyot (side curls). Haredi women, like Muslim women, act and dress modestly, covering up exposed hair and skin (except the hands and face). Many Jews, both secular and orthodox, wear a kippa (skullcap).
Jesus preached in what is present-day Israel and the Palestinian Territories, but Christians form only minority groups in all Middle Eastern countries. Lebanon’s one million Maronites have followers all over the world, but by far the biggest Christian sect in the region is formed by the Copts of Egypt, who make up most of that country’s Christian population. Originally it was the apostle Mark who established Christianity in Egypt, and by the 4th century it was the state religion. The Coptic Church split from the Byzantine Orthodox Church in the 5th century after a dispute about the human nature of Jesus.
Otherwise, the Arab Christians of the Middle East belong to many churches in all main branches of the religion – Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant. The number of Christians in the Middle East is, however, in decline thanks largely to falling birth rates and high rates of emigration among the region’s Christians.
Foundations of Christianity
Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem in what is now the Palestinian Territories in the year zero (or AD 1, depending on who you believe) of the Christian calendar. After baptism by John the Baptist, Jesus was said to have been led by God into the desert, where he remained for 40 days and nights, during which time he refuted the temptations of the Devil. Christians believe that his ministry was marked by numerous miracles, such as healings, walking on water and the resuscitation of the dead (Lazarus). At the age of 33, Jesus was accused of sedition and condemned to death by Jerusalem’s Roman governor Pontius Pilate. After being crucified, Christians believe, Jesus was resurrected and ascended to heaven. Christians believe that God’s divine nature is expressed in the Trinity: God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
The followers of Jesus came to be known as Christians (Christ is a Greek-derived title meaning ‘Anointed One’), believing him to be the son of God, and the Messiah. Within a few decades of Jesus’ death, having interpreted and spread his teachings, his followers had formed a faith distinct from Judaism. A Greek-speaking Christian community emerged in Jerusalem in the mid-2nd century and the Greek Orthodox Church is now the largest denomination in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Feature: Religions in the Middle East
Jews make up around 80% of Israel’s population and around 15% of the Palestinian Territories’ population. Christians make up less than 10% of most Middle Eastern populations, except in Lebanon, where around 40% of the population is Christian.
Feature: Shared Traditions
As most Muslims will attest, the God invoked in Friday prayers across the Middle East is the same God worshipped in synagogues and churches around the globe. The Quran never attempts to deny the debt it owes to the holy books that came before it. Indeed the Quran itself was revealed to Mohammed by the archangel Gabriel. The suras contain many references to the earlier prophets – Adam, Abraham (Ibrahim), Noah, Moses (Moussa) and Jesus (although Muslims strictly deny his divinity) are all recognised as prophets in a line that ends definitively with the greatest of them all, the Prophet Mohammed. Not surprisingly, given the shared heritage, Muslims traditionally attribute a place of great respect to Christians and Jews as ahl al kitab (the people of the book; sura 2:100–15).
Feature: Muslim Call to Prayer
|Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar||God is great, God is great|
|Ashhadu an la Ilah ila Allah||I testify that there is no God but Allah|
|Ashhadu an Mohammed rasul Allah||I testify that Mohammed is his Prophet|
|Haya ala as-sala||Hurry towards prayer|
|Haya ala af-fala||Hurry towards success|
|Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar||God is great, God is great|
|La Ilah ila Allah||There is no God but Allah|
Sidebar: Karen Armstrong
Karen Armstrong has an impressive portfolio of titles that include A History of God (1994), Islam: A Short History (2002), Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time (2007) and others. In straightforward prose, she takes a clear-eyed look at the great religions that underpin life in the Middle East.
Sidebar: The Story of the Qur'an
The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life (Ingrid Mattson; 2007) is a landmark text that’s filled with insights into what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century.
Sidebar: Islamic Calendar
The flight of Mohammed and his followers from Mecca to Medina (the Hejira) marks the birth of Islam and the first year of the Islamic calendar – 1 AH (AD 622).
Sidebar: A Brief Guide to Judaism
A Brief Guide to Judaism: Theology, History and Practice (Naftali Brawer; 2008) is one of the better introductions to what is often a complex faith, focusing on major ideas and historical events rather than the minutiae of Jewish doctrine.
Sidebar: The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times
The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times (Reeva Simon; 2003) looks at the Jewish presence in the region during the last two centuries, with half of the book taken up with country-by-country sections that include Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Sidebar: World's Largest Religion
Christianity is the world’s largest religion, with an estimated 2.1 billion followers. Islam comes next with at least 1.7 billion adherents. Judaism has an estimated 14 to 18 million followers.
Sidebar: From the Holy Mountain
From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (William Dalrymple; 1998) takes the reader through the heart of the Middle East and pays homage to the survival of Eastern Christianity.
The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (Patrick Cockburn; 2015) is the best and most reasoned account of extremist Sunni Islam as it has come to affect the region.
Sidebar: A Harmonious Past
At a time of great uncertainty and inflammatory rhetoric, it is important to remember that Jews, Christians and Muslims once lived alongside each other and at peace. A History of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East (Heather J Sharkey; 2017) tells that story.
Middle Eastern architecture ranges from the sublime to the downright ugly. On one hand, the graceful lines and elaborate tilework of traditional Islamic architecture draw on the rich historical legacy left by the great empires that once ruled the region. On the other, the perennially unfinished cinder-block architecture of grim functionality blights many city outskirts and smaller towns. We prefer to concentrate on the former.
Ancient Egyptian Architecture
The tombs and temples of ancient Egypt rank among the Middle East’s most impressive architectural forms. Whereas private homes have disappeared – most were built of sun-dried mud-brick and occurred along now-flooded stretches of the Nile Valley – ancient Egypt’s public architecture has stood the test of time, in part because most were built on higher ground than residential areas. In most cases, Pharaonic tombs and temples (including the Pyramids of Giza) were built of locally quarried sandstone and sturdy granite.
The tombs of ancient Egypt were designed at once to impress with their grandeur and to deter tomb raiders from plundering the treasures contained within. As a result, most were almost fortress-like, with thick sloping walls, very few openings and labyrinthine passageways in the interior. Tomb decoration was often elaborate, adorned with hieroglyphics and frescoes, and it is from such imagery that archaeologists have been able to piece together so much of what we know about the period, from religious beliefs and the afterlife to questions of dynastic succession.
Such paintings also adorned the facades of temples, and temple hieroglyphics, once decoded, have also become another rich source of information about historical events and even everyday life. Egyptian temples, each dedicated to one among many Egyptian gods, are most often characterised by the use of flat roofs, massive stone blocks and tightly spaced columns. Most were also aligned with important astronomical occurrences, their measurements and design carefully calculated by royal astronomers and, in some cases, the pharaohs themselves.
Greek & Roman Architecture
Although it is Roman architecture that dominates the ruined cities that are such a feature of travelling in the Middle East, the Romans drew heavily on the architecture of the ancient Greeks. Indeed, it was from the Greeks that the Romans acquired their prototypes for temples, theatres, monumental gateways, public squares (agora to the Greeks, forum to the Romans) and colonnaded thoroughfares.
But in the Middle East at least it was the Romans who perfected these forms and it is the Roman version that endures, at once monumental in scale and extremely intricate in detail. The Romans also added their own innovations, many of them to do with water – perhaps the most enduring of these are aqueducts and the concept of richly decorated public baths, the forerunner to the hammam.
Most of the buildings that survive played critical roles in public Roman life: the temples were the focus of religious devotion, the theatres and amphitheatres were the centrepieces of public entertainment and the monumental arched gateways reinforced the cult that surrounded the emperors of ancient Rome. Private homes, often belonging to wealthy noble families, were often paved in intricate mosaics.
Aside from individual elements of public Roman architecture, the whole was also extremely important and it was in town planning that the Romans really made their mark. In the cities of the ancient Roman Empire, city life revolved around a public square (forum), which was a meeting place (and sometimes a market) and surrounded by imposing temples and administrative buildings. A well-ordered grid of streets, paved with flagstones and sometimes lined with porticoes, surrounded the forum, with two main streets – the north–south cardo and the east–west decumanus, which usually intersected at the forum providing the main thoroughfares. An outer defensive wall, beyond which lay farmland, usually encircled the core of the city.
Ancient Persian Architecture
Iran is home to some of the oldest extant structures in the Middle East, among them the remarkable Elamite ziggurat at Choqa Zanbil, which predates the 7th century BC. But the most stirring examples of ancient Persian architecture come from the Achaemenid era (550–330 BC), among them the magnificent ceremonial palace complexes and royal tombs at Pasargadae, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shushtar and awesome Persepolis. These are decorated with bas-reliefs of kings, soldiers, supplicants, animals and the winged figure of the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda.
The Achaemenids typically built with sun-dried brick and stone and there are links with the old ziggurats in both shape and decoration. The Achaemenid style also incorporated features taken from Egyptian and Greek architecture. They built colossal halls supported by stone and wooden columns with typically Persian bull’s-head capitals.
Places of Worship
Embodying the Islamic faith and representing its most predominant architectural feature throughout the region is the masjid (mosque, also called a jamaa).
The house belonging to the Prophet Mohammed is said to have provided the prototype of the mosque. It had an enclosed oblong courtyard with huts (housing Mohammed’s wives) along one wall and a rough portico providing shade. This plan developed with the courtyard becoming the sahn, the portico the arcaded riwaq and the house the haram (prayer hall).
