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.
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, Central Asia also has much 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, but parts of Turkey are very much European. 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.
Countries and Territories
Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, Azerbaijan are also often considered part of the Middle East, as a sort of border region between Europe and Asia. Egypt is as well, but this is more tenuous, as even Sinai is geologically and politically part of Africa. Even the inclusion of Iran is to a degree controversial—it is often considered to be a Central Asian nation.
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.
Public transport is poor compared to other regions of the world including other parts of Asia. The majority of locals would use plane or car travel to get between countries.
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.
This is a more practical option than trains in the Middle East as they are less prone to delays and breakdowns and have far more extensive coverage of the region.
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.
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.
Planning a visit to the Middle East can be complicated in various ways: