In the lands of gods and kings

They may be only a shadow of their former glorious selves, but the ancient sites of the Middle East never fail to amaze and move the visitor.

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs

of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the

sand

A shattered visage lies...

Percy Bysshe Shelley

BUT WHAT is an antique land? Not a land - as Romantic poets suggested - without a present. But certainly a land where there was a lot going on in ancient times.

By that reckoning, the Middle East is one fabulous antique land. Civilisation started in Sumeria and Egypt and worked its way out slowly from there. Since then, dry, desert climates and low population densities have helped to preserve the wreckage of the ancient world.

The modern countries of the Middle East all ended up with their share of relics. Today, the sites are invariably hot as hell in summer, but occupy enchanting locations: dusty paths, shady gum trees, broken capitols lying about in the dry grass, not to mention self-appointed Bedouin guides. Here are some of the top sites:

Ephesus, Turkey

The best of the many ancient sites in Turkey, this is also the most easily visited of the sites featured here, hence the most crowded in high season.

Ephesus originally grew up around the sanctuary of a mother-goddess, variously known as Artemis or Cybele. One incarnation of the city, at the time of Alexander the Great, contained a temple to the goddess which was proclaimed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Gymnasia, early churches, theatres, market-places, brothels, temples and public toilets can still all be seen here, largely built in marble, though these are the ruins of the Roman city which - in its time - was one of the great cities of the eastern empire.

Access: The closest city is Selcuk, a mere half an hour from the resort city of Kusadasi. It is a lovely 3km walk through peach orchards from Selcuk to the ruins.

Palmyra, Syria

In the middle of the desert - far from the nearest river - this lost city rises from the sand like a miracle. In fact it owes its existence to ancient trade routes connecting Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. As a stop-over on the caravan route, Palmyra grew rich on the proceeds of travellers. In the third century AD it had the funds to finance colossal temples and colonnaded streets; but under the flamboyant Queen Zenobia (who claimed to be a descendant of Cleopatra) it tried to assert its independence from Rome. A mistake: a Roman army came to wreck the city in AD273. It has been downhill for Palmyra ever since, except from the point of view of Romantic poets and tourists.

Access: There are at least seven daily buses from Damascus; the price is negligible but the journey takes hours.

Baalbek, Lebanon

Dedicated to the Phoenician god Baal (the Roman Jupiter), this was one of the most important temple complexes in the entire Roman world, and people flocked to worship there in their millions.

Even today the remains are stunning. Deep in the beautiful Bekaa Valley, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the surviving columns of the gigantic Temple of Jupiter are the largest of all antiquity: a massive seven feet across and 70ft high. Some of the building blocks used in this temple weighed over 1,000 tons. Next door, the so-called Temple of Bacchus (which was actually dedicated to the goddess Venus) is rather smaller but has survived virtually intact: vast staircases, extraordinary carved friezes and entablatures provide faint clues to the exotic mind-sets of the ancients.

An added reason to visit Baalbek is to stay in the Palmyra Hotel, a crumbling French-colonial edifice where the waiters all claim to remember Charles de Gaulle.

Access: Share taxis (known as Service taxis) run from Beirut to Baalbek for about pounds 5; a private taxi return trip costs pounds 30-pounds 40.

Petra, Jordan

With colossal facades hewn into solid cliff faces, this is the ultimate lost city. Along with Palmyra, it grew rich as an oasis stop-over for silk-road traders travelling between Persia and the west. But for over 1,000 years its existence had been entirely forgotten by most of the outside world: only in 1812 did the first Western travellers finally trek through the narrow 2km-long defile through sheer cliffs to reach its ruins.

Today, however, since the opening of the border with Israel, tourists are coming to Petra in droves (admission prices have risen commensurately). The fabulous city of the Nabataeans is best seen out of season.

Access: Frequent buses from Amman; day-trips even possible from Eilat.

Babylon, Iraq

Though not as spectacular as the other sites featured here, Babylon wins inclusion by virtue of its semi-mythical connotations. The idea that you can actually visit it comes as a surprise to most people.

Today, the Hanging Gardens (another of the Seven Wonders) are a dusty, crumbling wilderness, besides which the monumental, yellow-brick walls of ancient Babylon have been reconstructed on the order of Saddam Hussein (the entire complex is overlooked by one of his palaces).

Access: Less than 100km from Baghdad.

Persepolis, Iran

The ruins of this legendary city lie deep in southern Iran, about 50km from the modern city of Shiraz. The old capital of the great Achaemenian Empire, commanded by Darius King of Kings and his son Xerxes, it has been left as a ruin ever since that fateful day in 331BC when Alexander the Great entered it and had it burnt down - an act which has blackened his name throughout Persia ever since.