The prayer hall is typically divided into a series of aisles. The central aisle is wider than the rest and leads to a vaulted niche in the wall called the mihrab; this indicates the direction of Mecca, towards which Muslims must face when they pray. Also in the prayer hall is usually a minbar (a wooden pulpit that stands beside the mihrab), from where the imam delivers his khutba (sermon) at the main Friday noon prayers.
Before entering the prayer hall and participating in communal worship, Muslims must perform a ritual washing of the hands, forearms, neck and face (by washing themselves before prayer, the believer indicates a willingness to be purified). For this purpose mosques have traditionally had a large ablutions fountain at the centre of the courtyard, often fashioned from marble and worn by centuries of use. These days, modern mosques just have rows of taps.
Rising above the main mosque structure is at least one (but often numerous) minarets, some of which were adapted from former church steeples. In ancient times the minaret was where the muezzin climbed to call the faithful to prayer – these days, a loudspeaker performs a similar function.
Arab & Turkish Styles
When it came to mosque design, each region developed its own local flourishes. The Umayyads of Damascus favoured square minarets, the Abbasid dynasty in Iraq built spiral minarets echoing the ziggurats of the Babylonians, and the Fatimids of Egypt made much use of decorative stucco work. The Mamluks (1250–1517), a military dynasty of former slaves ruling out of Egypt, brought a new level of sophistication to mosque architecture – their buildings are characterised by the banding of different coloured stone (a technique known as ablaq) and by the elaborate carvings and patterning around windows and in the recessed portals. The best examples of their patronage are found in Cairo but impressive Mamluk monuments also grace the old city of Jerusalem. Cairo’s Mosque of Qaitbey, with its exquisitely carved dome, is perhaps the high point of Mamluk style.
It was the Ottoman Turks who left some of the most recognisable (and, given the reach of the Ottoman Empire, widespread) landmarks. Ottoman mosques were designed on the basic principle of a dome on a square and are instantly recognisable by their slim, pencil-shaped minarets. The Süleymaniye Mosque in İstanbul and the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, both the work of the Turkish master architect Sinan, represent the apogee of the style.
The defining aspects of Persian architecture are its monumental simplicity and its lavish use of surface ornamentation and colour. The ground plans of ordinary Persian buildings mix only a few standard elements: a courtyard and arcades, lofty entrance porticoes and four iwan (barrel-vaulted halls opening onto the courtyard). These basic features are often so densely covered with decoration that observers are led to imagine the architecture is far more complex than it actually is. The decorations are normally geometric, floral or calligraphic.
The development of the dome was one of the greatest achievements of Persian architecture. The Sassanians (AD 224–642) were the first to discover a satisfactory way of building a dome on top of a square chamber by using two intermediate levels, or squinches – the lower octagonal and the higher 16-sided – on which the dome could rest. Later domes became progressively more sophisticated, incorporating an inner semicircular dome sheathed by an outer conical or even onion-shaped dome. Externally the domes were often encased in tiles, with patterns so elaborate they had to be worked out on models at ground level first.
Under a succession of enlightened and cultivated Safavid rulers (1502–1736), most notably Shah Abbas I, came the final refinement of styles that marked the culmination of the Persian Islamic school of architecture. Its greatest expression was Abbas’ royal capital of Esfahan, a supreme example of town planning with one of the most magnificent collections of buildings from one period anywhere in the world – the vast and unforgettable Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Sq.
Although many synagogues follow a similar style, there is also great variety in their architectural forms. This is partly because Jewish tradition dictates that God can be present wherever there are 10 adults gathered together.
There are, however, some elements common to all synagogues. The first of these is the presence of an ark (in some cases simply a cupboard, or a chest), which contains the scrolls of the Torah. All synagogues also have a table (or in some cases a platform or pulpit) from which the Torah can be read, and from where some services are conducted. In most synagogues, a light is also illuminated at all times to symbolise the menorah (candelabra) in the Temple in Jerusalem. The synagogue, or at the very least its prayer room, should also be aligned to face towards Jerusalem.
There are also a number of Talmudic instructions on the form that synagogues should take – they must have windows and be taller than other buildings in town – although these were often ignored or simply not possible.
Other features of Jewish religious architecture vary from one synagogue to the next – some are simple prayer rooms, others are adorned with inscriptions in Hebrew and otherwise richly decorated. In many cases, there are also separate sections of the synagogue for men and women.
After the first three centuries of Christianity (during which time the faith was illegal and worshippers most often gathered in private homes), the church evolved from a one-room meeting place to one that contained a space for the congregation and a separate space where the priest could perform the rites of Mass. Over time, church architecture became more sophisticated with aisles (which became necessary as churches grew in size), a steeple (which usually housed the bells), chapels and a baptistery.
Early church architecture, and indeed many of its most enduring forms, owes much to the Romans. It was not the temples that provided the greatest inspiration, because these had little space for the congregation. Rather, inspiration (and indeed the name) came from the Roman basilicas which were not places of worship but places for meetings, markets and administrative functions such as courts. More specifically, many Roman basilicas had a semi-circular apse covered with a half-dome roof, which became an essential element in later church architecture. Roman mausoleums, with their square or circular domed structures, also filtered into Christian architecture – Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one clear example of this trend.
Another crucial and oft-observed element of church architecture is a floor plan in the shape of a cross. Although the exact shape of this cross may vary depending on the region and date of construction, the two main forms mimic the Latin and Greek crosses – the former has a rectangular form and has a long nave crossed by a shorter transept, while the Greek cross design was usually square with the four ‘arms’ of equal length.
Mosaics were also a stunning feature of churches, particularly in Byzantine times. The best examples are in Madaba in Jordan.
The Middle East’s cities are where the failure of architecture and urban planning to keep pace with burgeoning populations is most distressingly on show. Take Cairo, for example. In 1950, Cairo had a population of around 2.3 million. Now as many as 22 million people live cheek-by-jowl within greater Cairo’s ever-expanding boundaries. The result is an undistinguished sprawl of grime-coated, Soviet-style apartment blocks and unplanned shanty towns, often without even the most basic amenities.
Palaces & Private Homes
Usually built around a courtyard and hidden behind high walls, the Middle East's private homes and palaces were perfectly adapted to the dictates of climate and communal living. The homes often housed up to a dozen families, each with their own space opening onto the shared patio. The palaces worked on the same principle, containing the royal living quarters with separate rooms for women and domestic staff. Most such residences included a cooling central fountain and an iwan (arched alcove that served as a summer retreat), and were adorned with tilework, woodcarved lintels and elegant arches. Comfortable and stylish, private and largely self-contained, these homes were ideally suited to a region with long, hot summers and where complicated rules of engagement existed between the public and private spheres.
Architecture in rural areas of the Middle East has always been a highly localised tradition, determined primarily by the dictates of climate. In the oases, particularly the Saharan towns of Egypt’s Western Oases, mud-brick was easy to manufacture and ensured cool interiors under the baking desert sun. Although perfectly adapted to ordinary climatic conditions, these homes also proved extremely vulnerable to erosion and rains, which explains why so few examples remain across the region. The best examples are in Siwa (Egypt) and Yazd (Iran).
But the undoubted star when it comes to unique traditional architecture is Cappadocia (Kapadokya), where homes and churches were hewn from the weird and wonderful landscape of caves, rock walls and soft volcanic tuff.
Most forms of vernacular rural architecture face an uncertain future. Rural poverty and unrelenting urbanisation has caused the widespread abandonment of traditional forms of architecture. The simple truth about the future of rural architecture in the Middle East is this: unless places become established as tourist attractions, their traditional architecture will disappear within a generation, if it hasn’t done so already.
Feature: Aga Khan: Islamic Architecture’s Saviour
If there’s one figure who has been responsible above all others for reviving Islamic architecture worldwide, it’s the Aga Khan IV, the imam (religious teacher) of the largest branch of the Ismaili Shiite Muslims since 1957. Through the Aga Khan Development Network (www.akdn.org), one of the largest private development organisations in the world, the Aga Khan funds programs encompassing public health, education, microfinance, rural development and architecture.
One focus of his efforts has been the Historic Cities Program, which aims to rescue, restore and bring back to life public buildings across the Islamic world. Cairo in Egypt and, before the war, Syria's Damascus and Aleppo were the main beneficiaries in the Middle East. Rather than focusing solely on bricks and mortar, the projects prioritise improvements in social infrastructure and living conditions in surrounding areas, thereby transforming architectural restoration into wider projects for social renewal.
In Cairo, a city with one of the lowest ratios of green space to urban population on earth, the first stage of the US$30 million project has involved creating the 30-hectare Al Azhar Park on land reclaimed from what had been a rubbish dump for 500 years. The project also involved restoring 1.5km of the 12th-century Ayyubid Wall, rescuing a number of dilapidated mosques and an integrated plan for improving housing, infrastructure and living conditions in the adjacent Darb Al Ahmar, one of Cairo’s poorest districts and home to more than 90,000 people; many of the rooftops were fitted with solar heating systems, water cisterns and vegetable gardens.
A further pillar in the Aga Khan’s master plan has been the triennial Aga Khan Award for Architecture (www.akdn.org/architecture), one of the world’s most prestigious architecture awards. Winning projects since the award was announced in 1977 have included the restorations of İstanbul’s Topkapı Palace, Cairo’s Citadel and the rehabilitation of Iran's Tabriz Bazaar. A more recent award winner is the Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge that connects two Tehran parks.
