Top 6 Cities for History Buffs on a Goway Vacation: Africa and the Middle East

People & Culture

Pyramids Cairo and Western Wall Jerusalem

A city’s historical significance will always have a great influence on its status as a top travel destination. In our efforts to explore the best historical cities around the globe, on a Goway vacation, we’re continuing our series on the Top 6 Cities for History Buffs. This time, we’re focusing on Africa and the Middle East and the conflux of ancient, medieval, and colonial influences that make these cities so fascinating. Here are the top six cities for history buffs in Africa and the Middle East.

Cairo, Egypt

Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Egypt
Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo

Egypt vies for the title of having the world’s oldest civilization. Its capital, Cairo, is seemingly bursting at the seams with history and people. It’s the largest city in the Middle East and your gateway to explore the incredible world of Ancient Egypt on a Goway vacation.

There are several ways to approach a historical journey through Cairo, but starting in Tahrir Square is your smartest option. As the city’s centre, you can get your bearings for the bustling culture and then visit the Egyptian Museum, which is close by. There, you can see countless treasures from Ancient Egypt including artefacts taken from the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Continue your exploration of Ancient Egypt by heading across the river to Giza, where you’ll find the Great Pyramid of Giza, the only remnant of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. You’ll also see the Sphinx as well as the ancient capital of Memphis, which has several archaeological sites to explore. If you want to see even more treasures of the ancient past, head to the Solar Boat Museum to see the elaborate funeral boats of Egyptian pharaohs.

If we jump forward a few thousand years in our exploration of Cairo’s history, we hit the Middle Ages and the influence of Islam on Cairo and Egypt. The Al Azhar Mosque is the ideal place to learn about Islam’s influence on Egyptian culture and to marvel at one of the country’s icons. You can also head to the Museum of Islamic Art to see Islamic masterworks from throughout the centuries. You will also want to visit Sharia Al Muizz Li Din Allah or Muizz Street, the old city’s main thoroughfare, which has a remarkable concentration of Islamic treasures from throughout the Middle Ages.

Of course, Cairo isn’t significant only for Muslims. The city has a significant Coptic Christian community, and the Coptic Museum is the best place to learn about this small sect of Christianity and marvel at their historical treasures.

Cityscape view of Cairo, including Giza Pyramids, Egypt
Cityscape view of Cairo, including Giza Pyramids

Cape Town, South Africa

Aerial view of Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town, South Africa
Aerial view of Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town

South Africa’s prettiest town also happens to be the best one to visit to deep-dive into the country’s history, on a Goway vacation. Johannesburg and Pretoria have their historical highlights, but the total package of Cape Town makes it the more preferable spot to visit.

Cape Town is the oldest urban area in South Africa, as it was developed in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company as a trade station on the Cape of Good Hope. The Castle of Good Hope is the oldest surviving colonial building from this era, built between 1666 and 1679. It’s a great spot to learn about the foundation of Cape Town and the activities of the Dutch East India Company, as well as being an impressive building in its own right.

Another spot to see from this period is the Company’s Garden, which is the oldest European garden in the country. Navigator and founder of Cape Town, Jan van Riebeeck, started it as his vegetable garden in the mid-16th century and it has been kept up to the present day. If you want to experience a bit of the non-European migrant culture of the country, head to Bo-Kaap Museum, which charts the history of South Africa’s Islamic inhabitants, the Cape Malays, who were brought to South Africa from Indonesia as slaves and have since become some of the most culturally-active inhabitants of the cape.

To explore South Africa’s 20th century history and the rise and fall of Apartheid, head to Robben Island to see where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years under arrest. The island was the home of political prisoners during the Apartheid era and has since become a museum of the past and a monument to liberation. As well, you can visit the District Six Museum, which charts the forcible removal of the residents of District Six under Apartheid.

Aerial View of Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa
Robben Island and Table Mountain, Cape Town

Istanbul, Turkey

Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque) in Istanbul, Turkey
Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque) in Istanbul

As one of the only cities spanning two continents, Istanbul has borne witness to countless historical events that have shaped the world. It’s also been at the heart of empires, first the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, and then the Ottoman Empire of the Turks. Prior to the formation of modern Turkey, the city was officially known as Constantinople, named after the Roman Emperor who made it his eastern capital.

Istanbul’s two most popular attractions reflect its status as a gateway city between Europe and Asia and Christianity and Islam. The Blue Mosque, officially known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is the icon of the city’s Islamic side. Its titular blue tiles and curved architecture make it the most famous site in the city. Representing the city’s Christian heritage, Hagia Sophia is the co-winner of prettiest building in the city, although it’s undergone more change than the Blue Mosque. Originally built as a church by the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, the building became a mosque when the Turks conquered in the 15th century. Today, it’s a museum that you can visit to learn about the city’s long and storied history and where you can admire impeccable Byzantine mosaics and Islamic artworks. As well, the long-restoration project is finally done, so you can enjoy views of the building without having to imagine away all the scaffolding.

Istanbul boasts a lot of historical wonders beyond the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Visit Topkapi Palace to explore the former palace of the sultans, see the crown jewels, and marvel (and recoil) at the harem where the sultan’s many wives and concubines would live. You can descend to the Basilica Cistern to see ancient Byzantium’s incredible underground engineering, which would provide drinking water to the urban region through aqueducts. Also be sure to visit the Grand Bazaar to admire one of the largest bazaars in the world and see where the economy has been at work for over 500 years.

