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
(images via: wikimedia commons, martijn.munneke)
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
(images via: amerune)
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
(image via: wikimedia commons)
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
(images via: wikimedia commons)
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.