I first took a Red Sea holiday in the late 1990s, having studied Arabian history and culture, and spent the six weeks following my graduation travelling around the region with three friends.
Much has changed in the 15 years since we took our tour, and some of the countries that we visited, such as Sudan and Yemen, are no longer safe for tourists, thanks to on-going conflicts and the threat of terrorism and kidnap.
Fortunately, many of the countries around the northern Red Sea are still very welcoming, and very much worth visiting. I’ve chosen five destinations, two in Jordan, two in Egypt and one in Saudi Arabia, that are worth adding to any itinerary.
1) Aqaba (Jordan)
Aqaba’s history stretches back to pre-Biblical times and that history is very much on show. Unlike many cities in this part of the world (Cairo springs to mind, but more on that later!), Aqaba is still relatively small, with a population of around 100,000.
That said, since I was last there the Jordanian government and private developers have invested $20 billion into transforming Aqaba from what was an overgrown but still sleepy fishing village into a top class coastal resort. It’s possible this will work, but it’s still a little sad to think of Aqaba, which has so much character, being turned into another Sharm El Sheikh.
As with any popular destination, Aqaba has its tourist traps, but you can still find more authentic (and less pricey) shops and restaurants in the Old Town and along Raghadan Street.
From Aqaba it’s just a two hour drive to Petra. The drive is well worth taking, but if you’re hiring a car, as we did, you may want to make sure you get one with working air-conditioning, as Temperatures in Jordan can exceed 90°F/30°C as late as October!
Once in Petra, however, you’ll be blown away. Its name means ‘Stone’, and many of the buildings in this ancient city (which dates back to around the 3rd Century BC) are literally carved out of the rock. The famous Al Khazneh (Treasury) has been used in countless films, perhaps most famously in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. A truly spectacular and enchanting place.
If Jordan’s Aqaba is a big but sleeping fishing village, Cairo is its antithesis. Its history needs little introduction, but though Cairo itself was established only as “recently” as the 10th Century CE, the nearby presence of the Pyramids at Giza is a testament to how far back civilisation stretches in this neck of the woods.
Modern Cairo is, however, a very different place to the delta communities that were home to Cleopatra. These days the city is home to almost 10 million people. The recent so-called Arab Spring, in which long-serving President Hosni Mubarak was deposed, created a period of instability which, thankfully, seems to have settled.
Obviously, when it comes to Cairo the main draw are the pyramids, but many visitors – myself included – are disappointed by how caught up in the urban sprawl this ancient archaeological site now is. Whenever you see photos of the pyramids, they look as if they’re in the middle of the desert. In reality, you only have to turn a couple of degrees left or right to see tower blocks and pylons, which is a real shame.
The highlight of my stay in Cairo was the Cairo Citadel, a medieval fortification built by the famous Salah al-Din (aka Saladin) in the 12th Century. While not exactly deserted it certainly feels a lot less “touristy” than the Pyramids, and the Mohamed Ali Mosque (named after the Ottoman commander, not the boxer!) looks like something from the ‘Arabian Nights’!
Of course, if visiting Egypt you’ll still want to see the sights of ancient Egypt, and few places offer them more theatrically than Luxor. This was originally the site of the city of Thebes, and now encompasses the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens.
The main draw here is probably the Temple of Karnak, which – rather than being one building – is in fact a vast complex of temples. If you had visited Luxor just five or six years ago, you could have expected to find yourself elbow to elbow with tourists from around the world, but the recent political upheavals mean that – at the time of writing, at least – places like Karnak are surprisingly quiet throughout the year. I was last there in May 2012, and though we visited Karnak quite late in the morning we felt like we had the place to ourselves!
The coastal town of Jeddah is essentially Saudi Arabia in a microcosm. For many, especially Muslim pilgrims who flock here during the Hajj, it is the gateway to Mecca, but there has been a settlement here since pre-Islamic times, going back at least as far as the 5th Century BC, when it was a small fishing village!
It’s very hard to believe that now! 21st Century Jeddah is one of the many futuristic – and often outlandish – cities that have appeared throughout the Arabian peninsula in the last 20 years. In Jeddah you’ll find pretty much anything you’d find in the west (McDonalds, shopping malls etc.), but with a Saudi twist. So, for example, men and women are often segregated even in fast food restaurants, owing to the country’s strict, religious laws.
That said, as flashy and impressive as much of modern Jeddah is, for my money the place most worth visiting is Al-Balad, the old town. The Saudi authorities haven’t always paid the greatest deference to historic sites (in Mecca they bulldozed an Ottoman castle to make way for a skyscraper!), but there’s been a concerted effort in Jeddah to preserve Al-Balad, and the traditional, Arabian buildings here are a feast for sore eyes after all that concrete and glass in the modern city centre!
About The Author: David Llewellyn writes about travel and tourism for Anjum Hotels
Photo Credits: Wikimedia Creative Commons