Sidebar: Islam: Art & Architecture
Islam: Art & Architecture (2013), edited by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius, is comprehensive, lavishly illustrated and one of those coffee-table books that you’ll treasure and dip into time and again.
Sidebar: Ancient Egyptian Architecture
- Pyramids of Giza
- Temple of Karnak
- Great Temple of Abu Simbel
- Temple of Hathor
- Valley of the Kings
- Temple of Horus
- Luxor Temple
- Temple of Philae
Sidebar: Greek & Roman Architecture
- Ephesus (Efes), Turkey
- Baalbek, Lebanon
- Caesarea, Israel & the Palestinian Territories
- Jerash, Jordan
- Temple of Amun, Egypt
- Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem
- Western Wall, Jerusalem
- Hamat Tveriya National Park
- Beit Alpha
- Synagogue Quarter, Tsfat
- Hisham’s Palace, Jericho
Even in ancient times, minarets in Persia were far more decorative than practical. Since it was that someone standing atop a minaret could look into the private family areas of nearby houses, Shiite mosques often have a separate hutlike structure on the roof from where the muezzin makes the call to prayer.
Sidebar: Holy Land Churches
- Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
- Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
- Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth
Sidebar: Churches Beyond the Holy Land
- St George's Orthodox Cathedral, Beirut
- Church of St John the Baptist, Byblos
- Kelisa-ye Vank, Esfahan
- St George's Church, Madaba
- Moses Memorial Church, Mt Nebo
- St Katherine's Monastery, Sinai
Sidebar: Books on Middle Eastern Architecture
Good books on Middle Eastern architecture include: Ornament and Decoration in Islamic Architecture (Dominique Clévenot and Gérard Degeorge; 2017); The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture (Moya Carey; 2014); Islamic Architecture in Iran (Saeid Khaghani; 2017); The Architecture of the Christian Holy Land (Kathryn Blair Moore; 2017).
Sidebar: A Selection of Iran's Unesco Sites
- Choqa Zanbil
- Masjed-e Jameh
- Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Sqe
- Tabriz Bazaar
- Golestan Palace
Sidebar: A Selection of Egypt's Unesco Sites
- Abu Mena
- Ancient Thebes
- Historic Cairo
- Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur
- Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae
- Saint Catherine Area
Sidebar: A Selection of the Levant's Unesco Sites
- Petra, Jordan
- Quseir Amra, Jordan
- Old City of Acre, Israel & the Palestinian Territories
- White City of Tel Aviv, Israel & the Palestinian Territories
- Byblos, Lebanon
- Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Israel & the Palestinian Territories
- Hebron/Al Khalil Old Town, Israel & the Palestinian Territories
Sidebar: Turkey's Unesco Sites
- Historic areas of İstanbul
- City of Safranbolu
- Archaeological site of Troy
- Selimiye Mosque
- Diyarbakır Fortress
The Middle East has an extremely rich artistic heritage, from the modern genre of film-making to literature and music. Under often extremely difficult circumstances, and often from exile, the Middle East’s film-makers, writers and musicians of the modern era continue to produce some remarkable work. If you're looking to step beyond the stereotypes and discover new insights into the Middle East's stunning creative diversity, the arts are an ideal place to begin your search.
The region’s film industries stand at a crossroads. On one level, a small elite company of directors is gaining critical acclaim, picking up awards at international festivals and inching its way into the consciousness of audiences around the world. But many of these live in exile, and the industry as a whole has spent much of the last two decades in crisis, plagued by a critical lack of government funding, straining under the taboos maintained by repressive governments or fundamentalist religious movements, and facing unprecedented competition from Middle Easterners’ unfettered access to satellite TV channels. Amid the upheaval of the 2011 revolutions, film-makers have at times been prominent voices for reform, but funding for film-making remains a marginal priority for many of the region's governments.
The way most Middle Eastern directors survive under such conditions is to produce films that either overtly support the government line and stray dangerously close to propaganda, or to focus on the microscopic details of daily life, using individual stories to make veiled commentaries on wider social and political issues. It is in this latter body of work, schooled in subtlety and nuanced references to the daily struggles faced by many in the region, that Middle Eastern film truly shines.
Egypt: Coming of Age
In its halcyon years of the 1970s, Cairo’s film studios turned out more than 100 movies a year, filling cinemas throughout the Arab world. The annual figure dropped to just 20 in 2011, with most of these soap-opera-style genre movies that rely on slapstick humour, usually with a little belly dancing thrown in for (rather mild) spice. Film producers occasionally do the rounds of traveller hostels looking for those willing to fill crowd scenes in such movies. At least one Lonely Planet writer has appeared as an extra as a result of such a sweep...
One Egyptian director who consistently stood apart from the mainstream was Youssef Chahine (1926–2008). He directed more than 35 films, has been called Egypt’s Fellini and was honoured at Cannes in 1997 with a lifetime achievement award. His later and more well-known works are 1999’s Al Akhar (The Other), 1997’s Al Masir (Destiny) and 1994’s Al Muhagir (The Emigrant). Others to look out for are Al Widaa Bonaparte (Adieu Bonaparte), a historical drama about the French occupation, and Iskandariyya Ley? (Alexandria Why?), an autobiographical meditation on the city of Chahine’s birth.
Since the 2011 revolution a new wave of film-makers has entered the Egyptian cinema scene and are taking Egyptian cinema into exciting and uncharted territory. In early 2014 Zawya, a new cinema in downtown Cairo, opened, showing art-house movies and work by young Egyptian film-makers. By 2017 the Egyptian movie industry was producing 60 films a year, with the growth as much in quality as in quantity.
More than that, young Egyptian film-makers have become among the principal storytellers and chroniclers of modern Egypt, from box office hits such as romantic comedy Hepta (2016), to Mohamed Diab's critically acclaimed Eshtebak (Clash; 2016). Other impressive films to emerge under this new wave of directors include Asmaa (director Amr Salama; 2011), a searing portrait of an HIV/AIDS patient, and Nawara (director Hala Khalil; 2015), which explores the revolution through the eyes of a humble maid.
Film directors from elsewhere in the Middle East must look with envy at the level of government funding and freedom of speech enjoyed by Israeli film-makers. It’s a freedom that Israeli directors have used to produce high-quality films that have been praised for their even-handedness by juries and audiences alike at international film festivals.
A readiness to confront uncomfortable truths about Israel’s recent history has long been a hallmark of Amos Gitai (b 1950), who has won plaudits for his sensitive and balanced portrayal of half a century of conflict. He became a superstar almost overnight with Kadosh (1998), which seriously questioned the role of religion in Israeli society and politics. He followed it up with Kippur (1999), a wholly unsentimental portrayal of the 1973 war, and Kedma (2001), which caused a stir by questioning many of the country’s founding myths through the lens of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. Avi Mograbi (b 1956) goes a step further than Gitai with no-holds-barred depictions of the difficulties of life for the Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
Beyond the politically charged films that are causing a stir, there’s also a feeling within Israel that the country’s film industry is entering something of a golden age. Highlighting the sense of excitement, Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret won the Caméra d’Or for best film by debut directors at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival for Meduzot (Jellyfish). At the same festival, Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit won the Jury Prize of the International Federation of Film Critics. Joseph Cedar (b 1968) has been nominated twice for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film with Beaufort (2007) and Footnote (2011).
Recent releases worth watching out for include The Women's Balcony (director Emil Ben Shimon; 2016) and Home Port (directory Erez Tadmor; 2016), two sensitive portraits of the conflicts between Sephardim and Ashkenazi Jews in modern Israel, while Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (director Joseph Cedar; 2016) stars Richard Gere.
Starved of funding, faced with the barriers erected by Israeli censors and living in occupation or exile, Palestinian film-makers have done it tough, but have nonetheless turned out some extraordinary movies.
One Palestinian director who has made an international impact is the Nazareth-born Michael Khaleifi (b 1950), whose excellent Images from Rich Memories (1980), The Anthem of the Stone (1990) and Wedding in Galilee (1987) were all shot covertly inside the Palestinian Territories. Gaza-born Rasheed Masharawi (b 1962) has been rejected in some Palestinian circles for working with Israeli production companies, but the quality of his work is undeniable. The work of Elia Suleiman (b 1960) is a wonderful corpus of quietly angry and intensely powerful films – Chronicle of a Disappearance won Best Film Prize at the 1996 Venice Film Festival, while Divine Intervention won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2002.
It was in the 1970s that the first ‘new wave’ of Iranian cinema captured the attention of art-house movie fans around the world: Abbas Kiarostami, Dariush Mehrjui, Bahram Beiza’i, Khosrow Haritash and Bahram Farmanara. The second ‘new wave’ was made up of post-revolutionary directors such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Rakhshan Bani Etemad, Majid Majidi and Jafar Panahi. It helped develop a reputation for Iranian cinema as art house, neorealist and poetic. The newest generation is known as the ‘third wave’ and its most notable exponents are Asghar Farhadi, Bahman Ghobadi and Mani Haghighi.
Whatever the number, Iranian new wave is consistent in looking at everyday life through a poetic prism that is part fictional feature, part real-life documentary. The strict censorship of the post-revolutionary state has encouraged the use of children, nonprofessional actors and stories that are fixated on the nitty-gritty of life.
