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There are two sides to the Middle East – the political and religious hotbed that’s rarely off the world news agenda, and the ancient, hospitable and wildly romantic region that has inspired some of the world’s greatest travellers

For first-time visitors to the Middle East, the first surprise is the region’s diversity.

Yes, you’ll find some of the world’s greatest desert scenery here, but the area also boasts snow-capped peaks (the highest is Iran’s volcanic Mount Damavand), lush valleys (particularly in Israel, Lebanon and north Jordan), hip cities (try Beirut, Dubai or Tel Aviv on a Friday night) and world-class diving along the Red Sea and Arabian Sea coasts.

The ‘fertile crescent’ arcing from Egypt to Iran is the cradle of civilisation, and brims with historic sites. Most famous are the pyramids and temples of Egypt’s Nile Valley, but equally mesmerising are the Nabataean city of Petra in Jordan, the Persian cities of Shiraz and Isfahan in Iran, and the Roman ruins of Baalbec in Lebanon and Palmyra in Syria.

Biblical landmarks are scattered across restive Israel and Palestine – countries where travel is perfectly possible and hugely rewarding, but inevitably takes on a political dimension.

Further south into Arabia, Dubai and the arid Gulf states may be best-known for oil money and ultra-luxurious hotels, but there is another side too. Oman is fast becoming the Middle East’s adventure capital, offering mountain hikes, dune bashing and Bedouin encounters in the desert.

For well-prepared travellers, turbulent Yemen harbours untouched medieval cities like Shibam and the unique wildlife of Socotra island. Between the two, and spilling into little-visited Saudi Arabia, lie the vast dunes of the Empty Quarter, explored by Wilfred Thesiger in the 1940s.

Safety is a common concern for Middle East travellers. With the exception of Israel, the countries of the Middle East are predominantly Muslim, and as with any other part of the world, you should dress appropriately and familiarise yourself with local customs and etiquette.

In the main, though, you are far more likely to be overwhelmed by welcome than worry. Arab hospitality is no myth, and sitting down and talking with Middle Eastern locals is one of the greatest reasons to visit the region. A sweet tea, a nargileh (water pipe) and a game of backgammon are never far away.

So what are you waiting for? Start planning your Middle Eastern adventure today…

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