Simon Reeve begins in Istanbul, Turkey, a busy medieval staging post for pilgrims to the Holy Land. Before falling to the Ottoman Empire, it was the centre of Roman Christianity under Emperor Constantine. His mother Helena, arguably the first pilgrim to the Holy Land, brought back relics from Jerusalem to fill the city’s churches, which made it a major destination for pilgrimage in its own right for centuries to come. Simon visits the magnificent Hagia Sophia and a traditional Turkish bath, discovering that pilgrims brought public bathing back with them to Europe, showing how pilgrimage spread practical ideas as well as religious ones.
Simon travels on to the Holy Land, following in the footsteps of Victorian travellers who used the definitive guide book of the period, published in 1876 by Thomas Cook, whose grand excursions to the Holy Land pioneered the modern package holiday.
He drives into the West Bank and on to Bethlehem. Despite not being religious, he is moved to tears by the memory of family Christmases when he sees the spot where Christ is said to have been born inside the Church of the Nativity. He then visits the isolated 6th-century monastery of Mar Saba, a place few outsiders are permitted to enter today. Simon camps in the desert and goes fishing in the Sea of Galilee. He also meets David, a reformed drug addict who lives in a village inside the ancient town of Nazareth, where people dress, live and work as if they are characters from the Bible.
In Jerusalem, Simon meets a doctor who treats visitors who become so overwhelmed that they become convinced they personally are the Messiah. Several million people a year from all three major religions come to visit or worship in one of the most highly contested square miles on the planet. Simon visits the Israeli CCTV command centre where everyone is kept under constant surveillance.
Finally, Simon joins in the ancient ritual of walking the Via Dolorosa, the route taken by Jesus as he carried his cross to the site of his crucifixion, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. At journey’s end, he reflects on what pilgrimage can offer for a non-believer, bringing a sense of achievement and a chance to learn more about the history and culture that shapes our lives to this day.
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