Other films worth seeking out include Majid Majidi’s film Children of Heaven, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1998. It is a delicate tale focusing on two poor children losing a pair of shoes. The White Balloon (1995), written by Abbas Kiarostami and directed by Jafar Panahi, tells the story of a young girl who loses her money while on the way to buy a goldfish. Another fine offering is A Separation, the 2012 winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and nominee for Best Original Screenplay. Asghar Farhadi's masterfully told film looks at a Tehran couple’s dissolving marriage and how the hiring of a carer for an ill parent complicates matters further. Another Farhadi film to receive recognition with an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film is The Salesman (2016).
The telling of tales that are both mischievous and reveal the social and political times from which they arise has always occupied centre stage in Middle Eastern life, from the epic tales from the 8th-century Baghdad court of Haroun Ar Rashid, so wonderfully brought to life in The Thousand and One Nights, to the wandering storytellers who once entertained crowds in the coffeehouses and theatres of the region. It’s a heritage with two tightly interwoven strands: entertainment through suspense and comedy, and thinly veiled commentaries on the issues of the day.
But the writers of the region face many challenges, including government repression and the lack of a book-buying culture in Arabic-speaking countries. Storytelling in the Middle East, including poetry, was always a predominantly oral tradition and it was not until the 20th century that the first Arabic-language novels appeared. The audiences never really made the transition from the public performance to the printed page.
The Lebanese-born poet Khalil Gibran (1883–1931) is, by some estimates, the third biggest-selling poet in history behind Shakespeare and Lao Tse. Born in Bcharré in Lebanon, he spent most of his working life in the US, but it didn’t stop him from becoming a flag bearer for Arabic poetry. His masterpiece, The Prophet (1923), which consists of 26 poetic essays, became, after the Bible, America’s second-biggest-selling book of the 20th century.
Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008) has become one of the most eloquent spokesmen for Palestinian rights, his more than 30 volumes of poetry reading like a beautifully composed love letter to the lost land of his childhood. At his funeral in August 2008, one mourner told the BBC that he ‘symbolises the Palestinian memory’.
Another leading Arab poet and one of the great celebrities of the Arab literary scene is Syria’s Nizar Qabbani (1923–98), who was unusual in that he was able to balance closeness to successive Syrian regimes with subject matter (love, eroticism and feminism) that challenged many prevailing opinions within conservative Syrian society. His funeral in Damascus – a city that he described in his will as ‘the womb that taught me poetry, taught me creativity and granted me the alphabet of jasmine’ – was broadcast live around the Arab world.
In Iran, poetry is overwhelmingly the most important form of writing. Familiarity with famous poets and their works is universal: almost anyone on the street can quote lines from Hafez or Rumi.
The novel as a literary form may have come late to the Middle East, but that didn’t stop the region producing three winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature: Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1966), a Zionist Israeli writer whose works are published in English under the name SY Agnon; Naguib Mahfouz (1988); and Orhan Pamuk (2006).
Much of the credit for the maturing of Arabic literature can be given to Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006), who was unquestionably the single most important writer of fiction in Arabic in the 20th century. A life-long native of Cairo, Mahfouz began writing in the 1930s. From Western-copyist origins he went on to develop a voice that is uniquely of the Arab world and draws its inspiration from storytelling in the coffeehouses and the dialect and slang of the streets. He repeatedly fell foul of Egypt’s fundamentalist Islamists, first for his 1959 novel Children of Gebelawi (which was banned for blasphemy in Egypt) and later for defending Salman Rushdie; Mahfouz was seriously injured in an assassination attempt in 1994. His best-known works are collectively known as The Cairo Trilogy, consisting of Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street.
Orhan Pamuk (b 1952) is Turkey’s foremost literary celebrity. His works include an impressive corpus of novels and an acclaimed memoir of İstanbul, Istanbul: Memories of a City. His work has been translated into more than 50 languages and, like Mahfouz, Pamuk has never shirked from the difficult issues; in Snow (2004), Pamuk unflinchingly explores the fraught relationship between two of the great themes of modern Turkish life: Islamic extremism and the pull of the West. Also like Mahfouz, Pamuk is known as a staunch defender of freedom of speech.
Among the region’s other best-known writers are Turkey’s Yaşar Kemal (1923–2015) and the Israeli writer Amos Oz (b 1939); Oz’s work includes essays and award-winning novels with themes that speak to the pride and angst at the centre of modern Israeli life. Of the native Lebanese writers, the most famous is Hanan Al Shaykh (b 1945), who writes poignant but humorous novels that resonate beyond the bounds of the Middle East. Also worth tracking down are the works of Jordan’s Abdelrahman Munif (1933–2004), Egypt’s prolific Nawal El Saadawi (b 1931) and Lebanese-born Amin Maalouf (b 1949).
Of the new wave of Middle Eastern writers, the names to watch include Alaa Al Aswany (Egypt, b 1957), Ahdaf Soueif (Egypt, b 1950), Khalid Al Khamisi (Egypt, b 1962), Laila Halaby (Lebanon, b 1966) and Dorit Rabinyan (Israel, b 1972).
Sadeq Hedayat (1903–51) is the best-known Iranian novelist outside Iran, and one whose influence has been most pervasive in shaping modern Persian fiction. The Blind Owl, published in 1937, is a dark and powerful portrayal of the decadence of a society failing to achieve its own modernity. Hedayat’s uncensored works have been banned in Iran since 2005.
Contemporary Iranian author Shahriar Mandanipour was also banned from publishing between 1992 and 1997 and, after years of struggle against the censor’s pen, eventually moved to the US in 2006. In 2009 he published the critically acclaimed Censoring an Iranian Love Story.
If you’re a music lover, you’ll adore the Middle East, which has home-grown music as diverse as the region itself. This is one part of the world where local artists dominate air time and you’re far more likely to hear Umm Kolthum, soulful Iraqi oud (Middle Eastern lute) or the latest Lebanese pop sensation.
If one instrument has come to represent the enduring appeal of classical Arabic music, it’s the oud, an instrument that has made the transition from backing instrument to musical superstar in its own right. The oud is a pear-shaped, stringed instrument and is distinguished from its successor, the Western lute, by its lack of frets, 11 strings (five pairs and a single string) and a neck bent at a 45- to 90-degree angle. Oud players are to be found throughout the region, but its undisputed masters are in Iraq, where the sound of the oud is revered as a reflection of the Iraqi soul.
Even so, Syria produced the Arab world’s so-called ‘King of the Oud’, Farid Al Atrache (1915–74). Sometimes called the ‘Arab Sinatra’, he was a highly accomplished oud player and composer, who succeeded in updating Arabic music by blending it with Western scales and rhythms and the orchestration of the tango and waltz. His melodic improvisations on the oud and his mawal (a vocal improvisation) were the highlights of his live performances, and recordings of these are treasured. By the time of his death, he was considered – and still is by many – to be the premier male Arabic music performer of the 20th century.
The other defining feature of classical Arabic music is the highly complicated melodic system known as maqam. The foundation for most traditional music in the Arab world, maqam is based on a tonal system of scales and intervals and is wholly different from Western musical traditions. Master maqam and you’ve mastered the centuries-old sound of the region.
Contemporary Arab Music
Seemingly a world away from classical Arabic music, and characterised by a clattering, hand-clapping rhythm overlaid with synthesised twirlings and a catchy, repetitive vocal, the first true Arabic pop came out of Cairo in the 1970s. The blueprint for the new youth sound (which became known as al jeel, from the word for generation) was set by Egyptian Ahmed Adawiyya (b 1945), the Arab world’s first ‘pop star’.
During the 1990s there was a calculated attempt to create a more upmarket sound, with many musicians mimicking Western dance music. Tacky electronics were replaced with moody pianos, Spanish guitars and thunderous drums. Check out the Egyptian singer Amr Diab (b 1961), whose heavily produced songs have made him the best-selling artist ever in the Arab world (achieved with his 1996 album Nour Al Ain).
Heading the current crop of megastar singers (the Arabic music scene is totally dominated by solo vocalists, there are no groups) are Majida Al Rumi (b 1956) of Lebanon, Iraqi-born Kazem (Kadim) Al Saher (b 1957) and Iraq’s Ilham Al Madfai (b 1942), who founded the Middle East’s first rock band back in the 1960s. Syria’s prolific Omar Suleyman (b 1966), who emerged from that quintessential Middle Eastern genre of wedding performances, has produced more than 500 albums, appeared at the 2011 Glastonbury Festival and has collaborated with everyone from Björk to Damon Albarn.
Traditional Turkish music is enjoying something of a revival with Sufi music, dominated by traditional instrumentation, leading the way. Sufi music’s spiritual home is Konya and the sound is bewitchingly hypnotic – a simple repeated melody usually played on the nai (reed pipe), accompanied by recitations of Sufi poetry.
Sufi music’s growing popularity beyond Turkey’s borders owes much to the work of artists such as Mercan Dede (www.mercandede.com; b 1966), whose blend of Sufism with electronica has taken the genre beyond its traditional boundaries and into a mainstream audience. He even doubles as a DJ with the stage name Arkin Allen, spinning hardcore house and techno beats at rave festivals in the US and Canada. Not surprisingly, one Turkish newspaper described him as a ‘dervish for the modern world’.
But Turkey’s most pervasive soundtrack of choice is Turkish pop, with its skittish rhythms and strident vocals, and its stars rank among the country’s best-known celebrities. Sezen Aksu (b 1954), known as ‘the Queen of Turkish music’, launched the country’s love affair with the genre with her first single in 1976. Combining Western influences and local folk music to create a thoroughly contemporary sound, she’s also an independent spirit not afraid to speak out on environmental issues and Turkey’s treatment of its minorities.
