|12 Intriguing Natural Wonders of the Middle East|
Is your mental image of the Middle East almost entirely composed of sand and camels? While it’s true that this region of Asia is largely desert – including the world’s largest sand desert at a whopping 250,000 square miles – it’s also home to stunning caves, snow-capped peaks and islands flourishing with exotic plants and animals. Composed of a long list of nations from Syria to Oman, the Middle East is more known for its cultural wonders (and ancient wonders, like Iraq’s Hanging Gardens) but its natural features are definitely worth a virtual (or real-life!) visit.
Mount Damavand, Iran
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The highest peak in the Middle East at 18,406 feet above sea level,Mount Damavand is Iran’s most notable landscape feature and has a prominent role in Persian mythology and folklore. It’s also Asia’s highest volcano, with fumaroles near the summit crater that may still be active. Mineral hot springs located on the volcano’s flanks and at the base offer purported therapeutic benefits, and public baths have opened nearby. The mountain is home to leopards and brown bears as well as red sheep and wild goats.
Wadi Rum, Jordan
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Inhabited since prehistoric times, Wadi Rum is a valley cut into the sandstone and granite rock in Southern Jordan and is home to a rock formation nicknamed the Seven Pillars of Wisdom in honor of British officer T.E. Lawrence. The rock walls here are inscribed with prehistoric Petroglyphs, and one of the peaks – Mount Um Dami – is high enough to afford a view of the Red Sea. Wadi Rum is inhabited by a small population of Zalabia Bedouins who run eco-tourism businesses taking foreign visitors on hikes and climbs.
Bu Tinah Island, Abu Dhabi
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Lying within the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve, which is the Middle East’s first and largest official UNESCO-designated reserve of its type, Bu Tinah island is a small archipelago off the western coastline of Abu Dhabi. It’s closed to visitors in order to protect its highly unique ecosystem. The coral reefs here have managed to flourish despite conditions that would kill coral species in other parts of the world, including extremely salty water. The island – which is actually a cluster of shoals – plays host to a number of rare and endangered wildlife such as the hawksbill turtle and the dugong, a marine mammal related to manatees. All of these factors have made Bu Tinah island an important site for climate change research.
Cedars of Lebanon
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The Cedars of Lebanon are among the most awe-inspiring trees in the world, growing up to 130 feet tall with trunks up to 80 feet in diameter. Native to Lebanon as well as parts of Turkey, Syria, Algeria and Morocco, the trees are largely found within the Cedars of Lebanon conservancy park and some are as old as 2,000 years. They play an important role in Lebanese history, with many references to them in the Bible, and are featured on Lebanon’s flag.
Socotra Island, Yemen
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Socotra Island is isolated enough that a third of its plant life can’t be found anywhere else on earth. This archipelago of four islands is found in the Indian Ocean, but is technically a part of the Republic of Yemen. Socotra was used as a trading base in antiquity, and it’s mentioned in many ancient texts, from Greek tablets to The Travels of Marco Polo. Among its most striking species is Dracaena cinnabari, also known as the Dragon Tree (pictured above). Unfortunately, as in so many other areas of the world, human habitation has resulted in a reduction of the animals and plants that were once present on the islands.
Red Canyon, Israel
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Floods cutting through red, pink and purple sandstone have carved stunning rifts and canyons in Israel near Eilat. A short, kid-friendly hike takes visitors through the crevices between the rocks, offering refuge from the sun as well as some stunning photo opportunities.
Mount Ararat, Turkey
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Located near the Iran-Turkey border, Mount Ararat is a snow-capped, dormant volcanic cone standing 16,854 feet above sea level. It’s notable in Judeo-Christian tradition as the place where, according to the Book of Genesis, Noah’s ark came to rest. It’s also visible from Armenia and Azerbaijan. In Armenian mythology, Mount Ararat is the home of the Gods, and it symbolizes that nation’s identity. Most of the snow-covered Mount Ararat is treeless, but some areas offer quality pasture grass that is used by the local Kurdish population to graze their sheep.
Rub’ al Khali, Arabian Peninsula
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The largest sand desert in the world is quite a sight to be hold – making up nearly a third of the Arabian Peninsula, including most of Saudi Arabia and parts of Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The desert covers 250,000 square miles, and its red-orange sand dunes can reach 820 feet in height. Very little wildlife is able to survive here – you’ll find mostly scorpions and a few rodents. But biodiversity isn’t what makes this area so valuable to the Middle East. It’s the oil. Rub’ al Khali is known as the most oil-rich site in the world.
The Dead Sea, Jordan and Israel
With a salt content so high that nothing can live in it, the Dead Seahas earned its name. This salt lake borders Jordan, Israel and the West Bank and its surface and shores are 1,388 feet below sea level, making it the lowest land elevation on earth. Being 33.7% saline means objects – including people – are especially buoyant in its waters. The Dead Sea experiences sunny skies and dry air year-round yet has weakened ultraviolet radiation and relatively cool temperatures in the summer compared to the rest of the region. These factors, paired with high oxygen content in the air and lots of beneficial minerals in the sea, make it a popular therapeutic destination.
Jeita Grotto, Lebanon
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Two interconnected limestone caves in the Nahr al-Kalb valley north of Beirut, Lebanon were inhabited in prehistoric times but not ‘discovered’ again until 1836. Tourists can now view the lower cave of the Jeita Grotto, which was previously only accessible by boat, thanks to a tunnel and series of walkways 200 feet above the bottom of the cave. The upper galleries of the cave are home to the world’s largest known stalactite, which is 27 feet long. Visitors are only able to catch a glimpse of this cave system, as most of it is protected to prevent damage.
Musandam Fjords, Oman
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Located 3 to 5 hours from either Dubai or Abu Dhabi, respectively, the fjords and inlets of Musandam in northern Oman are reminiscent of similar landscape features in Norway. This remote peninsula is separated from the rest of Oman by the United Arab Emirates and features rugged, sandy mountains that plunge from heights of nearly 6,500 feet straight down into crystal-clear blue-green waters. Visitors typically cruise in on tourist boats to take in the majesty of the fjords.
Cappadocia Cliffs, Turkey
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Nicknamed ‘fairy chimneys’, the cliffs of Cappadocia are soft, undulating landscape features formed in volcanic tuff rock by wind and rain. This rock is soft enough that it can be carved and hollowed, so the cliffs have been turned into homes and chapels by the Turkish locals for centuries. Many of the rock formations resemble mushrooms or chimneys, hence the name. And beneath all of these beautiful and fascinating rock formations is yet another amazing sight – a network of subterranean cities that once housed up to 10,000 Christians escaping persecution.