Africa & the Middle East

Exploring Antiquity

written by | Posted on March 1st, 2011

For hundreds of years, travelers have journeyed to Egypt, Israel and Jordan to experience first-hand the birthplace of Western civilization. Even in contemporary times, nothing has taken the sheen off its appeal of antiquity – not regional wars or political turmoil and certainly not the recent tumult in Egypt, which is once again ready to welcome eager travelers to its age-old treasures.

In fact, for those who treasure antiquity, visiting Egypt, Jordan and Israel—three modern countries that can rightfully boast of being the cradle of Western civilization—is like stepping into an ancient, illuminated manuscript. Legendary and noteworthy spots are abundant within the borders of these countries, places that have enthralled historically minded travelers for centuries and sound like the roll call of historically significant sites.

historic trio Among those history-rich spots that never fail to captivate, Cairo’s l-Mui’zz Ii-Dan Alla Street stands in a class by itself, reflecting the glory days when Cairo was unmatched in wealth, supremacy and allure. Flourishes from those bygone days are evident at practically every turn. The street was named after the commander who captured the city in 969 and named it al-Qahira. History lovers treading along its uneven paving stones will feel as if time has stood still for centuries. The street is a marvelous old ribbon full of tombs, fountains and minarets, epitomizing Cairo’s starring role in the Islamic world.

When it comes to historical splendor, the Bab Zuweila Gate, rising at the southern end of the street, is among the most beautiful in a land known for beautiful marvels. Legendary Islamic scholar Taqui al-Din al-Maqrizi, in his meticulous study of 15th century Cairo, wrote: ‘’People who have toured all the cities of the Orient tell me they have never seen a grander gate than Bab Zuweila.’’ That assertion still holds, even some 600 years after the fact. The gate’s beauty is best appreciated at twilight, when the harsh North African sunlight reflects off the minarets of the dominating nearby Sultan al-Muayyad mosque, built three centuries after the gate.

On the other side of the coin, as far as more celebrated sites is concerned, is Jordan’s Petra, the imposing ancient trading city hidden away in the mountains between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. It is one of those places where, for once, the hype preceding it is justifiable.

Built in the seventh century B.C. by the Nabataeans, a Semitic tribe who monopolized the trading route between the Middle East and Africa, Petra flourished until the Romans conquered it and left it to decay in the sun-baked Jordanian wasteland.

The city was unknown to Westerners until the early-1800s when a Swiss explorer passing himself as a Muslim heard rumors of a very old city in the mountains and bribed a Bedouin to guide him there.

Today, Petra enjoys protection as a UNESCO World Heritage site and it’s one of the most magnificent ruins in the world. The moment one passes through the entry gates, it becomes evident why archaeologists, poets, scholars and adventurers were enthralled by Petra’s magnificence. T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was a renowned archaeologist, and he called the ruins and Wadi Rum—the surrounding desolate desert where it sits—“vast, echoing and God-like;” a place, he said, that stifled laughter and enforced humility.

Petra’s potent allure may be due to its mystery. Unlike other great archaeological relics like the Parthenon in Athens or the Great Pyramid at Giza, no one knows much about the ruins that exemplify Jordan’s rich history. Jordan not only boasts of great marvels like the Dead Sea and Wadi Rum, but Amman, its capital, is no slouch when it comes to historical sites.

Although more modern than ancient, Amman wears a substantial historical veil. It’s full of air-conditioned malls and cinemas, yet visiting its downtown Roman amphitheater will peel back layers of history that come even more alive after attending one of the many lectures at the museums facing the Roman ruins, where Bedouin customs and Ottoman relics are enshrined.

Then there is Israel. In what may be the strongest truism about Israel, no one will read the Bible the same way after visiting this magnetic, rich and antiquity-laden sliver of land.