Other super-popular pop stars include Tarkan (b 1972), Serdat Ortaç (b 1970) and Mustafa Sandal (b 1970). Notable rock bands include Duman and Mor ve Ötesi. The group maNga create an intriguing mix of metal, rock and Anatolian folk. Their 2012 album e-akustik is worth seeking out.
In recent decades there has been in Israel a drive to excavate Jewish rhythms from broader European traditions. The result is a deeper, more distinctive Israeli sound.
Perhaps the most successful example of this latter phenomenon is klezmer. With its foundations laid by the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, klezmer’s fast-paced, instrumental form was ideally suited to Jewish celebrations and it has sometimes been branded as Jewish jazz, in recognition of its divergence from established musical styles. The modern version has added vocals – almost always in Yiddish.
If klezmer takes its inspiration from Jewish diaspora roots in Europe, the Idan Raichel Project (www.idanraichelproject.com), arguably Israel’s most popular group, casts its net more widely. Israeli love songs are its forte, but it’s the Ethiopian instruments, Jamaican rhythms and Yemeni vocals that mark the group out as something special. Although originally rejected by leading local record labels for being ‘too ethnic’, the Idan Raichel Project’s building of bridges between Israel’s now-multicultural musical traditions struck a chord with audiences at home and abroad.
Mizrahi (Oriental or Eastern) music, with its Middle Eastern and Mediterranean scales and rhythms, has its roots in the melodies of North Africa, Iraq and Yemen, and may be Israel’s most popular genre. Old-timer Shlomo Bar (www.shlomobar.com), inspired by the traditional Jewish music of Morocco and Iraq respectively, is still performing, joined more recently by superstars Sarit Hadad (www.sarit-hadad.com), who has been described as Israel’s Britney Spears, and Amir Benayoun, whose genre-defying concerts mix love songs and medieval Jewish liturgical poems. Moshe Peretz enjoys crossing the line from Mizrahi to mainstream and back again.
Another artist to have adapted ancient musical traditions for a modern audience is Yasmin Levy (b 1975), who sings in Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews, who lived in Andalusia for centuries until 1492. The flamenco inflections in her music speak strongly of what she calls ‘the musical memories of the old Moorish and Jewish-Spanish world’. Crossing frontiers of a different kind, Yair Dalal (b 1955) is an outstanding Israeli oud player who has collaborated with Palestinian and other Arab musicians.
Feature: The Great Iranian Poets
Iranians venerate their great poets, who are often credited with preserving the Persian language and culture during times of occupation. Streets, squares, hotels and chaykhanehs (teahouses) are named after famous poets, several of whom have large mausoleums that are popular pilgrimage sites.
Hakim Abulqasim Ferdosi, first and foremost of all Iranian poets, was born near Tus outside Mashhad. He developed the ruba’i (quatrain) style of ‘epic’ historic poems and is remembered primarily for the Shahnamah (Book of Kings), which took 33 years to write and included almost 60,000 couplets. Ferdosi is seen as the saviour of Farsi, which he wrote in at a time when the language was under threat from Arabic. Without his writings many details of Persian history and culture might also have been lost, and Ferdosi is credited with having done much to help shape the Iranian self-image.
Khajeh Shams Ed Din Mohammed, or Hafez (meaning ‘One Who Can Recite the Quran from Memory’) as he became known, was born in Shiraz. His poetry has a strong mystical quality and regular references to wine, courtship and nightingales have been interpreted in different ways (is wine literal or a metaphor for God?). A copy of his collected works, known as the Divan-e Hafez, can be found in almost every home in Iran, and many of his verses are used as proverbs to this day.
Omar Khayyam 1047–1123
Omar Khayyam (Omar the Tentmaker) was born in Neishabur and is probably the best-known Iranian poet in the West because many of his poems, including the famous Rubaiyat, were translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald. In Iran he is more famous as a mathematician, historian and astronomer.
Born Jalal Ad Din Mohammad Balkhi in Balkh (in present-day Afghanistan), Rumi’s family fled west before the Mongol invasions and eventually settled in Konya in present-day Turkey. There his father (and then he) retreated into meditation and a study of the divine. Rumi was inspired by a great dervish, Shams-e Tabrizi, and many of his poems of divine love are addressed to him. He is credited with founding the Maulavi Sufi order – the whirling dervishes – and is also known as Maulana (‘the Master’).
Like Hafez, Sheikh Mohammed Shams Ed Din (known as Sa’di) lost his father at an early age and was educated by some of the leading teachers of Shiraz. Many of his elegantly phrased verses are still commonly used in conversation. His most famous works, the Golestan (Rose Garden) and Bustan (Garden of Trees), have been translated into many languages.
Feature: Yilmaz Güney: Mirror To Turkish History
The life of Yilmaz Güney (1937–84) provides a fascinating window onto late-20th-century Turkey. In particular, the life story and films of this Turkish-Kurdish director speak volumes for the often fraught relationship between Turkey’s governments and the country’s creative talents.
Güney began his professional life as a writer, before becoming a hugely popular young actor who appeared in dozens of films (up to 20 a year according to some reports), before again changing tack to become the country’s most successful film director. But behind that seemingly steady rise lies a life that reads like a scarcely believable film plot. Güney was first arrested in 1961 for writing what was condemned as a communist novel and then again in 1972 for sheltering anarchist students. In 1974 he was convicted of killing a public prosecutor. He wrote many of his screenplays behind bars – including the internationally acclaimed The Herd (1978). In 1981 he escaped from prison and fled to France.
It was from exile that Güney produced his masterpiece, the Palme d’Or–winning Yol (The Way; 1982), which was not initially shown in Turkish cinemas; its portrait of what happens to five prisoners on a week’s release was too grim for the authorities to take. His following within Turkey was also never as widespread as his talents deserved, not least because his portrayal of the difficulties faced by Turkey’s Kurds alienated many in mainstream Turkish society.
Feature: Must-See Movies
- Lawrence of Arabia (1962) David Lean’s masterpiece captures all the hopes and subsequent frustrations for Arabs in the aftermath of WWI.
- Yol (The Way; 1982) By Yilmaz Güney and epic in scale, it follows five finely rendered Turkish prisoners on parole around their country.
- A Moment of Innocence (1996) Semi-autobiographical film by Iran's Mohsen Makhmalbaf about his stabbing of a policeman at a rally as a youth before trying to make amends two decades later.
- West Beirut (1998) Begins on 13 April 1975, the first day of the Lebanese Civil War, and is Ziad Doueiri’s powerful meditation on Lebanon’s scars and hopes.
- Paradise Now (2005) Palestinian director Hany Abu Assad’s disturbing but finely rendered study of the last hours of two suicide bombers. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2005.
- Caramel (2007) A stunning debut for Lebanese director Nadine Labaki. It follows the lives of five Lebanese women struggling against social taboos in war-ravaged Beirut.
- Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) Runner-up at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, this Nuri Bilge Ceylan film broods across the Anatolian steppe.
- A Separation (2011) Directed by Iranian Ashgar Farhadi and winner of the 2012 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, it portrays a couple torn between seeking a better life for their son and staying in Iran to care for an elderly parent with Alzheimer's.
- Omar (2014) The second Palestinian film to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, it touches on questions of Palestinian and Israeli revenge and of who can be trusted.
- Queen of the Desert (2015) Directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicole Kidman, it focuses on the life of Gertrude Bell and is partially shot in Petra.
- Eshtebak (Clash; 2016) This intense drama takes place entirely inside a police van during the Arab Spring in Cairo.
Feature: The Makhmalbaf Family: A Cinema Dynasty
Born in 1957 in Tehran, Mohsen Makhmalbaf first gained infamy when he was imprisoned for five years after fighting with a policeman. He was released during the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and started to write books before turning to film-making in 1982. Since then he has produced more than a dozen films, including Boycott, Time for Love, Kandahar, Gabbeh and, more provocatively, Salaam Cinema. Many of his films are based on taboo subjects: Time for Love was filmed in Turkey because it broached the topic of adultery; and Marriage of the Blessed was a brutal film about the casualties of the Iran–Iraq War.
Makhmalbaf has become a virtual exile from Iran because of the country’s censorship. In 1997 Makhmalbaf’s daughter Samira produced her first film, The Apple, to critical acclaim. In 2000 her second film, Blackboards, was a smash hit at the Cannes Film Festival; she was the youngest director ever to have shown a film there.
The Makhmalbaf movie factory continues to churn out winners. Samira’s younger brother made a ‘making-of’ documentary about Blackboards and then younger sister Hana directed a feature about the shooting of Samira’s film At Five in the Afternoon. On the strength of that film, Joy of Madness, Hana beat Samira to a ‘youngest-ever’ record by being invited to the Venice Film Festival at the age of 14. Even Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s second wife (the sister of his first wife, who died tragically), Marzieh Meshkini, has directed an acclaimed film, The Day I Became a Woman, which examines what it is to be a woman in Iran.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf survived two assassination attempts while filming Kandahar in Iran, and in 2007 the whole family was attacked while on location in Afghanistan for Samira’s film The Two-Legged Horse. A man posing as an extra threw a bomb onto the set, wounding six actors and several extras and killing the horse in the film’s title.
Having moved to Paris in 2005, in 2009 Mohsen Makhmalbaf became a spokesman abroad for Green Movement leader and presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi. His outspoken criticism of the Ahmadinejad government left him, in effect, in exile. For more on the Makhmalbafs, see www.makhmalbaf.com.
