Often called “The Holy Land,” Israel was founded as a Jewish and democratic state. Though it is small in size, it boasts remarkably diverse landscapes and one of the most revered histories of any nation in the world. Much of that past is centered in Jerusalem, center of the world’s major religions. The city boasts 1,204 synagogues, 158 churches and 73 mosques. The most significant and holy sites here are the Western (or Wailing) Wall, remains of the Second Temple; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, site of Christ’s crucifixion; and the Dome of the Rock, from where Mohammed ascended to heaven. Palestine, too, is home to legends of biblical proportion as Jesus’s birthplace is preserved at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Israel’s coastal cities offer another view of this remarkable nation. In Haifa, a sophisticated seaside jewel, the colorful Hanging Gardens drape the slopes of Mt. Carmel, a blooming tribute to the Bahá’í faith. And in exuberant Tel Aviv, Israel’s financial center, a vibrant and progressive youth culture mingles among Bauhaus, art deco and other European-style architecture.


Jordan has been playing host to travelers for millennia, since its earliest days as a bustling trade center, so hospitality is a habit here. Its only coastal city, Aqaba, is the gateway for travelers arriving by ship. It was also the site of the Battle of Aqaba, Lawrence of Arabia’s celebrated charge against the Ottomans in 1917. Visitors can step much farther back in time during a visit to legendary Petra, the magnificent city carved into red cliffs by the Nabataeans in the 4th century BC. Jordan’s natural world takes the breath away, too, as an exploration of the lunar-like valley of Wadi Rum will show.

Egypt & Arabia

Long a commercial and cultural crossroad between Asia and Africa, Egypt boasts an epic history of pharaohs, sun gods, a fabled river and colossal architecture whose construction by ancients remains one of the world’s great mysteries. Its capital, where the call to prayer ricochets across centuries-old city blocks, is Cairo. The mighty Nile River winds through its center like a serpent and the Great Pyramids punctuate the outskirts like a trio of desert sentinels. Second only to Cairo, Alexandria hugs the Mediterranean Sea. This was once the world’s greatest center of learning, as its modern library attests with its brilliant, hieroglyph-etched design. If ancient Egyptians went to Alexandria to learn, then surely they headed upriver to Luxor for spiritual sustenance, where they made offerings to falcon and crocodile gods. Here, alongside Nile waters graced by billowing sails of feluccas, a pair of spellbinding temples, Luxor and Karnak, has been unearthed from under desert sands and remarkably preserved.

The Red Sea coast of Egypt offers its own fascinations. Waters off the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh offer an abundance of stunning coral reefs. And the Red Sea itself, famously parted by Moses, glitters in the Sinai sun. Famously, this legendary body of water was linked to the Mediterranean in 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal, a staggering work of engineering prowess in its day.

Opposite Egypt on Red Sea shores, the Arabian Peninsula unfolds with undulating desert sands and rugged mountains. At its easternmost reaches, the welcoming nation of Oman clings to its centuries-old ways. Its capital of Muscat is a grand repository of Islamic architecture and low-slung white-washed houses that seem torn from the pages of 1,001 Nights. In Salālah, remnants of the 13th-century Incense Route dot the cityscape as traditional wooden dhows ply the waters of the Omani coast.

View our Ocean Cruises to the Middle East.