The Middle East is known as the ‘cradle of civilization’ 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Sufis practice an amazingly physical type of devotion while the Shi’ites of Iran flagellate themselves to feel the pain of Maharam, an ancient Muslim leader.
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.