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World History: The Middle East

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 theArab Gulf mosqueworld’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 Pyramids.

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 of years.

Meanwhile, the Persian civilisation was flourishing to the northeast on the site of modern-day IranIan 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 to her.

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, theGallipoli 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 Stormbombardment.

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.

Places Mentioned - Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, United Arab Emirates

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