Agia Sophia in Istanbul | Photo Credit: Rachel Portele
Tourism in the Middle East drops sharply during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food, drink, and smoking from dawn until dusk to focus on moderation and their faith. Cited reasons for this drop from the non-Muslim population include a fear that they won’t be able to enjoy meals or beverages during their travels and that many of the attractions that draw people to the Middle East will be closed for the holiday. As Greek Reporter travels through Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan in search of these countries’ Greek pasts, we have found that this is not the case.
In Turkey, which has a secular legal system and has expressed interest in joining the European Union, practicing Ramadan is very much left up to the individual and was barely perceptible to outsiders. Food and drink are not only available, but enjoyed by both tourists and Turks throughout the day. In Istanbul every major site was available and even on the edges of the city where tourists rarely stray, restaurants and shops were all open and operational.
Beach of Sidi Bishr in Alexandria | Photo Credit: Rachel Portele
In Egypt, a more pious country than Turkey with Sharia law in place but limited to personal status issues, Ramadan’s presence is more apparent but still makes no impositions on visitors to the country. Egyptians take fasting more seriously, and while it may be impolite to eat or drink in front of people abstaining, it is easy to duck into a quiet cafe or side street and take a drink of water. While chatting with one Egyptian woman, we were told that partaking in Ramadan is a personal choice even among Egyptians, and no one would expect a non-Muslim to fast. Egyptians are very hospitable and even during Ramadan are always eager to offer a cup of tea or a little sweet to visitors.
Michael Grunstein, a Greek Orthodox Christian who was born and raised in Egypt stated that “We were always friends with the Muslims in Egypt. They respect our customs and we do the same. We won’t fast during Ramadan, but if we go out on a business meeting, or with a friend that happen to fast we won’t eat in front of them in the middle of the day. if we are in a party of non-Muslims there is no problem to eat and drink at a restaurant during the day.”
Overall, tourists will have no problem finding food or drink during a Ramadan visit to the Middle East. Hotels always have their kitchens running, and in the big cities of Istanbul, Cairo, and Alexandria where there are still Greek centers, visitors can always find a Greek restaurant (sometimes even a taverna!) where they can enjoy a meal.
One last benefit of travel during Ramadan is getting to experience the holiday itself. Ramadan is a month of charity for Muslims, taking care of the less fortunate and doing good works. There is a strong sense of community during this month that extends even to visitors. Iftar, the name of the fast-breaking meal at sunset, is a huge celebration. Restaurants set up tables and chairs everywhere they can fit them, cook up huge amounts of delicious Middle Eastern food, and everyone gathers to end their fast. Talking, laughing together, and enjoying the meal. Getting to experience iftar with locals is reason enough to visit the Middle East during Ramadan, though the frequent hotel and transport discounts also help.
In Alexandria one of the most luxurious (yet affordable) hotels is the Maritim Jolie Ville. With its prime location on the famous Corniche coastal road in the centre of Alexandria, this luxury hotel affords its guests the perfect combination of sightseeing starting point and Mediterranean beach vacation. Among the enviable amenities, the hotel has its own private beach, an exclusive wellness facility and panorama rooftop terrace.
In Cairo you can experience old Eastern luxury at the Windsor Hotel. The hotel was originally built to be a Royal bath in the 16th century. It is located in the center of the city.
In Istanbul’s Sultanahmet neighborhood there is a well kept secret, the Byzantium Hotel. This hotel is perfectly located next to Agia Sophia and the Blue Mosque with easy access to tram and metro to reach any other destination.
Petra Jordan’s Movenpick Resort is a luxurious oasis, located coveniently near the entrance to the ancient site of Petra as well as great restaurants and shops.
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