The Middle East is a world region in Western Asia and North-eastern Africa. The term was created by British military strategists in the 19th century, and definitions of the Middle East vary; it is not simply a geographical term, but also a political one, connoting that it separates Europe ("the West") from the Far East, and the traditional trade route of choice between these two extremes.
Egypt is often considered a part of the Middle East, as the Sinai is geologically a part of Asia. Sometimes Azerbaijan is considered a part of the Middle East, as a sort of border region between Europe and Asia. Even the inclusion of Iran is to a degree controversial — it can also be considered to be a Central Asian or South Asian nation.
As one of the wellsprings of human civilisation in the ancient and medieval worlds, the birthplace of several world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Bahai) and an area of much modern economic and political importance, the Middle East remains a popular destination for travellers.
Ethnically, the region is extremely mixed. Arabs, Jews, Persians and Turks are the largest groups, but there are several substantial minorities — Kurds, Armenians and others — with their own languages, customs and sometimes their own countries. Every invading army — from Alexander and the Romans through Genghis Khan to the 19th century colonial powers — has left descendants behind. There are also substantial numbers of workers from other countries coming to the region for higher pay — mainly Afghan, Pakistani for jobs like construction labourer, with Egyptians, Filipinos, more Pakistanis, and some westerners in the more skilled jobs.
Almost every country in the Middle East has a Muslim majority (with the notable exception of Israel which has a Jewish majority), with Iran, Iraq and Bahrain mainly Shia, other areas mainly Sunni, and both with minorities of the other — and the legal systems in most of these countries are influenced by Islamic Law; a few are entirely based on it.
North Africa is similar to the Middle East in many ways — language, religion, culture and some ethnic groups. Some writers include Egypt, or even Sudan and Libya, in their use of the term "Middle East".
On the other side, countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan and much of Central Asia also have certain things in common with the Middle East. Ethnic groups and languages are different, but the religion, much of the food, clothing, and architecture are similar. Iran could be counted as part of either region; at one point most of Central Asia was part of the Persian Empire.
The border between southeastern Europe and the Middle East is also unclear. Many writers include Turkey in their usage of "Middle East" and we include it above. Large parts of Turkey and all of Lebanon and Israel are also clearly Mediterranean regions. On the other hand, several countries usually considered European — Greece, Cyprus and to some extent the Balkans — also have Middle Eastern aspects to their culture.
The largest hub for flights in the region is Dubai, from where you can reach virtually any point in the Middle East. After Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi also have good intercontinental connections. Tel Aviv is served by flights from most Western countries, though due to the political situation, it is not possible to fly from there to anywhere in the Middle East besides Egypt and Jordan. However, there are direct flights from large European hubs to most major cities in the region.
Should you wish to enter Bahrain on land, the only way is via the King Fahd Causeway which extends from Saudi Arabia into Bahrain. Bear in mind that while Bahrain issues visas on arrival, provisions for this in Saudi Arabia are not available to non Gulf nation passport holders.
Rail travel in the Middle East is limited and whilst most countries have limited passenger services between cities, there is very little between countries.
Istanbul is the best starting point for rail journeys to a lot of areas in the Middle East. From here, a service to Aleppo in Syria operates from which one can take a connecting service to Damascus. There is a train that connects Damascus with Amman in Jordan. A service from Istanbul also operates to Tehran which includes a 4 hour ferry journey across Lake Van. In general, these trains tend to operate weekly or at most bi weekly.
All other countries in this region have no international rail services.
Arabic is the primary language of the region, and the main language in all Middle Eastern countries except Iran (where Persian predominates), Turkey (Turkish) and Israel (Hebrew). Even in those countries, Arabic is fairly common as a second language; in Israel, Arabic is a second official language. Yiddish, Ladino, Kurdish, Azeri, Armenian and several other languages are also spoken in some regions.
English is moderately common in tourist areas and generally rare elsewhere. In Turkey, some German is spoken because many Turks work in Germany and Austria.
A fancy Arabic mixed grill. Clockwise from top: lamb kofta, chicken shish tawuk, beef shish kebab, rozz (Arabic rice), vegetables.
