The Middle East is one of the oldest and historically rich regions in the world, with a past shaped by millennia of Bedouins, Pilgrims, settlers, traders and great ruling dynasties. While a modern, thriving and ever-developing society today, the Middle East still has some glimmers of its past, with a handful of abandoned ghost towns and settlements across the region – many of which are open to the public for exploration. From an old pearling village in Ras Al Khaimah to a mysterious village sinking into the sands in Sharjah, here are the ghost town in the Middle East you can explore.
Old Town AlUla, Saudi Arabia
Old Town AlUla is probably the world’s most vibrant, un-ghostly of ghost towns – a sprawl of historic mud brick houses, sitting alongside a strip of kitschy boutiques, coffee shops (and even a Harvey Nichols pop-up). The town was once a thriving community, with the maze of mud-brick houses inhabited as recently as the 1980s. Built on a slight elevation and overlooked by a 10th-century fort, AlUla Old Town dates back over a thousand years, and was once a key spot on the ancient pilgrimage route from Damascus to Makkah. Mudbrick houses are arranged in a maze-like layout, designed to be attached to each other for defensive measures, and at one point, the town was accessed by 14 gates. Today, visitors can wonder the abandoned streets and peer inside the cube-like structures that once housed families. The Old Town is part of AlUla Old Town Village, which was awarded Best Tourism Village by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
Al Madam Ghost Village Guide, Sharjah, UAE
Less than an hour’s drive from Dubai, over the border with neighbouring emirate Sharjah, lies the mysterious Al Madam Ghost Village. Slowly sinking into the desert sands, the abandoned settlement is said to date back to the 1970s, though no one is really sure of its history. The tiny village sits alone in the desert, and, without any fencing or protection, is free for the public to wander in and explore. There are two rows of homes and an elegant mosque – all left to the sands of time – with some houses home to pretty mosaics and one even with a preserved wallpaper mural. Adding even more mystery to the Al Madam story, there are indications the residents left in a hurry, with doors hanging open and personal effects left in a scattered state. A 2018 survey conducted by Sharjah Art Foundation found that the Al Kutbii tribe once inhabited the village.
Al Jazeera Al Hamra, Ras Al Khaimah, UAE
The northern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah has become one of the UAE’s most popular vacation destinations thanks to its proximity to Dubai, beautiful beach and desert resorts and natural activities like hiking, ziplining and camping. Although the emirate is becoming a must-visit destination, the abandoned village of Al Jazeera Al Hamra is often left off travellers’ itineraries. The mysterious spot is still free from mass tourism and is widely believed to be haunted. Built by three tribes in the 14th century, Al Jazeera is the last serving pearling village in the Arabian Gulf and is an eerie ode to the region’s past. Guests can explore the collection of abandoned houses, a small market and other buildings – including a mosque and parts of a fortress – and wonder dusty lanes now covered in desert sands.
Isolated Al Jumail is one of several forgotten villages along the northwest coast of Qatar, a coastline once known for its thriving pearling industry. In the 19th century, the village was inhabited by pearl divers and their families, and today it offers a fascinating glimpse into Qatar – and the Middle East – of the past. As the discovery of oil and gas changed Qatar’s fortune, residents abandoned these villages and headed for the expanding capital Doha, leaving behind a cluster of dusty lanes, houses and mosques slowly being lost to the harsh desert sands. Remains of life at Al Jumail include high walls, once-surrounding courtyard houses, and a small mosque with its minaret still intact.
Siwa Oasis Village, Western Desert, Egypt
Egypt‘s Siwa Oasis is undeniably eerie and mysterious – a vast collection of ruined kershef – a mixture of salt rocks and mud – buildings left in the hands of the sands of time. The former settlement sits between the Qattara Depression and the Great Sand Sea in the Western Desert, 50 kilometres east of the Egypt–Libya border and 560 kilometres away from Egypt’s capital of Cairo. The ruined village dates back o the 7th century BC and, in its prime, would’ve housed hundreds of residents, and its labyrinth of narrow pathways are still walkable today. At the heart is the 13th-century Shali Fortress, which recently underwent an ambitious restoration. Today, visitors can explore the ancient village and walk in the footsteps of its former villagers – and enjoy breathtaking expansive vistas from the citadel over Siwa’s diverse natural landscape, home to palm groves and salt lakes.