In 1978, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) began recognising several landmarks around the world for their cultural, historical, scientific and natural significance, all in an effort to conserve and preserve humanity’s shared heritage. As of 2019, a total of 1,092 landmarks have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, ranging from nature’s masterpieces to primitive lands that have witnessed the rise and fall of empires. Several of these landmarks exist in the Arab world alone, from the famed Egyptian pyramids to Turkey’s lesser-known geological wonders. Each of these sites tells the story of the region in awe-inspiring ways, allowing visitors plenty of opportunities to discover the passage of time in ancient and modern Arabia.
AL AIN OASIS
Nestled in the heart of Abu Dhabi’s garden city, Al Ain Oasis was chosen for its natural and cultural significance. This 1,200-hectare expanse is home to over 147,000 date palms of up to 100 varieties and numerous fruit trees. One of the best ways to explore the site is taking a stroll beneath the thick canopy of fronds that have endured countless desert summers. As you meander down the historic pathways, stop to admire the intricate 3,000-year-old irrigation network that runs beneath the oasis. Traditionally known as the falaj system, this channel highlights the agricultural practices that were prevalent in the region millennia ago. To this day, this age-old system continues to bring fresh water into the oasis by tapping into underground aquifers from the Al Hajar mountain range as well as the Jebel Hafeet mountain.
WADI RUM PROTECTED AREA
Although Jordan’s ancient city of Petra is one of the world’s most visited UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the country’s Wadi Rum Protected Area demands equal attention. The desert’s otherworldly wilderness has featured in several well-known Hollywood movies, including The Martian, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The protected area, some 100 kilometres south of Petra, is locally known as “the valley of the moon” owing to its resemblance to the moon’s rocky surface. The landscape
overflows with natural beauty made up of dramatic geological structures – gorges, rock bridges, cliffs, mountains and caves – that rise above the red sands. Moreover, the area has been continuously inhabited for over 12,000 years and ancient civilisations have left their footprints behind, which can be experienced through more than 25,000 carvings and inscriptions over the rocks.
MEMPHIS AND ITS NECROPOLIS
Believed to have been founded in 3000 BCE as the capital of ancient Egypt, Memphis was home to the kingdom’s rulers and a sacred temple, reserved for subjects to worship their gods. Today, the area is better known as the Pyramid Fields, stretching over 30 kilometres from Giza to Dahshur. At the northern end of the site, the imposing Sphinx seems to stand guard over the majestic pyramids of Giza in its backdrop. Often referred to as the last remaining wonders of the world, the pyramids have long lured travellers, many who come to admire their sheer enormity and impeccable geometry. While some believe that these structures have unearthly origins, they stand as vivid reminders of life in ancient Egypt, built as grand tombs by thousands of workers on the orders of the pharaohs. While most tourists conclude their visit here, those seeking to explore more should venture further south to the little-known complexes of Abu Sir, Saqqara and Dahshur, scattered with tombs, temples and smaller pyramids.
Although Qal’at al-Bahrain was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the landmark sits on an ancient mound, formed by centuries of urban rebuilding. It dates back to 2300 BCE, making it one of the oldest structures in the region with a storied past. It is believed that the site was the capital of the ancient Dilmun Empire, where locals conducted their day-to-day commercial activities. During the successive Tylos and Islamic periods in the region, it served as a maritime trading hub connecting civilisations around the world. Now transformed into a museum, visitors can wander the halls, learning how agrarian communities flourished in Bahrain through the archaeological finds displayed here.
Looming over the Omani town of Bahla, this formidable structure sits at the base of the Jebel Akhdar mountains. It was built by local tribes in the Middle Ages to protect the nearby oasis and support the trade of frankincense to the rest of the region. Constructed out of sand-coloured stones and mud bricks, the complex is a perfectly preserved example of Islamic architecture, complete with labyrinthine passageways and alcoves. As you explore the twisted lanes on foot, stop to take in the panoramic views of the mountains and palm trees from the battlements.
AL BASS TYRE NECROPOLIS
Local lore suggests that the discovery of purple dye can be traced to the Phoenician city of Tyre to 1550 BCE, although the town itself dates back to 2750 BCE. The subsequent trade of purple dye made this ancient port on the southern coast of Lebanon one of the wealthiest cities of its time. While its former glory has waned, the magnificent structures built by the Romans when they seized the city in 64 BCE still stand. Albeit in ruins, the striking architecture continues to demand attention, especially the triumphal arch and the enormous hippodrome. Past the arch, the avenue boasts mysterious beauty as it holds hundreds of ornate tombs and marble sarcophagi – a stark reminder of the fallen Phoenician kingdom.
Resembling frozen cascades of a waterfall, warm natural pools hang on the edge of a steep cliff in Turkey’s southwestern town of Pamukkale. Along with its natural significance, the town it’s housed within boasts historic Greek and Roman ruins dating back to the second century BCE, including temples and baths.
The monumental remains of the lost kingdom of Madain Saleh are evocative of the prosperity of this Nabataean city in its heyday. A thriving spice trade and its inhabitants’ ability to source, store and supply water to camel caravans meant an empire bound to flourish. Its historical significance made Madain Saleh the first landmark in Saudi Arabia to acquire World Heritage Site status. While much of the ancient city still lies under layers of sand, the uncovered necropolis comprises 131 stone tombs inscribed with carvings of eagles, sphinxes and griffins.