The Middle East is known as the 'cradle of civilisation'
for good reason. The area has been home to some of the
most formidable empires the world has ever known and
is the birthplace of the world's three biggest monotheistic
religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Pilot
team go in search of the major empires, religions and
conflicts that have, and continue, to shape the region.
The Ancient Egyptian Empire flourished
for over 3000 years and bequeathed us some of the most
amazing structures in the world. Estelle Bingham visits the Giza plateau, home to the Pyramid of Khufu, the only remaining
wonder of the world where renowned Egyptologist Dr Selima
Ikram explains the significance of the Sphinx and the
Then Megan McCormick travels south
down the Nile to the Valley of the Kings
and cycles round this working archaeological site. Dr
Badir takes her into Tomb No. 34 where he deciphers
the scenes and texts depicting the trip through the
afterlife. Rameses II built his sun
temple at Abu Simbel on the southern
border of Egypt to awe travellers from Africa. Megan
discovers that the effect hasn't waned even after thousands
Meanwhile, the Persian civilisation was flourishing
to the northeast on the site of modern-day Iran.
Ian Wright visits the ruined city of
Persephelis built by Darius the Great
over 2,500 years ago. Then it's north to the Tombs
of Naghsh-É-Rostam where the four greatest
shahs of the empire are buried.
The Nabatinian empire's capital was Petra,
a city carved out of sheer rock in the sixth century
BC and now in modern-day Jordan. Ian
checks out this premier tourist attraction and puffs
his way up the to the 2500-year-old monastery above.
In 100 BC the next great empire appeared on the scene.
Justine Shapiro goes in search of the Roman's
premier archaeological sites in the Middle East. Ephesus
in Turkey was a powerful and influential city in its
time; nowadays it's a stunning site with some wonderfully
preserved mansions full of frescos and mosaics. Omira
was one of many towns left to its own devices by the
Romans in return for respect from its leader. Ian discovers
that the town was sacked after a rebellion by its 3rd
Century ruler, Queen Xenobia. For something a little
more light-hearted he turns east to Lebanon where he
visits the Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek,
dedicated to the god of wine. The Romans used to practise
orgies here as a type of worship.
After the ebb and flow of religious doctrines, monotheism
took over with the birth of Judaism.
Justine visits Mesada, a palace built
by Herod the Great and scene of the legendary siege
in which its 967 Jewish inhabitants committed suicide
rather than suffer defeat at the hands of the Romans.
She then journeys to Jerusalem and
watches a bar mitzvah, a celebration of a Jewish boy's
coming-of-age at 13, at the Wailing Wall.
Christianity gained its ascendancy
in the region after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Justine watches the haunting Easter procession through
Jerusalem retracing his last steps along the Via
Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre. Megan visits the world's first monastery
in Egypt where she meets a monk who relates its history
Islam arose in the seventh century
among followers of the Prophet Mohammed. Jerusalem is
also a sacred city for this religion, third only to
Mecca and Medina. Cairo is known as
the 'city of a thousand minarets'. Megan visits Ibn
Tulun Mosque, one of the biggest in the world.
As Islam took hold as a religion it drove the Christians
back to Rome; the Ottoman Empire established itself
out of Constantinople, modern day Istanbul.
This city has more mosques than anywhere else in the
world. Estelle visits the 'Blue Mosque',
commissioned by Sultan Ahmed to atone for his sins,
and the Aya Sofia, originally the greatest
church in Christendom. Now it's a museum and the original
Christian mosaics are being uncovered. The Persian Empire
also fell under the influence of the Ottomans. Ian visits
Esfahan in Iran, site of a beautiful
mosque built over 300 years ago.
Topkapi in Istanbul was the Ottoman
Sultans' palace for over four centuries. Estelle finds
a huge complex of gardens, houses and a whopping 400-room
harem. It also houses hairs from the beard of Mohammed,
an immensely popular devotional relic.
Middle Eastern history has been shaped by war and upheaval.
The Pilot team takes a tour of key sites of conflict,
taking in the fairytale Citadel of Arkbar
in Turkey, the Oman Desert, the Gallipoli
peninsula, El Alamein in Egypt, Beirut
and Israel and the Occupied Territories. Justine visits
the West bank town of Hebron with a
local Palestinian who tells her about what it's like
to live in a Palestinian city during the Initfada.
Not all wars are between religions. In 1980 the Shi'ite
Iranian government led by Ayatollah Khomenei went to
war with its Sunni neighbour Iraq, ruled by Saddam Hussein.
Ian attends an Iranian funeral procession for soldiers
whose bodies have recently been retrieved from the Iraqi
border. Eventually Saddam went a step to far for his
Western sponsors in his quest to rebuild the Babylonian
Empire and invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Megan visits the country's oil fields that were torched
by Iraqi troops as they withdrew under fire from the
Allies' Desert Storm bombardment.
So what's the modern day Middle East like? It's still
war torn, as evidenced by the recent Iraq war, but now
oil and 'terrorism' have joined religion as causes of
strife. It remains the spiritual centre of the world
for many; over two million Muslims gather in Mecca for
Haj and process around the rock temple reputedly built
by the Prophet Abraham. It is also a region of diversity
in religious worship - the Suffis practise an amazingly
physical type of devotion while the Shi'ites of Iran
flagellate themselves to feel the pain of Maharam, an
ancient Muslim leader.
In search of a woman's perspective on the area, Megan
travels to the United Arab Emirates. In Dubai she tries on the abayya and
in Abu Dhabi she visits a women's-only
shopping centre. Meanwhile Justine finds that Tel
Aviv is a city split between the expectations
of Orthodox Judaism and the desires of young people
who party hard on Shabbat.
Megan ends our tour in the graceful surrounds of the Sultan Kabuz Grand Mosque in Muscat,
Oman. It's a perfect place to reflect on what we've
seen during this adventure across the Middle East. Not
only is it a richly historical area; it's also a vibrant,
richly diverse region, often far removed from the foreboding
images of death and destruction that flash across Western
TV screens every night.