If you’re swept away by the romance of a thousand and one Arabian Nights or fascinated by the history of Lawrence of Arabia, the Middle East can offer you so many charms. You can shop endlessly for treasures in the souks or while away the afternoon drinking tea and smoking nargila in the lands known as the “cradle of civilization”. You can absolutely exhaust yourself studying Arabic ancient history, or lose yourself in the modern day Middle East.
Although nine tenths of the kingdom are made up desert, it truly is a place of diversity and is great for more rugged adventure travel, though some extremely luxurious spas and resorts are springing up around the Dead Sea.
This region has an extremely varied climate – from hot seashores to alpine mountains. You can do some nice skiing in Lebanon, and then travel to the Syrian or Jordanian desert for a camel ride. Lebanon has the famous Cedars of Lebanon in the mountains as well the Jeita as a cavern about 15 miles north of Beirut. There are a few beaches for swimming in Lebanon and you can float around in the Dead Sea near Jordan, but if you want a full-on “beach holiday” you may be slightly disappointed. Winter is roughly Nov-March, and Summer is June-Sept. The best time to visit is arguably spring, early summer and fall when the daytime temperatures are moderate. Sandstorms in the desert can be dangerous – it’s best to venture out with a guide for this type of trekking as you can get hopelessly lost quickly with dire results.
All nationalities require a visa and a passport more than six months from the expiration date. If you have evidence of prior travel to Israel, you may be refused entry to these countries. There is a Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian Embassy in the US, UK and Europe (Netherlands). Check with your local embassy for specific information relating to your country.
Lebanon – the local unit of currency is the Lebanese Pound, but is also called Lira
$1 US = 1,500 LBP
£1 sterling = 2,500 LBP
1 Euro + 1,600 LBP
Jordan – the unit of currency is called the Dinar
$1 US = .70 JOD
£1 sterling = 1.2 JOD
1 Euro = .75 JOD
Syria – the unit of currency is the Syrian Pound, but is also called Syrian Lira
$1 US = 50 SYP
£1 sterling = 80 SYP
1 Euro = 55 SYP
ATMs have only recently (March 2001) made an appearance in Syria and remain somewhat rare. It is difficult to get Syrian money outside of Syria – though larger currency specialists such as Thomas Cook, may be able to get Syrian pounds if you give them enough notice. The airports in Aleppo and Damascus have exchange facilities that can get you cashed up right off the plane. ATMs are extremely common in Lebanon, slightly less common in Jordan. In any of these three countries you can exchange currency at banks, though be aware of the Arab’s somewhat inexplicable schedule of business hours.
Syria is a shoestring traveller’s dream. You can find hotels around the al Hedjazz train station for around US$6. These are close to a lot of good things to walk to, including Souk al Hamydiyya cafes and tea houses, but may vary greatly in terms of cleanliness and amenities – or state of disrepair – bring your own universal sink/tub plug! Street food is extremely cheap, plentiful and quite delicious and fresh. Shawarma and felafel goes for about US 50 cents per sandwich. Shopping is a dream – most things are priced less than half of what you’d find at home – for almost the same quality. You can break the bank for a US $150-200 a night stay at the Meridian,or the very swanky Sheraton, but Syria can be travelled quite nicely on a more modest budget. A budget traveller could be quite happy having tea in the lobby of the Sheraton, to make believe you’re staying there, and watching the well-heeled Saudi businessmen swoop around in their robes and keffiyahs.
A budget for Lebanon should be created more in the context of a “big city” holiday. The prices there can be typically “American” or “British” depending on the level of luxury you require. There are also more Western goods and services available in Lebanon, if this type of thing tempts you. The shopping is off the charts, especially women’s clothing. You can find everything from cheap and trendy clubwear to gorgeous couture worthy of any international socialite. There are many more ethnic restaurants serving food that deviates from the Arabic norm found in Syria and Jordan.
Jordan offers more expensiv “adventure travel” type pursuits. There are a lot of companies offering package tour for camel treks, Bedouin guides and rock climbing or hiking. Also new in Jordan are some nice resorts and spas around the Dead Sea area. Expect to pay premium tourist rates here.
Arabic food is one of the most interesting things about Arab culture – and the hospitality of the Arab people is legendary around the world. While the same basic components, meat, rice, vegetables are constant, the spices and serving methods make it distinct to whatever region you’re visiting.
Be sure to sample the local alcoholic beverage, if you’re a fan of such vices, the anise flavoured – Arak. Typically Arak is served in glass, into which water is poured turning the clear Arak cloudy white, and then ice. Always the water first, THEN the ice. For those who may not wish to be intoxicated by this Arabic rocket fuel, the other national drink, tea, has many varieties. The most common is black tea, drunk in tiny glasses, with lots of sugar. There is also mint tea, green tea, and hibiscus tea – a romantic tea made from flower petals.