Basilica Cistern, (Yerebatan), Istanbul, Turkey
Basilica Cistern, (Yerebatan), Istanbul, Turkey

Jerusalem, Israel

Holocaust train at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel
Holocaust train at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

Jerusalem is at the heart of three of the world’s major religions and remains one of the most contentious cities on the planet. This being the case, it might be the best city in the world to explore, on a Goway vacation, if you’re fascinated by religious history. For thousands of years Jerusalem has been the sacred capital of the Jewish people and was home to the Jewish Temple. For two thousand years, it has been the Holy Land to Christians as the site where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and resurrected. And for a little over a thousand years, it has been the third holiest city in Islam, where the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven during the Night Journey. For a significant portion of the planet, it is literally the centre of the religious universe.

Religious history weaves through almost every stone of Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock is the most famous Islamic site in the city; it sits on the Temple Mount where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to speak to God. You’ll also find the al-Aqsa Mosque there. Mere steps away is the Western Wall, which is the only remaining portion of the Second Jewish Temple. It’s the holiest site in all of Judaism. And nearby that you’ll find the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is built on the site of Jesus’ tomb. It’s the holiest church in all of Christianity. A journey through the Old City and around the Temple Mount packs some of the world’s greatest historical wonders into a small, walkable area.

Jerusalem is also fascinating to explore even if you avoid the most overtly religious areas. The Israel Museum details 5,000 years of history, charting the journey of the Jewish people over several millennia. Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, explores the darkest part of human history and painstakingly remembers the millions of victims of the Nazis.

Jerusalem panoramic roof view to christians, jewish and muslims sacred places, Jerusalem, Israel
Panoramic view to Christians, Jewish, and Muslims sacred places, Jerusalem

Marrakech, Morocco

Djemaa El-Fna Square in Marrakesh, Morocco
Djemaa El-Fna Square in Marrakesh Medina

One of the old imperial capitals of the Islamic Empire, Marrakech remains an overwhelming blast of history and culture. Located in Morocco, it’s also a city of living history, where you’d be forgiven for thinking parts of the city literally still exist in the Middle Ages.

This continuity between the past and the present is what makes Marrakech so remarkable to visit on a Goway vacation. Ground zero for the city’s living history is the Medina, a crowded 19km of souks and streets that has changed little since medieval times. If you want to deep dive into what the city would’ve been like 600 years ago, with spice markets and labyrinthine streets filled with carpets and trinkets sold by locals, this is the place. However, it might be overwhelming to even the most seasoned travellers, so know what you can handle before delving into the Medina.

There are plenty of other spots in Marrakech to engage with a rich tradition of Islamic and Berber history. Bahia Palace and El Badi Palace offer exceptional examples of Islamic architecture from the 19th and 16th centuries, respectively. Bahia Palace is also home to opulent gardens. The symbol of the city and its largest mosque is Koutoubia Mosque, which has a massive minaret towering about its large plaza.

The Saadian Tombs are one of the great Islamic treasures of Marrakech. Discovered in 1917, these gorgeous tombs date back to the Saadian Dynasty and represent some of the artistic heights and incredible wealth of the Islamic rulers. If you want to learn more about the city’s place within the Islamic Empire, head to the Mouassine Museum and the Marrakech Museum, which both contain historical artefacts and masterworks of Islamic art. Marrakech embodies an Islamic legacy that is alive to this day; few cities provide such an incredible opportunity to engaging with living history.

El Badi Palace and landscape at sunset in Marrakech, Morocco
El Badi Palace and landscape at sunset in Marrakech

Zanzibar City, Tanzania

Tower on the Beit al-Ajaib (House of Wonders), Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Tower on the Beit al-Ajaib (House of Wonders) in Stone Town, Zanzibar

The east coast of Africa is one of the most historically-rich and culturally-diverse areas of the entire continent. There’s an argument to be made for including Dar es Salaam or Mombasa on this list, but Zanzibar City is the most rewarding historical spot in the region.

Located on the island of Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar City is composed of the old city of Stone Town and the dismissively-titled Ng’ambo (literally “The Other Side”). Stone Town is where you’ll find most of the historical sites; it’s even listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inhabited for at least 20,000 years, the island has shifted between uses, but it is best known for being a trade base between the Middle East, India, and Africa during the Middle Ages and into the modern era.

The largest building in Stone Town is also one of the best places to learn about its history. The House of Wonders (Beit al-Ajaib) is a sultan’s palace built in 1883 that’s now a museum that charts the history of the city and culture on the Swahili Coast. You can also head to the nearby Palace Museum, another former sultan’s palace, which retains a lot of the artefacts of the original palace such as tables, portraits, and thrones.

Zanzibar City has several other spots that are worth exploring on a Goway vacation to learn more about history. The Maruhubi Palace Ruins show remnants of a palace built by Sultan Barghash in 1882 that was later destroyed by a fire. As well, the Old Fort (Arab Fort), with its towering battlements and open-air amphitheatre, remains a popular spot to explore both for its historical significance and its unique architecture. Both the Anglican cathedral, Christ Church, and St. Joseph’s Cathedral are also worth visiting to learn about Christian influences on the region. As well, just 20km north of Stone Town, you’ll find the Mangapwani Slave Chamber, which is an underground chamber cut out of coral rock that used to house slaves during the days of the slave trade.

Amphitheatre in the Old Fort, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Amphitheatre in the Old Fort, Stone Town, Zanzibar

These six cities showcase diverse aspects of Africa and the Middle East and offer opportunities on your Goway vacation to engage with thousands of years of human history. If you want to explore the glories of Ancient Egypt, marvel at the intricate design and architecture of the Islamic Empire, or walk in the footsteps of King David, Jesus Christ, and the Prophet Muhammad, these cities best be on your bucket list.

Related Article:
Top 6 Cities for History Buffs on a Goway Vacation: Asia and Europe
Top 6 Cities for History Buffs on a Goway Vacation: South America and the South Pacific