Feature: The Thousand & One Nights
After the Bible, The Thousand and One Nights (in Arabic, Alf Layla w’Layla, also known as The Arabian Nights) must be one of the best-known, least-read books in the English language.
That few people have read the actual text is unsurprising considering that its most famous English-language edition (translated by the Victorian adventurer Sir Richard Burton) runs to 16 volumes; an old Middle Eastern superstition holds that nobody can read the entire text of The Thousand and One Nights without dying.
With origins that range from pre-Islamic Persia, India and Arabia, the stories as we now know them were first gathered together in written form in the 14th century. The Thousand and One Nights is a portmanteau title for a mixed bag of colourful and fantastic tales (there are 271 core stories). The stories are mainly set in the semi-fabled Baghdad of Haroun Ar Rashid (r AD 786–809), and in Mamluk-era (1250–1517) Cairo and Damascus.
All versions of The Thousand and One Nights begin with the same premise: the misogynist King Shahriyar discovers that his wife has been unfaithful, whereafter he murders her and takes a new wife every night before killing each in turn before sunrise. The wily Sheherezade, the daughter of the king’s vizier, insists that she will be next, only to nightly postpone her death with a string of stories that leaves the king in such suspense that he spares her life so as to hear the next instalment.
Feature: Middle Eastern Literature Top 10
- The Prophet (Khalil Gibran; 1923) Somehow expounds in poetic form on the great philosophical questions while speaking to the dilemmas of everyday life.
- The Time Regulation Institute (Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar; 1954) This Turkish classic was finally translated into English in 2014 following unforgettable characters and the institute's attempts to set all Turkish clocks to Western time.
- Memed, My Hawk (Yaşar Kemal; 1955) Deals with near-feudal life in the villages of eastern Turkey and is considered perhaps the greatest Turkish novel of the 20th century.
- The Cairo Trilogy (Naguib Mahfouz; 1956–57) Egypt's Nobel Laureate brings the streets and cafes of Cairo to life like no-one else can.
- The Black Book (Orhan Pamuk; 1990) It was with this book that that Pamuk leapt onto the international stage. It follows a man's search for his missing/runaway wife.
- The Map of Love (Ahdaf Soueif; 1999) The Booker-nominated historical novel by this Anglo-Egyptian writer. In the Eye of the Sun (1992) is simply marvellous.
- The Dark Side of Love (Rafik Schami; 2004) Regarded by many as the first ‘Great Arab Novel’ of the 21st century, with its follow-up, The Calligrapher’s Secret,also brilliant; they're written by Syria's master storyteller in exile.
- Taxi (Khaled Al Khamissi; 2011) Highly original with 58 fictional monologues by the taxi drivers of Cairo.
- Azazeel (Youssef Ziedan; 2012) A sweeping historical novel set in the 5th century AD and following a Coptic monk's journey through Egypt and the Levant.
- No Knives in the Kitchens of This City (Khaled Khalifa; 2016) A stunning novel set in war-torn Aleppo, following a family's tragic demise.
Feature: Middle Eastern Music – Our Top 10 Albums
- The Lady & the Legend, Fairouz (Lebanon)
- Al Atlaal, Umm Kolthum (Egypt)
- Awedony, Amr Diab (Egypt)
- Le Luth de Baghdad, Nasseer Shamma (Iraq)
- Asmar, Yeir Dalal (Israel)
- The Idan Raichel Project, The Idan Raichel Project (Israel)
- Nar with Secret Tribe, Mercan Dede (Turkey)
- Deli Kızın Türküsü, Sezen Aksu (Turkey)
- Les Plus Grands Classiques de la Musique Arabe, various artists
- Drab Zeen, Toufic Faroukh (Lebanon)
Feature: Daniel Barenboim
No figure in the Middle Eastern arts has done as much to promote peace and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians as Daniel Barenboim (b 1942), the Israeli pianist and conductor. Barenboim is best known for having co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a collection of young, talented Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian classical musicians, with his friend, the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. From its base in Seville in Spain, the symphony orchestra (conducted by Barenboim) tours the world, including Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Back in Seville, the Barenboim-Said Foundation, which was set up to promote coexistence and dialogue and is funded by the local Andalusian government, holds summer workshops for young musicians from the Middle East, while it also supports a range of projects, including musical education programs in the Palestinian Territories.
An outspoken critic of Israel’s policies and an advocate of Palestinian rights, Barenboim has performed in the West Bank, including a piano recital he performed after secretly entering the Palestinian Territories under the cover of darkness when the Israeli government refused permission for the concert to go ahead. After a concert in Ramallah in January 2008, he accepted honorary Palestinian citizenship. In 2005 he refused to be interviewed by uniformed reporters for Israeli Army Radio as a mark of respect for the Palestinians who were present. In 2011 he conducted an Orchestra for Gaza, with volunteers from major European orchestras in Gaza City, having entered the Gaza Strip secretly under UN protection.
His many awards include an Order of the British Empire, France's Légion d'honneur and seven Grammys.
To learn more about Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, track down Paul Smaczny’s documentary Knowledge is the Beginning, which won an Emmy Award in 2006.
Feature: Egypt's Revolutionary Soundtrack
The political and social upheaval in Egypt of recent years has found creative voice in the musical genre known as shaabi (from the word for popular), which often comes with satirical or politically provocative lyrics. In 2010 shaabi singer Mohamed Mounir brought out a song Ezay? (How?), that was banned for being too political; he brought it out again with the backdrop of the people in Midan Tahrir during the 2011 revolution.
The uprisings of the revolutionary youth in Cairo and elsewhere was fuelled by rap and hip-hop music, the so-called shebabi (youth) music. The sound of Cairo now is mahraganat, a relentless mix of drumbeats and auto-tuned rap that started in Cairo's slums but has been likened to grime music. The artists often record at home, and spread their music via the internet. Diesel, aka Mohamed Saber, is one of mahraganat's most innovative artists, while Sadat, aka Al Sadat Abdelaziz, is its biggest star. The music expresses the reality of young people, using their slang to express their struggle. They sing about revolution, drugs and sexual harassment.
The following songs and bands form part of the soundtrack of the 2011 revolution. Some are available internationally; all are on YouTube.
- Irhal (Leave) by Ramy Essam
- Eid Fi Eid (Hand in Hand) by The Arabian Knightz
- Rebel by The Arabian Knightz, featuring Lauryn Hill
- Thawra by Rayess Bek
- Sout el Hurriya (Voice of Freedom) by Amir Eid, Hany Adel, Hawary and Sherif
Sidebar: Arab Film Distribution
Arab Film Distribution (www.arabfilm.com) is the Amazon of Arab cinema, with a large portfolio of DVDs that you just won’t find on the shelves of your local rental store or mainstream online sources.
Sidebar: Israeli Film Oscars
Israeli films have received more Oscar nominations (10) for Best Foreign Language Film than films from any other Middle Eastern country (including in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011), although they’ve yet to win the prize.
Sidebar: Ziad Doueiri
Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, whose slick debut West Beyrouth (1998) is considered one of the best films about the Lebanese Civil War, was Quentin Tarantino’s lead cameraman for Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs.
Sidebar: Arabian Nights
To learn more about how the stories of The Thousand and One Nights came together, read the excellent introduction by Husain Haddawy in The Arabian Nights (1990).
According to one UN estimate, Spain translates more books each year than have been translated into Arabic in the past 1000 years.
Sidebar: Naguib Mahfouz: His Life & Times
Naguib Mahfouz: His Life & Times (2008) by Rasheed El Elnany is the first (and, it must be said, long-overdue) English-language biography of the Arab world’s most accomplished and prolific novelist.
Maqam (www.maqam.com) claims to be the world’s largest distributor and online retailer of Arab music, with a sideline in cinema and musical instruments.
Songlines (www.songlines.co.uk) is the premier world-music magazine. It features interviews with stars, extensive album reviews and a host of other titbits that will broaden your horizons and prompt many additions to your music collection.
Sidebar: Middle East Film Festivals
- Fajr Film Festival, Iran (Febuary)
- Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival, Turkey (October)
- Beirut International Film Festival, Lebanon (October)
- Cairo International Film Festival, Egypt (December)
Landscape & Environment
The Middle East faces some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time and there are few regions of the world where the human impact upon the environment has been quite so devastating. Further, as one of the world’s largest oil-producing regions, the Middle East’s contribution to the gathering global environmental crisis far outweighs its size. There are pockets of good news, but, it must be said, there aren’t many.
Wrapping itself around the eastern Mediterranean and with its feet on three continents, the Middle East is home to some suitably epic landforms, from the deserts that engulf much of the region and high mountain ranges of the north to some of history’s most important rivers.
Deserts consume the countries of the Middle East, covering 93% of Egypt, 77% of Jordanian and Iraqi territory, and 60% of Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Although deserts dominate much of the region, they’re rarely home to the sandy landscapes of childhood imaginings. Apart from the Saharan sand seas in parts of Egypt, sand dunes worthy of the name are rare and stony gravel plains are the defining feature. Desert oases – such as Siwa in Egypt – have played an important role in the history of the region, serving as crucial watering points for caravans travelling the Silk Road and the Sahara.
