Nevruz (No Ruz), March
Cappadox Festival, May
İstanbul Music Festival, June
Jerash Festival, July
Beirut International Film Festival, October
Much of the region, including desert regions at night, can be bitterly cold and there can be snow on the high peaks from Lebanon to Iran. Egypt and the Red Sea have relatively balmy temperatures.
New Years Day
A surrogate Christmas takes place across Turkey, with decorations, exchanges of gifts and greeting cards. Celebrations begin on New Year's Eve and continue through this public holiday. Over Christmas and New Year, accommodation fills up and prices rise.
Orthodox Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus (it’s celebrated by Eastern Orthodox churches on 6 and 7 January and by Armenians in the Holy Land on 18 and 19 January). Important among Christian communities in Lebanon, Egypt and Syria.
Endurance runners take to the west bank of the Nile near Luxor, starting from in front of the Temple of Hatshepsut. The race takes place in January, followed by a half-marathon in Sharm El Sheikh in March.
Cairo International Book Fair
Held at Nasr City Fairgrounds in Heliopolis in the last week of January and the first of February, this is one of the city’s major cultural events, but most of the lectures and other events (and the books themselves) are in Arabic only.
January and February are the ideal months for skiing. There are more than 20 ski fields in Iran but the best are Dizin and Shemshak, near Tehran. The snow is great and skiing is cheap.
Jordan Snorkelling & Diving
Aqaba, with its warm winter sunshine, hosts the annual holiday exodus of Jordan's urbanites from the hills. The winter months, from December to March, are perfect for an underwater adventure, with clear skies and crystal-clear waters.
The winter chill continues throughout much of the region, though it’s the perfect time of year in the south. Egypt’s beaches and Nile Valley can be busy, while Turkish and Iranian mountain roads may be impassable.
Ascension of Ramses II
22 February is one of two dates each year (the other is 22 October) when the sun penetrates the inner sanctuary of the temple at Abu Simbel in southern Egypt, illuminating the statues of the gods within.
Magnificent Victory of the Islamic Republic of Iran
1 to 11 February is known in Iran as Dahe-ye Fajr ('the 10 Days of Dawn'), a celebration of the days in 1979 between Ayatollah Khomeini returning to Iran and the fall of the Shah’s government. Expect speeches and nationalist demonstrations across the country.
In Egypt sandstorms can darken the horizon, but hillsides and valleys in the Levant, Turkey and Iran are green; it’s a great time for hiking. Low-season room prices in most areas, except Iran during No Ruz.
Nevruz or No Ruz
Kurds and Alevis in Turkey and Iran (where it's called No Ruz) celebrate the ancient Middle Eastern spring festival on 21 March with much jumping over bonfires, huge parties and general jollity. Banned in Turkey until 2005, Nevruz is now an official holiday.
Downtown Cairo's contemporary arts festival is international, multi-disciplinary and great fun. It's also a wonderful way to see the often dilapidated venues in the city centre.
Purim celebrates the foiling of a plot to wipe out the Jews of ancient Persia. Children and adults put on costumes for an evening of revelry in Israel's streets.
Mesir Macunu Festivalı
An altogether different way of marking the spring equinox, Manisa's Unesco-protected festival celebrates Mesir Macunu (Mesir paste), a scrumptious treat made from dozens of spices that once cured Süleyman the Magnificent's mother of illness. Takes place over a week around 21 March.
İzmir European Jazz Festival
This jazz festival fills the Aegean city with a high-profile lineup of European and local performers. Gigs, workshops, seminars and a garden party make this a lively time for jazz lovers to visit.
Although a shoulder season, April is a wonderful time to visit: the wildflowers are in bloom in the Levant, tourist numbers in Egypt drop off and there's good beach weather in southwest Turkey.
Known as Pesach, this week-long festival celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt with ritual family dinners and Shabbat-like closures on the first and seventh days. Lots of Israelis go on holiday, so it's high season in Israel.
