The Middle East is blessed with many storied cultural landmarks and natural properties. Earlier in September this year, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee announced new 40 sites from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
If you’re visiting this part of the globe, including UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Middle East in your itinerary can add a cultural touch to your journey. This article rounds up 10 of the must-visit sites.
What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
According to UNESCO, a World Heritage Site refers to places that “are of outstanding universal value to humanity.” A convention provides legal protection to these sites.
Since 2005, these are the criteria that the committee has been following when selecting new World Heritage Sites.
- Must represent a masterpiece of human creative genius
- Must exhibit vital interchange of human values over a certain period or within a cultural zone
- Must have testified to a civilization or cultural tradition, existing or had already disappeared
- Must be an outstanding structure or landscape that shows an important part of human history
- Must be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land use, or sea use that represents a culture, especially those facing vulnerability due to irreversible change
- Must be linked to events, living traditions, ideas, beliefs and artistic or literary works of outstanding universal significance
- Must contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance
- Must represent major stages of the planet’s history
- Must exemplify ongoing ecological and biological processes in the evolution of terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems
- Must contain important natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity
10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Middle East to visit
Around the globe, there are nearly 1,200 sites with this designation as of writing. About 100 of them can be found in Arab states. We’ve narrowed down the list to 10 World Heritage Sites you must consider visiting.
Historic Jeddah, the Gate to Makkah
- Location: Saudi Arabia
- Date of inscription: 2014
Located on the eastern Red Sea coast, Historic Jeddah was a significant port for Indian Ocean trade in the 7th century. It facilitated the transport of goods to Makkah and served as the entry point for Muslim pilgrims arriving by sea. Over time, this dual function transformed the city into a vibrant multicultural hub with a distinct architectural style, marked by unique tower houses constructed in the late 19th century by the city’s merchants. These structures showcase coastal building techniques with influences and craftsmanship from various trade routes.
Uruq Bani Ma’arid
Photo courtesy of National Center for Wildlife
- Location: Saudi Arabia
- Date of inscription: 2023
Recently added to UNESCO’s roster, Saudi Arabia’s Uruq Bani Ma’arid reserve is also the country’s inaugural natural site on the list. The reserve occupies a part of the western border of the Rub al-Khali (The Empty Quarter), spanning 12,750 square kilometers of desert terrain. It is home to diverse wildlife, including the free-roaming Arabian Oryx. The reserve also boasts over 120 native species of flora and fauna and is now a hub for various eco-tourism activities.
Cultural Sites of Al Ain (Hafit, Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud and Oases Areas)
- Location: United Arab Emirates
- Date of inscription: 2011
Al Ain’s cultural sites of Hafit, Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud and Oases Areas collectively tell the history of settled human life in the desert from the Neolithic era. Remnants from various prehistoric cultures — including circular stone tombs from around 2500 BC, wells, mud-brick buildings and towers — provide a glimpse into ancient lifestyles. In particular, Hili stands out for its Iron Age aflaj irrigation system. As a whole, these sites showcase a rich history of defense, habitation and economic activities.
Qal’at al-Bahrain – Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun
- Location: Bahrain
- Date of Inscription: 2005
Qal’at al-Bahrain is a tell or artificial mound made by layers of human occupation from 2300 BC to the 16th century AD. According to UNESCO, about 25 percent of the site has been excavated, revealing diverse structures. These range from residential and commercial to religious and military buildings. Crowned by the imposing Portuguese fort atop the 12-meter mound, the entire site derives its name from this structure (qal’a means “fort” in English). The former capital of Dilmun, a major ancient civilization, Qal’at al-Bahrain holds the region’s richest remains of this civilization. Previously, it was known only through written Sumerian references.
The Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls
- Location: Israel (Site proposed by Jordan)
- Date of inscription: 1981
Jerusalem, revered by Islam, Judaism and Christianity as a holy city, has a profound significance. Acknowledged by all three religions, it marks the site of Abraham’s sacrifice. Among its 220 historic monuments, the 7th-century Dome of the Rock stands out with its intricate geometric and floral motifs. Meanwhile, the Wailing Wall delineates religious quarters. Another highlight, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre features the Resurrection rotunda housing Christ’s tomb.
- Location: Jordan
- Date of inscription: 1985
Petra is a Nabataean caravan city between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. It served as a crucial crossroads connecting Arabia, Egypt, and Syria-Phoenicia. Half-carved into rock and surrounded by mountainous passages, it is an easily recognizable site that combines Hellenistic aesthetics with ancient Eastern traditions. It showcases exceptional remains and monuments spanning prehistoric to medieval periods, providing testimony to lost civilizations in a dramatic red sandstone landscape.
- Location: Iraq
- Date of inscription: 2019
Located 85 kilometers south of Baghdad, this property comprises the ruins of the city that served as the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire from 626 to 539 BCE. The site includes nearby villages and agricultural areas. Its remarkably preserved remnants — encompassing city walls, gates, palaces and temples — highlight one of the most influential empires to grace ancient history. Babylon is synonymous with famed rulers like Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar, It is also well-associated with the Hanging Gardens, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur
- Location: Egypt
- Date of inscription: 1979
Located at the floodplain’s center on the Nile’s western side, Memphis is believed to be founded around 3000 BC. The capital of Egypt’s Old Kingdom boasts remarkable funerary monuments, including rock tombs, ornate mastabas, pyramids and temples. In ancient times, Memphis was among the Seven Wonders of the World. Its strategic location, commanding the Delta entrance and intersecting vital trade routes, made it an irreplaceable seat of power for rulers governing both Upper and Lower Egypt. Memphis retained its significance through various historical periods until eclipsed by the Islamic city of Fustat and later, Al Qahira.
- Location: Oman
- Date of inscription: 1987
The prosperity of Bahla as an oasis settlement is attributed to the Banu Nebhan, a dominant tribe from the 12th to the late 15th century. The extensive fort ruins, featuring walls and towers of unbaked brick and stone foundations, are the epitome of this fortification style. As a prominent site from the medieval Islamic period, it demonstrates the early inhabitants’ water engineering prowess, which they used for both agricultural and domestic purposes.
Al Zubarah Archaeological Site
- Location: Qatar
- Date of inscription: 2013
Al Zubarah, a coastal town in the Persian Gulf, served as a bustling hub for trade and pearling in the late 18th to early 19th centuries. Built by Kuwaiti merchants, it established significant trade links spanning the Indian Ocean and Western Asia. Unfortunately, in 1811, the town faced destruction and eventual abandonment by the early 1900s. This historical site also played a crucial role in the development of independent states, contributing to the formation of modern Gulf countries.
From ancient multicultural hubs to rock-carved wonders, the Middle East is a treasure trove of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These places not only embody the region’s historical significance but also underscore its role in shaping the course of human development. If you find yourself in the Middle East, don’t miss the chance to explore these areas, travel back in time, and learn more about unique cultures and civilizations.
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