More than half of Iran is covered by mountains. The majestic Alborz Mountains skirt the Caspian Sea from the border of Azerbaijan as far as Turkmenistan, and are home to ski fields and the snow-capped Mt Damavand (5671m), the Middle East’s tallest mountain. The immense Zagros Mountains stretch about 1500km from Turkey to the Persian Gulf, rising and falling like the ridged back of a great crocodile.
Eastern Turkey is similarly glorious with seriously high mountains rising above 5000m – the 5137m-high Mt Ararat (Ağrı Dağı) is the highest mountain in the country. Southeastern Anatolia offers windswept rolling steppe, jagged outcrops of rock that spill over into far-north Iraq and northwestern Iran. The vast, high plateau of rolling steppe and mountain ranges of Central Anatolia are similarly dramatic.
In Lebanon, the Mt Lebanon Range forms the backbone of the country: the highest peak, Qornet As Sawda (3019m), rises southeast of Tripoli. Other Lebanese ranges include the beautiful Chouf Mountains, the Bekaa Valley, and the Anti-Lebanon Range, a sheer arid massif averaging 2000m in height, which forms a natural border with Syria.
The Nile, which runs for 6695km, 22% of it in Egypt, is the longest river on earth and along its banks flourished the glorious civilisation of ancient Egypt. Other Middle Eastern rivers resonate just as strongly with legends and empires past. According to the Bible, the Euphrates and Tigris are among the four rivers that flowed into the Garden of Eden, and they would later provide the means for the cradle of civilisation in Mesopotamia. The Jordan River, the lowest river on earth, also features prominently in biblical texts. Even today, were it not for the rivers that run through these lands – hence providing a water source and narrow fertile agricultural zones close to the riverbanks – it’s difficult to see how these regions could support life at all.
Occupying the junction of three natural zones, the Middle East was once a sanctuary for an amazing variety of mammals. Hardly any are left. Worse still, official government policies to protect wildlife are as rare as many of the animals. Casual wildlife sightings are extremely rare in the Middle East, although desert expeditions in Egypt’s Sinai or Sahara offer the chance to see gazelles, rock hyraxes, fennec foxes and even the graceful Nubian ibex. Otherwise, if you see anything more exciting than domesticated camels, donkeys and water buffaloes, you’ll belong to a very small group of privileged Middle Eastern travellers.
Iran is home to 158 species of mammal, about one-fifth of which are endemic. Large cats, including the Persian leopard and Asiatic cheetah, are the standout species. Notable other species include the spectacular Persian wild ass, goitered and Jebeer gazelles, maral, Asian black bear, brown bear and seven species of wild sheep. Most larger mammals are found in the forests of the Alborz Mountains.
The Asiatic Cheetah
The Asiatic cheetah is one of the most endangered cats on earth. The 50 to 100 living on the edges of Iran’s Dasht-e Kavir are all that remain of a population that once ranged from India to the Mediterranean. Cheetahs were prized by ancient Persian royalty, who trained them to hunt gazelles. It is this long history, and the fact that Iran’s population of Asiatic lions and Caspian tigers has been hunted into extinction, that has made the cheetah the poster cat of the country’s conservation movement.
That the cheetah, the fastest land animal on earth, survives in Iran's deserts is a remarkable story – hunting in such conditions requires a high success rate and remarkable stealth. But in other ways, it makes sense – with hunting having driven the cheetah to extinction elsewhere, the uninhabited deserts of Iran's interior make an ideal refuge.
Even so, severe habitat loss during the 1980s and the resultant loss of cheetah prey, traditionally jebeer, goitered gazelles, wild sheep and goats, has made this harder, as it has forced the cats deeper into mountainous areas in search of more modest meals – such as hare and even lizards.
Since 2000 the Iranian government has worked with the United Nations Development Programme and peak cat-conservation NGO Panthera to designate land, mainly in Yazd and Semnan provinces, as parks and reserves, increase punishments for poaching and undertake an extensive tracking program. The aim is to identify exactly where the cheetahs roam and try to link existing reserves to form a safe haven for the few remaining populations.
In 2015, monitoring of camera-trap facilities revealed that 'Pouyan', a male cheetah known to researchers from earlier camera-trap photos, made a remarkable journey: in nine months he travelled from Dare-Anjir Wildlife Refuge to Naybandan Wildlife Refuge and back again, a distance of 415km. Despite such exciting news, the Iranian Cheetah Society announced in 2016 that just two adult female Asiatic cheetahs were known to survive in the wild.
On the positive side, education programs have significantly reduced poaching and the creation of protected areas is expected to help other native species. The project is ongoing. For more information visit the Iranian Cheetah Society (www.wildlife.ir) or Panthera (www.panthera.org).
The Israeli initiative known as Hai Bar (literally ‘wildlife’) is a small beacon of hope amid an otherwise gloomy outlook. Begun in 1960, the Hai Bar program set itself the most ambitious of aims: to reintroduce animals that roamed the Holy Land during biblical times by collecting a small pool of rare animals, breeding them, then reintroducing them to the wild. Consequently, the wild ass, beloved by the Prophet Isaiah, has turned the corner in Israel, though it’s not likely to come off the endangered list any time soon. But the story of the Persian fallow deer is the one that really captured the public imagination. A small flock of the species was secretly flown in from Iran in 1978 on the last El Al flight to leave Tehran before the Islamic revolution. These shy animals have taken hold in the Galilee reserve of Akhziv and around the hills west of Jerusalem.
It’s in Jordan where you’ve the best chance of spotting charismatic fauna. Arabian oryx, ostrich, gazelle and Persian onager are all being reared for reintroduction to the wild and are on show at Shaumari Wildlife Reserve in eastern Jordan – safaris to see these and other species rank among the wildlife-watching highlights of the Middle East. Jordan’s striking caracal (Persian lynx), a feline with outrageous tufts of black hair on the tips of its outsized, pointy ears, is occasionally seen in Wadi Mujib and Dana Nature Reserves.
In contrast to the region’s dwindling number of high-profile mammals, the variety of bird life in the Middle East is exceptionally rich. As well as being home to numerous indigenous species, the Middle East, despite the critical loss of wetlands in Jordan and Iraq, continues to serve as a way station on migration routes between Asia, Europe and Africa. Twice a year, half a billion birds of every conceivable variety soar along the Syro-African rift, the largest avian flyway in the world, which is compressed into a narrow corridor along the eastern edge of Israel and the Palestinian Territories; indeed, Israel claims to be the world’s second-largest flyway (after South America) for migratory birds.
Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Al Fayoum Oasis, and Wadi Araba in Jordan also receive an enormous and varied amount of ornithological traffic. Egypt alone has recorded sightings of more than 430 different species.
Iran is another exceptional country for birds, boasting almost 500 species, many of which are listed as globally endangered. A growing number of birders are coming to Iran in search of these birds, many of which are hard to find elsewhere, and to enjoy the exceptional birding along the Persian Gulf. In winter in particular, many hundreds of thousands of birds flock to the shallow waters of the Gulf, with the Bandar Abbas–Qeshm areas particularly good. Vast flocks of waders, including crab plovers and terek sandpipers, mingle with various herons, egrets and pelicans and together create one of the most important wintering areas for birds in the Middle East.
Birdlife International (www.birdlife.org/middle-east)
International Birdwatching Center of the Jordan Valley (www.birdwatching.org.il)
Israel Birding Portal (www.birds.org.il)
Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (www.rscn.org.jo)
Society for the Protection of the Nature of Israel (www.natureisrael.org)
The Northern Bald Ibis
At least one critically endangered bird species, the northern bald ibis, is still hanging on, although its status in the Middle East remains precarious. Seventy years after the species was declared extinct in Syria, a small breeding colony was found in the Syrian desert, close to Palmyra, in 2002. An intensive conservation program was established to protect the species, although there are fears that recent fighting between Isis and the Syrian government (and the occupation of the area for a time by the former) close to Palmyra may have have finally driven the last northern bald ibises from the region.
Elsewhere, an estimated 500 wild birds survive in southern Morocco, while a semi-wild breeding colony has been established in Turkey (where the species had been driven to local extinction). By mid-2016 the Turkish colony had grown to around 200 birds. Following the breeding season in the Middle Eastern summer, the birds in the Turkish program are returned to cages for their own safety to prevent them from migrating to Syria.
The Red Sea teems with more than 1000 species of marine life, an amazing spectacle of colour and form. Fish, sharks, turtles, stingrays, dolphins, corals, sponges, sea cucumbers and molluscs all thrive in these waters. The rare loggerhead turtle nests on some of Turkey’s Mediterranean beaches.
Most of the bewildering variety of fish species in the Red Sea – including many that are found nowhere else – are closely associated with the coral reef, and live and breed in the reefs or nearby sea-grass beds. Threats to the coral reefs – from both global warming and more localised causes – therefore threaten a large number of species.
In the Red Sea waters off Hurghada, for example, conservationists estimate that more than 1000 pleasure boats and almost as many fishing boats ply the waters. For decades there was nothing to stop captains from anchoring to the coral, or snorkellers and divers breaking off a colourful chunk to take home. But in 1992 12 of Hurghada’s more reputable dive companies formed the Hurghada Environmental Protection & Conservation Association (www.hepca.org). Working with the Egyptian National Parks Office, Hepca works to conserve the Red Sea’s reefs through public-awareness campaigns, direct community action and lobbying of the Egyptian government to introduce appropriate laws. Thanks to these efforts, the whole coast south of Suez Governorate is now known as the Red Sea Protectorate.