During Holy Week, Catholic pilgrims throng Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and many Protestants gather at the Garden Tomb. Dates for Orthodox celebrations differ slightly.
Fajr International Film Festival
Iran’s premier film festival features Iranian and international films and red-carpet events in more than 20 cinemas across Tehran. It has been held in February in previous years, so check the website for details.
Egypt’s Suez Canal area has many distinct folk traditions, including this effigy-burning party held every year in Port Said, right before Shamm Al Nassim. Rooted in 19th-century protests against the British, the conflagration feels both pagan and modern, as today’s effigies are contemporary celebrities and politicos.
Shamm Al Nassim
The Monday after Coptic Easter (29 April 2019, 20 April 2020, 3 May 2021). Literally ‘sniffing the breeze’, this spring ritual came from Pharaonic tradition via the Copts. It’s celebrated by all Egyptians, who picnic in parks, on riverbanks and even on traffic islands.
The spring, late March to mid-May, is the best time to hike Jordan’s nature reserves. The elusive black iris (Jordan’s national flower) blooms and nature lovers can hike through narrow wadis without fear of flash floods.
Dead Sea Ultra Marathon
Not just for a few crazed locals, the Dead Sea Ultra Marathon attracts athletes and amateurs – all heading below zero. The 50km race begins in Amman at 900m above sea level and ends 400m below the international tideline.
İstanbul Tulip Festival
İstanbul's parks and gardens are resplendent with tulips, which originated in Turkey before being exported to the Netherlands during the Ottoman era. Multicoloured tulips are often planted to resemble the Turks' cherished 'evil eye'. Flowers bloom from late March or early April.
İstanbul Film Festival
For a filmic fortnight, cinemas around İstanbul host a packed program of Turkish and international films and events. An excellent crash course in Turkish cinema, but book ahead.
On 25 April the WWI battles for the Dardanelles are commemorated and the Allied soldiers remembered. Antipodean pilgrims sleep at Anzac Cove before the dawn services; a busy time on the peninsula.
Holocaust Memorial Day
Yom HaSho’ah is a solemn remembrance of the six million Jews, including 1.5 million children, who died in the Holocaust. Places of entertainment are closed. At 10am sirens sound and Israelis stand silently at attention. It takes place in April or March.
Peak tourist season begins in the Levant with warm weather on the way. High-season prices in coastal areas are yet to kick in, but it’s good beach weather from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.
During the Ramadan fasting month (called Ramazan in Iran), offices may have shorter hours, and restaurants may close during daylight hours. Foodies will love this time; ambitious sightseers may be frustrated. It begins in May in 2019, and in April in 2020 and 2021.
Jordan Camel Trekking
It may be heating up in Petra and Wadi Rum, but riding a camel through the desert is a quintessential experience in the heat. With sizzling days and breezy nights, you quickly slip into the rhythm of Bedouin life, rising early and napping after lunch.
Windsurfing in Turkey
In Turkey's windsurfing centre, Alaçatı, the season begins in mid-May. The protected Aegean bay hosts the Windsurf World Cup in August and the season winds down in early November, when many of the eight resident schools close.
Uluslararasi Bursa Festivali
The International Bursa Festival, the city's 2½-week music and dance jamboree, features diverse regional and world music, plus an international headliner or two. Free performances are offered and tickets for top acts are around ₺40. Begins in mid-May.
Cappadocia's three-day arts festival merges music, nature walks, art exhibitions, yoga and gastronomy into an extravaganza of Turkish contemporary culture, highlighting the area's natural beauty.
The annual Jordan Rally (www.jordanrally.com) attracts cheering crowds to the Dead Sea shore. The world’s leading rally drivers participate in this 1008km route. It sometimes begins in April.
You’ll encounter long days and sunny, warm weather all across the region. The tourist high season draws large crowds and higher room prices in many areas. It can be unbearably hot in Egypt by the end of the month.
Four weeks of music, theatre and dance performances (some of them free) in and around Jerusalem add a real spring to the step of the city in early summer. Check out www.israel-festival.org.il for dates and programs.