Cookery provides obvious evidence of the extent of Middle Eastern influence. Turkish doner kebab, Greek gyros and the shawarma of the Arab countries (everywhere from Oman to Morocco) are all basically the same dish. A traveller going overland from Europe to India will find very similar dishes — notably flat breads and kebabs — in every country from Greece to India. These are also seen in Central Asia and even China. Many Greek dishes are closer to Iranian cooking than to Italian.also you can eat Iranian (Persian) great foods like : Ghorme Sabzi or Dizi. Many imagining Israeli cuisine as European state and it is wrong, Israel has also an Arab cuisine of Jews from Arab countries like Kubbeh Matfuniya, Baklava, Falafel, Kebabs (Turkish/Iraqi) and even some dishes that created by Mizrahi Jews like Jerusalem Mixed Grill and Sabich.
Basically, you will encounter two kinds of cuisine:
Mediterranean: olive oil is heavily used. Different meats and fried fish are very common, and green vegetable are heavily used. This cooking is one of the finest, most creative and healthiest in the world.
Desert: often coming with chicken and rice. The use of aromatic herbs, spices and chilli makes it very particular, and sometimes absolutely delicious. But yeah, it can be strong. Arguably, the most interesting restaurants to visit might be Syrian ones, as there are rarer than Lebanese and usually mix both types of cuisines.
When it comes to meat, be aware that chicken, goat and lamb are the most represented. Beef is not so widely represented, as, aside Lebanon and some parts of Egypt and Turkey -and Algeria, if you consider it as Middle East- lands are pretty dry (don't look for meadows then). Pork is prohibited in Islam and Judaism, so just forget it while you are there, even in Christian areas, why bothering with a meat than cannot be as fresh and clean as expected?
Vegetarian and Vegan diets: Mediterranean cuisine does offer vegetable dishes, but it might be difficult to meet your expectations in areas that are not so tourist-oriented.
Coffee: What is called Arabic coffee is something that every coffee lover should try: strong and sweet, it is often perfumed with cardamom, which confers a particular taste. Turkish coffee is prepared the same way (directly boiled on the fire), but doesn't come with cardamom. In both case, don't drink the whole cup, as the bottom, called "mud", tastes really bitter.
Wine: if Middle-East doesn't pop in mind when it comes to alcoholic beverages (as the main religion, Islam, prohibited it), Middle-easterners where the first in history to produce wine and beer, and this tradition has never been lost. Lebanon especially produces some excellent wines, an Turkey as well.
Arak: another typical drink from Lebanon and Syria, it is close to Greek ouzo and French pastis, although it tastes stronger. Depending on the brands, its alcohol degree varies from 40° to 57°. Poured with ice and water, its colour varies from milk-white to transparent. Raki (actually pronounced "rakay") is not exactly the same but has the same origin and is very close to Serbian rakija and Greek tsipouro. Iran also produces an aniseed spirit.
Tea: widely available in two forms:
Mint tea: Green tea with fresh mint and a lot of sugar (like with coffee, don't be offended if you see people using the same spoon)
white tea: usually served as the end of a meal, it is actually not tea, but rather a rosewater preparation. Traditional alternative to tea, coffee and arak (where it is served).
Narguileh: Also called arguileh (in Lebanon), or sheesha (everywhere) it is of course not a drink (although, in Arabic, they do use the verb "drink" when it comes to waterpipe). Originally from Turkey, it is widely appreciated everywhere in Middle East. you may enjoy the different flavours, but bear in mind it's way more toxic than cigarette, so you should never smoke (or "drink") it alone. Generally speaking, unless you travel to the Gulf countries and stay in Westerner areas (so in this case, aside the heat, you cannot pretend you actually have been to Middle East), tobacco is universally consumed, -be prepared to that-, included in closed spaces such as buses and taxis.
Planning a visit to the Middle East can be complicated in various ways:
Some countries and territories in the area, such as Iraq, Syria, and the Gaza Strip, are in a state of war or civil war and should not be visited. See War zone safety if you must go.
Some countries in the region have very strict Islamic Law, with heavy penalties for homosexuality, adultery and other acts that may not seem offensive to Western travellers.
Many countries in the region do not recognize the state of Israel for many reasons. These nations may refuse you entry if you have an Israeli visa or an Israeli stamp in your passport, or even a visa for another country that was issued in Israel. The Israeli authorities will generally help you avoid these problems by providing a visa as a separate document so it is not in your passport, however now this has been discontinued; see the Israel article for details. Only Turkey, Egypt and Jordan have official relations with Israel in the region.
Turkey and Cyprus — with lots of border posts and extensive transportation alternatives, southern Turkey is well linked to Syria. It may also be possible to take cruises to the island nation of Cyprus from Syria as well as Lebanon.