Middle East travel before the madness

Syria travel poster

Doesn’t Syria look warm and inviting in this vintage Middle East travel poster? It was an alluring destination. Now Syria is the most war-torn place on the planet. Syria used to be:

  • Sophisticated
  • Culturally and religiously diverse
  • Had four international airports
  • A popular destination for ancient monuments
  • A revered place of learning Arabic, particularly
  • Famous for delicious bakeries on every corner.

Stylised travel posters such as the one pictured above revealed more than the romance of journeys decades ago.  Posters also paint a picture of borders, state propaganda, culture, war and peace at the time. Culture in the Middle East remains a bedrock, but war and peace shift like sand.

Once upon a time the Islamic world’s riches and mysteries drew many travellers. Middle East travel was considered as exotic as deepest Africa. Incredibly complex conflicts including the rise and rise of religious extremism and terrorist attacks are reducing the number of countries to be explored. This is the most religiously and politically sensitive region in the world.

Tunisia vintage travel poster

  • Jordan is still considered a safe haven for travellers
  • North Africa’s Tunisia, Algeria and Libya are off the menu
  • About 1 million tourists visited Egypt in November and December, down 41 per cent from last year and the lowest number during these peak months since at least 2005, says Bloomberg
  • Iran’s tourism is on the increase as other countries become unavailable. Iran had 4,769,000 arrivals in 2013, up from 3, 354,000 in 2011, says world bank.org stats
  • Turkey’s tourism, which has seen exponential growth over the past 10 years, has been affected by the Syrian refugee crisis and recent bombings. The Australian government’s SmartTraveller advice: Exercise a high degree of caution.

Since 2011 an estimated 300,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war. Millions of Syrians have been displaced. Their exodus – largely to Jordan, Turkey and the perilous journey to Europe via Greece – is the biggest refugee crisis since WWII. The misery is still almost incomprehensible, even though we read about it daily in the headlines. Forced travel is trauma on a grand scale.

SmartTraveller on Syria: A No Go Zone. Get out or don’t go.

Visit Palestine vintage travel poster

Travel and tourism have a way of adapting to circumstance. The West Bank is periodically wracked by violence but this Middle East travel destination carries on. The hideously deprived Gaza Strip remains a No Go Zone. Ironically, this poster was created by Austrian Jew Franz Krausz in 1936. He fled Hitler’s Germany and made a series of posters for Zionist groups to encourage Jewish immigration to the Holy Land. Vibrant Mediterranean colours, a low-rise city, and the Dome of the Rock captured the unique essence of the region. After the creation of Israel in 1948, the poster was forgotten for decades.

It was rediscovered in the 1990s during the Oslo peace process, and has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance ever since, according to news website Slate. Artist/photographer Amer Shomali tweaked the Krausz poster in 2009. The Palestineposterproject.org has other variations, illustrating the continuing conflict.

Palestinian poster project

The Palestinian territories remain a biblical mecca for travellers to see the ancient wonders of East Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jericho. In 2010, 4.6 million people visited. Most were domestic travellers. They and international travellers were more likely to stay only for the day. International tourists – many of them Christian – usually did group tours. Since the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 after the six-day war, Israeli authorities have sought to expand the city’s Jewish population and reduce its Palestinian population.

Despite the Israelis running most tourism in East Jerusalem, there’s a Palestinian tourism site.

Round up the best of Palestine – the holy shrines, the historical treasures, the hospitality, the folklore, the hiking, the biking, the culture, the handicrafts, the food, the beer – and you have the building blocks for one of the most interesting journeys you’ll ever take.”

SmartTraveller on the region: Gaza – do not travel. West Bank – reconsider your need to travel. Israel – exercise a high degree of caution.

Iraq travel poster

In 1928, English crime writer Agatha Christie travelled by train from London to Baghdad on the famous Orient Express. A distance of 3000 miles (4828km) over 8 days. It was a journey accented by desert vistas, crisply ironed linen, chilled wine and waiters.
It also afforded Christie an opportunity to meet Syrians, Kurds, Armenians and Palestinians, although she wasn’t known for empathetic portrayal of dark swarthy foreigners in her books.
 Orient Express travel poster
Iraq became independent from the British in 1932, but colonial influences remained. Iraqi State Railways (a very British form of public transport) was well run and popular with travellers. Red double-decker buses rumbled through the streets of Baghdad for a few decades more.
  • Capital city Baghdad in the late 1950s had a population of 1.5 million
  • It was an elegant city of wide avenues, with a well-developed cafe culture
  • Red buses were still visible
  • Women in hijab were the exception rather than the rule
  • Education was a priority for men and women alike
  • The souks were magnets for shoppers, selling precious metals, copper, silks, spices and carpets.
Iraq, the birthplace of civilisation, had its 20th century tourism hey day in the 1970s, when Baghdad was still hauntingly beautiful. Iraq was once described as “a glorious interlude”. Baghdad is now the most dangerous city in the world for personal safety, according to Mercer (a global consulting leader in talent, health, retirement and investments). It publishes an annual quality of living survey for most major cities in the world. This year Vienna was ranked first, and Baghdad was placed last at 223. It has been drop dead bottom of the heap for several years.
Iraqi vintage travel poster
Over a million Iraqis have died since the invasion of 2003 and many more have been displaced, to make new lives worldwide. The violence knows no end: Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide truck bomb that killed at least 60 people after it was detonated in the Hilla province, south of the Iraqi capital on Sunday, March 6.
With so much violence, neglect and political dysfunction in Iraq, it’s been years since passenger trains leaving Baghdad went anywhere other than Basra in the country’s south, reports the New York Times. However there is a new fast train to Basra, bought from China, which began service in 2014. Inside are the luxuries of first-class rail travel, including flat-screen televisions and refrigerators in the sleeper cabins. But the food is apparently third class.
SmartTraveller on Iraq: (Are you nuts?) Get out or don’t go.
And then there’s Dubai, the crowning glory of the United Arab Emirates. Dubai, with architecture that wows and shopping ditto, is the exception to all the Middle East travel rules right now. It is the All Go Zone.

One thought on “Middle East travel before the madness

  1. I have had the immense privilege and pleasure of visiting Libya in 2006, Libya and Yemen in 2008 and Iran in 2011 and 2013. All visits were made as part of tour group (although with the visits to Libya I arrived several days before the other tour group members so that I could meet up with Libyan locals I had become friends with since I saw the Libyan Sitting Volleyball team competing at the Paralympics in Sydney in 2000. One of those people included a member of the that team. What a small world it is).

    Forget all the stereotypes of the Middle East being a dangerous place to visit – especially for women. Not once did I ever feel unsafe or threatened … well maybe crossing roads in Tehran or Tripoli was ‘exciting’ but I was never singled out for special treatment by drivers because I was so obviously a westerner.

    In all three countries the local people were genuinely friendly and welcoming. Children were keen to practice their English language skills and play football in with us in the streets of Saan’a. Within just a few hours of arriving in Tehran in 2011 my room mate and I were invited to have tea in the family home of a beautiful woman we met in Laleh Park. We met with her and her family again at the end of the trip. And when we returned to Iran in 2013 they were the first people we contacted. They came straight to the hotel to meet us and we went to their home for the rest of the day and evening.

    I could write forever about the wonderful times and experiences I had in Libya, Yemen and Iran – I am totally in love with the people, their countries, architecture, culture. The food was wonderful too … even though I don’t eat meat I never went hungry even in the Sahara – but that’s another story for another day


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