Eid Al Fitr
The Festival of Breaking the Fast that marks the end of Ramadan is celebrated with entirely understandable gusto throughout Muslim areas. It’s generally a family-centric festival, but travellers will find themselves caught up in it all. It takes place in June in 2019 and then moves into May.
Dance with the Sufis
In Luxor, in the third week of the Islamic month of Sha’aban, the Sufi festival of Moulid of Abu Al Haggag offers a taste of rural religious tradition. Several smaller villages have moulids around the same time.
Kashan Rose Festival
Kashan is lovely at any time, but the rose festival in and around town in June celebrates the picking of rose petals as a precursor to rose-water production.
İstanbul Music Festival
Probably Turkey's most important arts festival, featuring performances of opera, dance, orchestral concerts and chamber recitals. Acts are often internationally renowned and the action takes place at atmosphere-laden venues such as Aya İrini, the Byzantine church in the Topkapı Palace grounds.
Oil Wrestling Festival
In a sport dating back more than 650 years, brawny pehlivan (wrestlers) from across Turkey rub themselves from head to foot with olive oil and grapple in Edirne. Late June or early July.
Gay Pride in Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv is bedecked with rainbow flags for Israel’s biggest and most colourful gay and lesbian extravaganza.
A great time for festivals, but the weather can be unpleasantly hot in most areas. It is, however, high season along Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, while holidaying Europeans can push prices up anywhere.
Byblos International Festival
Lebanon kicks off the Levantine summer with pop, classic, opera and world-music performances, many of which are staged among the ruins of Byblos’ ancient harbour. It can start in late June and continue on into August – check the website for details.
Hosted within world-class ruins, Jordan’s much-loved Jerash Festival of Culture & Arts brings ancient Jerash to life with plays, poetry recitals, opera and concerts. Held annually since 1981, the festival takes place over 17 days from mid-July to mid-August.
Lebanon’s full program of summer events continues with this terrific arts festival with music, dance and theatre held in the beautiful courtyard of the Beiteddine Palace. It usually spills over into August.
Turkey Music Festivals
Turkey enjoys a string of summer music jamborees, including highbrow festivals in İstanbul, Bursa and İzmir. The cities host multiple pop, rock, jazz and dance music events, while summer playgrounds such as Alaçatı and the Bodrum Peninsula turn into mini-Ibizas. June to August.
The heat takes its toll everywhere; in Iran desert temperatures can hit 50ºC, and unless you’re by the beach in Turkey, it’s a month to avoid. High-season rates (and overbooking) apply in many coastal areas.
Red Sea Jazz
Eilat in August gives you the chance to combine long days by the water with some terrific jazz. Taking place in the last week of August, it draws international acts, and it’s probably the best jazz festival in the region.
Ten days of classical, traditional and orchestral Arabic music are held at the Cairo Opera House and other venues.
Two festivals take place in the land of fairy chimneys (rock formations). A summer series of chamber-music concerts is held in the valleys and, from 16 to 18 August, sleepy Hacıbektaş comes alive with the annual pilgrimage of Bektaşı dervishes.
As you can’t beat the heat, you may as well join it by building up a sweat at Jordan’s annual dance in the desert. This all-nighter takes place in Wadi Rum and features top international electronic-dance-music artists.
Eid Al Adha
For the Feast of Sacrifice, a four-day Muslim holiday, families slaughter sheep and goats at home, even in large cities. There’s literally blood in the streets, and the air smells of roasting meat. In short, not for vegetarians. It occurs in August in 2019 and then in July in 2020 and 2021.
Two of the most important Jewish holidays make for mini high seasons in Israel. Elsewhere, temperatures are starting to fall (only slightly in Egypt) and high-season crowds and prices start to ebb in Turkey. A good month to hike in Iran.
The Jewish New Year causes Shabbat-like closures that last for two days. Some Israelis go on holiday, so accommodation is scarce and room prices rise. Unless you’re here for the ambience or for religious reasons, avoid this one.