One of its earliest successes was to establish more than 570 mooring buoys at popular dive sites around Hurghada. In 2009 the NGO also took over responsibility for waste management in the region, implementing door-to-door rubbish collection and recycling in Marsa Alam and Hurghada. Among its current projects are those aimed at sustainable fishing, projects to protect dugongs, turtles and dolphins, and the monitoring of plastic bags, coral and the effects of bleaching and climate change.
Sidebar: Middle East's Top Five Wildlife Experiences
- Shaumari Wildlife Reserve
- Red Sea Diving
- Winter birdwatching, Persian Gulf, Iran
- Birdwatching, Al Fayoum Oasis, Egypt
- Wild ass and Persian fallow deer, Israel & the Palestinian Territories
Sidebar: Field Guides
Useful field guides include: Birds of the Middle East (Richard Porter & Simon Aspinall; 2010); A Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt (Richard Hoath; 2009); Carnivores of the World (Luke Hunter, 2011); and The Birds of Turkey (Metehan Ozen and Peter Castell; 2008).
National Parks & Wildlife Reserves
Although there are exceptions, most of the Middle East’s officially protected areas exist in name only and are poorly patrolled and poorly funded. There are, however, exceptions.
Nearly 25 years ago the Jordanian government established 12 protected areas, totalling about 1200 sq km, amounting, in total, to just 1% of Jordan’s territory. Some were abandoned, but the rest survive thanks to the impressive Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (www.rscn.org.jo), Jordan’s major environmental agency.
In recent years, Turkey has stepped up its environmental protection practices. The growing number of protected areas includes 40 national parks, as well as numerous official nature parks and nature reserves. It also includes 112 curiously named ‘nature monuments’, which are mostly protected trees, some as old as 1500 years. Sometimes the parks’ regulations are carefully enforced, but at other times a blind eye is turned to such problems as litter-dropping picnickers. Visitor facilities are rare.
The Middle East’s star environmental performer is undoubtedly Israel because of its strong regulation of hunting and a system of nature reserves comprising some 25% of the land. However, the parks are not without their problems. Many are minuscule in size and isolated, providing only limited protection for local species. Moreover, many of the reserves in the south are also used as military firing zones.
It’s often said that the next great Middle Eastern war will be fought not over land but over water. Syria and Iraq have protested to Turkey because it is building dams at the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates. Egypt has threatened military action against Sudan and Ethiopia or any other upstream country endangering its access to the waters of the Nile. And Jordan and Israel regularly spar over the waters of the shared Jordan River, which has now been reduced to a trickle, half of which is 50% raw sewage and effluent from fish farms.
One study suggests that Jordan currently uses about 60% more water than is replenished from natural sources. By some estimates Jordan will simply run out of water within 20 years. Dams on the Yarmouk River, water pipelines, plans to tap underground fossil water and desalination plants are all part of the projected (and extremely expensive) solution.
Desertification, which is caused by overgrazing, deforestation, the overuse of off-road vehicles, wind erosion and drought, is a significant problem faced by all Middle Eastern countries, with the possible exception of Lebanon. The seemingly unstoppable encroachment of the desert onto previously fertile, inhabited and environmentally sensitive areas is resulting in millions of hectares of fertile land becoming infertile and, ultimately, uninhabitable. Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Iran and Iraq are on the frontline, but even largely desert-free Turkey is casting a worried eye on the future. While hotel owners in Cappadocia happily equip their rooms with jacuzzis and mini-hammams, environmentalists fear that much of Turkey could be desert by 2030.
Levels of waste – whether industrial outflow, sewage discharge or everyday rubbish – have reached critical levels across the region; recycling is almost nonexistent. At one level the impact is devastating for local fishing industries, agricultural output, freshwater supplies and marine environments – Lebanon did not have functioning waste-water treatment plants until the mid-1990s, while up to 75% of Turkey’s industrial waste is discharged without any treatment whatsoever. At another level, the great mounds of rubbish and airborne plastic bags provide an aesthetic assault on the senses for traveller and local alike. Plastic bags are also a major issue for marine mammals in the Red Sea, where turtles mistake them for jellyfish; attempts to ban plastic bags in some coastal regions have met with only very limited success.
The related issue of air pollution is also threatening to overwhelm in a region where the motor vehicle is king. In Cairo, for example, airborne smoke, soot, dust and liquid droplets from fuel combustion constantly exceed World Health Organization (WHO) standards, sometimes by as much as 10,000 per cent, leading to skyrocketing instances of emphysema, asthma and cancer among the city’s population. Cairo may be an extreme case, but it’s a problem facing urban areas everywhere in the Middle East.
Feature: Saving The Arabian Oryx
The endangered Arabian oryx – sometimes said to be the unicorn of historical legend – is a majestic creature that stands about 1m high at the shoulder and has enormous horns that project more than 50cm into the air. Adapted well to their desert environment, wild oryx once had an uncanny ability to sense rain on the wind. One herd is recorded as having travelled up to 155km, led by a dominant female, to rain. In times of drought, oryxes have been known to survive 22 months without water, obtaining moisture from plants and leaves.
Their white coats offered camouflage in the searing heat of the desert, providing a measure of protection from both heat and hunters, but the oryxes and their long, curved horns were highly prized. In 1972 the last wild Arabian oryx was killed by hunters in Oman, which led officials to declare the oryx extinct in the wild. Nine oryxes left in captivity around the world were pooled and taken to the Arizona Zoo for a breeding program. They became known as the ‘World Oryx Herd’ and eventually grew to more than 200 in number. As a result of programs to reintroduce the Arabian oryx into the wild across the region, an estimated 1000 oryxes are thought to survive in the wild as of 2017, with reintroduced populations in Israel, Oman and Saudi Arabia. There are also between 6000 and 7000 oryxes in captivity around the world.
The most accessible place to see an Arabian oryx (in captivity, but partly free-ranging) is in Jordan’s Shaumari Wildlife Reserve.
Feature: Dead Sea Sinkholes
In 1990 the Geographical Survey of Israel counted fewer than 100 sinkholes around the shores of the Dead Sea's northern basin. By 2017 there were more than 6000, with more than 500 opening up each year. Some are the size of a hot tub while others are 30m deep and 50m across, but together they are creating an environmental crisis.
The sinkholes are the result of the Dead Sea's ever-dropping water level. As the shoreline recedes, underground fresh water dissolves salt deposits located between 5m and 60m below ground, creating cavities that rise to the surface a bit like an air bubble in honey. Eventually, the loosely consolidated land above caves in.
Over the last few years, Ein Gedi Beach, Mineral Beach and a section of Hwy 90 near Ein Gedi have been closed after sections were swallowed up without warning. No one knows where the next gaping crater will suddenly appear, so the only access to the Dead Sea shoreline between the lake's northern tip (Kalya and Biankini Beaches in the West Bank) and Ein Bokek is at Ein Gedi Spa – and even there continued access is far from a sure thing.
For stunning aerial views of the sinkholes, check out the videos on YouTube.
Sidebar: Environmental Performance Index
In the 180-country 2016 Environmental Performance Index (www.epi.yale.edu/country-rankings), Israel ranked highest among Middle Eastern countries at 49th, followed by Jordan (74th), Lebanon (94th), Turkey (99th), Syria (101st), Egypt (104th), Iran (105th) and Iraq (116th).
Sidebar: Azraq Wetland Reserve
At the disappearing wetlands of Azraq Wetland Reserve in Jordan, 347,000 birds were present on 2 February 1967. On the same date 33 years later there were just 1200.
Sidebar: Water in the Middle East
Columbia University’s Water in the Middle East (www.library.columbia.edu/locations/global/virtual-libraries/middle_east_studies/water) hosts numerous links to articles on the Middle East’s most pressing environmental issue.
Sidebar: Water & Oil
The Middle East is home to 4.5% of the world’s population and around half of the world’s oil supplies, but only receives 2% of the world’s rainfall and possesses just 0.4% of the world’s recoverable water supplies.
Sidebar: Desert Expeditions
- Western Oases, Egypt
- Sinai Desert, Egypt
- Wadi Rum, Jordan
- Negev, Israel & the Palestinian Territories
Sidebar: Notable National Parks & Reserves
- Ras Mohammed National Park, Egypt
- Chouf Cedar Reserve, Lebanon
- Ein Gedi, Israel & the Palestinian Territories
- Mount Ararat National Park, Turkey
- Golestan National Park, Iran
- Lake Orumiyeh National Park, Iran
Sidebar: Jordan's Notable National Parks & Reserves
- Shaumari Wildlife Reserve, Jordan
- Dana Biosphere Reserve, Jordan
- Azraq Wetland Reserve, Jordan
- Mujib Biosphere Reserve, Jordan
Sidebar: Lebanon's Cedars
The cedars for which Lebanon is famous are now confined to a few mountain-top sites, most notably at the small grove at the Cedars ski resort and the Chouf Cedar Reserve in the Chouf Mountains.
Sidebar: Scarce Water
In 2014 Egypt had just 20 cu metres of renewable water per capita per year, while Jordan had just 77 cu metres (down from 675 in 1962). Compare this to the UK’s 2244. Anything less than 500 cu metres is considered to be a scarcity of water.
Sidebar: Environmental Resources in Print
Print environmental resources include: Water on Sand: Environmental Histories of the Middle East and North Africa (Alan Mikhail; 2012); Climate Change – Environment and Civilization in the Middle East (Arie S Issar and Mattanyah Zohar; 2004); and Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution for a Water-Starved World (Seth M Siegel, 2017).