The distinctive images of horned bulls, bearded, winged lions, and vassals offering gifts to the king of Persia, appear as bas- reliefs, perfectly preserved in solid granite. The whole site occupies a perfect location: a raised platform with dusty mountains behind it and fertile fields stretching away at its feet. A few kilometres to the north is Naghsh-e Rostam, where the massive tombs of the Achaemenian kings, including Darius and Xerxes, are carved into sheer rock cliffs. The skies over the province of Fars, the mountainous heartland of old Persia, are the bluest on earth.

Access: Taxis or organised trips from Shiraz are very cheap.

Giza, Egypt

The monuments of Egypt remain the most magnificent on earth, as they have been since their construction. Naturally, they too were one of the Seven Wonders.

The Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza, just outside Cairo, was already over 2,000 years old when it was visited by Herodotus in the fifth century BC. Four-and-a-half centuries later, it was climbed by Mark Antony. Two- and-a-half million sandstone blocks, each weighing over two tons, were used in its construction. And yet this is just one of Egypt's relics. Across the sand, the Sphinx, in recently restored splendour, gazes eternally across the desert, while all around are tourists, hustlers, camel-rides, postcard sellers, unsolicited guides. All add up to the oldest, greatest touristic experience in the world.

Access: A travel bargain. For about five pence, you can ride buses 904 or 905 from Midan Tahrir in central Cairo all the way to the pyramids. You won't need to ask the bus driver where to get off.

Leptis Magna, Libya

Along a quiet lane, beside avenues of eucalyptus, lies one of the greatest cities of imperial Rome, Leptis Magna. In the third century AD, it rivalled Rome itself for naked splendour. Amid smells of pine resin, the song of crickets and a warm wind in the grass, giganticism of the kind favoured by Shelley still awaits the few tourists that make it: the monumental arch of Septimius Severus at the entrance, public baths comprising dozens of 10m-high archways, a vast, dead forum, littered with upended columns, monumental arches and staring Medusa heads. Meanwhile, in the Severan Basilica next door, gigantic roof entablatures have crashed to the ground, carrying their inscriptions with them, still awesomely legible after 2,000 years. The only sound is of crashing waves on a beach outside.

Access: Leptis Magna is on the coast, about 50km east of Tripoli.

FACT FILE

middle-east antiquities

GETTING THERE

British Museum Traveller (tel: 0171-323 8895) organises upmarket tours, specialising in ancient history and archaeology, led by British Museum curators or equally well-qualified guides. A 10-day all-inclusive tour of, for example, Libya costs pounds 1,800 per person.

Jasmin Tours (tel: 0181-675 8886) specialises in escorted tours to unusual destinations in the Middle East. It will obtain all visas on your behalf, free of charge. One of its new tours is a nine-night sightseeing tour in Syria and Lebanon, which costs pounds 995 per person, including return flights and half-board accommodation. The 16-day Iran Ancient Sites Tour covers destinations including Tehran, Bisitun, Kashan, Yast, Kerman, Shiraz and Persepolis, including the services of an expert guide. It costs pounds 1,877 per person, including return flights, transfers, the guide, half-board accommodation based on two sharing, and visas.

Arab Tours Ltd (tel: 0171-935 3273) specialises in tours to Libya. The 10-day Classical Tour of Libya's Archaeological Sites costs pounds 1,390 per person, including guide, return flights, transfers, and full-board accommodation. The six-day Tour of Tripolitania costs pounds 990 per person, including guide, return flights, transfers, and full-board accommodation.

Exodus (tel: 0181-675 5550) organises tours of the Middle East. Alexander's Path, recommended for first-time travellers, is a six-week tour from Istanbul through Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Egypt to Cairo for pounds 990 per person (flights excluded). There are also Truck Adventure holidays for the more adventurous which mix hotels with camping accommodation.

Bales Tours (tel: 01306 885991) offers expert guided tours of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, The Yemen and Iran. Eight-day tours of Egypt cost pounds 549 per person, including return flights, accommodation with breakfast and all sightseeing tours.

The Imaginative Traveller (tel: 0181-742 8612) organises a 34-day tour from Cairo to Istanbul, taking in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. It costs pounds 1,835 per person, including accommodation, most meals and transfers Flights are not included.

Misr Travel (tel: 0171-255 1087) offers standard and tailor-made tours to Egypt. Misr is the national tour operator for Egypt and has good insider knowledge. An eight-day Cairo and Nile cruise costs pounds 782 per person, including return flights, transfers, five-star accommodation, most meals and guided tours.

Live Ltd (tel: 0181-737 3725) currently specialises in small group tours of the antiquities of Iraq. Tours depart twice a year and the next one leaves on 18 October. A two-week tour, including full-board accommodation, guides, return flights and transfers costs pounds 1,400 per person, based on two people sharing.

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