Arabic is the official language of the region, but you find a surprising amount of English speakers. People will delight in “practising their English” with you and will apologise needlessly for what is often an excellent command of the language. There are areas where nothing but Arabic is spoken, including road signs, so it’s a good idea to have at least an idea of the language – knowing the Arabic equivalents of “please, thank you, excuse me and I’m sorry” are well appreciated. If want to learn a few words, stop in any tea shop -you won’t want for an Arabic tutor for long! In Lebanon, and in Syria to a lesser degree, French is spoken. It’s considered extremely polite to speak French in Beiruit, a sign of good manners. The Arabic spoken is the Levantine dialect, different from that spoken in Egypt or Moroco. Lebanese Arabic has a laid back quality to it – the Californians of the region – whereas Jordanian has a rhythmic, almost “sing-songy” sound to it.
Arabs are some of the most physically beautiful people around, due to the mixing of ethnicity’s in the region. The men are handsome with strong features, the women are graceful and exotic. The nationality is Arab, but you find many people identifying with a secondary ethnic group – Palestinians, Kurds, Armenians,
Circassians or Chechens. The colouring of the people ranges from extremely light, even blond haired/blue eyed in Lebanon and Syria, to very dark skinned with black hair. The famous “Arab hospitality” is no myth – people think nothing of inviting total strangers to their house for tea or food. The crime rates in these countries are low – due to the totalitarian governments.
Lebanon has a lively arts and cultural scene – Beirut especially is packed with nightclubs, art galleries, and concert venues. Syria and Jordan have many of the same activities, but on a smaller scale. The High Institute of Music and Ballet in Damascus often features concerts by the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra – a national treasure.
In this region, you will see Western dress as well as traditional robes and head coverings for men and women. Even in summer, dress modestly – especially women. Both sexes cover their arms and nobody wears shorts on the street. If you sport the usual American combination of shorts and white sneakers you will stick out like a sore thumb. Men in the cities usually wear long sleeved shirts with jackets or more traditional robes and keffieyahs – the traditional red/white or black/white head coverings.
You do see the “headscarf and long coat” ensemble of Muslim women everywhere, but many women in the cities dress VERY Western with gorgeous, stylish outfits and very high heels – especially in Lebanon. This does not mean skimpy clothing, which is almost universally frowned on – and can create problems for women. When in doubt, keep the arms and legs covered and err on the side of modesty. Long skirts are great for women travellers, with the bonus of making it easier to use any squat toilets you may encounter! Women in rural areas will be more traditionally dressed, possibly wrapped up in a chador, or large head scarf. It’s advisable for women to wear a head scarf in some areas, or at the very least – have one on hand especially when visiting mosques. This will show more respect of their culture. Another benefit of the head scarf is it may allow you to glide through the souks, markets, with less of the tourist hustle that others may encounter.
Cabs, cabs, cabs. You can take a cab from Damascus and get to either Amman or Beiruit. There are also a few tour bus lines – these are getting better as the area develops more of a tourism industry. Private cars are a tough call – driving in Damascus is utter anarchy, one hand on the wheel, one on the horn. Renting a car tends to be quite expensive in Syria and Lebanon, best to check out the cab option first!
Trains are not really an option in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. the al Hedjaz train station in Damascus, while historically significant, is basically empty – except for an interesting coffee shop near the train platform (which features one of the few bars serving alcoholic beverages) made up of old train cars once used by Sultans. Everything in the train station is slightly shabby and decaying, though the area around the station is lively. If you absolutely must, you can hop a once-weekly train to Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Tartous or Latakia – for a VERY cheap price – but you may be in for a 12 hour ride. Best to inquire at the train station for the current schedule.
Also near Hedjaz Station are the Damascus’ offices of EgyptAir, and a few more smaller airlines are scattered around the Martyr’s Square area. Also in this section is the bookshop area – there are quite a few English language and travel books available for sale here.
When planning travel in and around or out of the city, remember that Syrians and Jordanians work Saturday – Thursday – the Islamic holy day, roughly equivalent to the Western Sunday is on Friday – while Lebanese are more Western, and have Saturday and Sunday off – to shop! Most shops will be closed on Friday in Syria and Jordan. However, hours at most stores can be maddeningly irregular and confusing – they sometimes slam shut without notice, for prayer times, meal times or just a break – but some do stay open surprisingly late in the evening.
Cabs, however, are always your constant travel option. They are available seemingly any time.
Vaccinations suggested for this area include tetanus, typhoid, hepatitis A and a poliobooster. Hospital facilities in these counties tend to be quite modern and there are many small pharmacies with knowledgeable staff for less serious travellers complaints. Be sure you health insurance covers you for travel in these countries, if you encounter a serious health problem, it can be quite expensive.
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