The Jewish Day of Atonement is a solemn day of reflection and fasting – and cycling on the empty roads. In Jewish areas, all businesses shut and transportation (including by private car) completely ceases; Israel’s airports and land borders close. Eerie.
Ashura marks the martyrdom of Imam Hossein and is the most intense date on the Shiite Muslim calendar. It's celebrated with religious theatre and parades in which men self-flagellate. It's especially big in Iran and parts of Lebanon. Falls in September in 2019, and August in 2020 and 2021.
Held on Xuma Beach, Yalıkavak, at the tip of the Bodrum Peninsula, this popular mid-September music festival toasts the end of Bodrum's busy summer season with an eclectic mix of electronic, world and jazz DJs and musicians.
İstanbul's major visual-arts shindig, considered to be one of the world's most prestigious biennials, takes place from mid-September to mid-November in odd-numbered years. Venues around town host the internationally curated event.
Aspendos Opera & Ballet Festival
The internationally acclaimed Aspendos Opera & Ballet Festival takes place in this atmospheric Roman theatre near Antalya (June or late August and September).
As the summer heat finally breaks, Egypt comes back into play and the crowds have tapered off in Turkey. Elsewhere, it’s a pleasant month with mild temperatures, although rain is possible. A great month for festivals.
Akbank Jazz Festival
From late September to mid-October, İstanbul celebrates its love of jazz with this eclectic line-up of local and international performers. The festival marked its 25th anniversary in 2015 and is gaining in prestige every year.
International Antalya Film Festival
Held in early October, Turkey’s foremost film event features screenings, a parade of stars in cars and the obligatory controversy. At the award ceremony in Aspendos, the Golden Orange, nicknamed the Turkish Oscar, is awarded to film-makers.
Beirut International Film Festival
Beirut’s contribution to the cinematic calendar is an increasingly high-profile film festival with a growing reputation as one of the best in the Middle East.
The week-long Feast of the Tabernacles holiday recollects the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert. Families build sukkot (foliage-roofed booths) in which they dine and sometimes sleep. The first and seventh day are Shabbat-like public holidays.
Siyaha in Siwa
An oasis-wide celebration of the date harvest, Siwa’s annual get-together takes place around the full moon this month. Much like a moulid, though not as raucous, there’s Sufi chanting and plenty of food.
Surprisingly chilly weather and smallish crowds even at the more popular sights. The possibility of rain (or snow in Iran) may deter hikers, but Saharan expeditions in Egypt are again possible after the summer break.
Cairo International Film Festival
From the last weekend in November into December, this 10-day event shows recent films from all over the world.
Jordan Running Adventure Race
Covered in a single stage, usually between Petra and Wadi Rum, this 160km ultra trail has become an established part of Jordan’s sporting calendar. A shorter route attracts less-masochistic participants.
Moulid Al Nabi is a region-wide celebration with sweets and new clothes for kids and general merriment in all Muslim areas. In Cairo, the week before is an intense Sufi scene at Midan Al Hussein. Falls in November in 2019, and October in 2020 and 2021.
The Middle East’s winter begins in earnest, and low-season prices apply in most areas, except in Christian areas at Christmas, at ski resorts and in Egypt where Europeans flood in search of winter sun.
The Jewish Festival of Lights celebrates the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean revolt. Families light candles over eight nights using a nine-branched candelabra and waistlines bulge due to jelly doughnuts.
Midnight Catholic Mass is celebrated in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Christmas is a public holiday in the West Bank but not in many other areas. Orthodox Christians must wait until early January for their Christmas.
Skiing in Turkey
Hit the slopes: the Turkish ski season begins at half a dozen resorts across the country, including Cappadocia's Erciyes Dağı (Mt Erciyes), Uludağ (near Bursa), Palandöken (near Erzurum) and Sarıkamış, near Kars. Late November to early April.
Holiday of the Holidays
Haifa’s Wadi Nisnas neighbourhood celebrates Hanukkah, Christmas and the season's Muslim holidays with art and music (weekends in December) for HaChag shel HaChagim.