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Bettany Hughes reveals how she bonded with camels in the desert

Intrepid TV historian Bettany Hughes admits she’s not totally fearless. ‘I’m claustrophobic and scared of the dark,’ she says, hardly ideal when you spend a lot of your life exploring ancient tombs and burial chambers. 

The new season of her series Treasures Of The World, a whistle-stop tour of ancient sites, starts in Cappadocia in Turkey, where she descends through the cramped tunnels of an ancient underground city that goes down eight floors. It’s a place that brings back traumatic memories for her. 

‘I hitchhiked round Turkey as a student in 1986 and got lost down there. I got separated from the others. 

‘It was dark and nobody could hear me. The passages were getting smaller and the air thinner, it was terrifying.’ 

But after a deep breath and a little encouragement from her cameraman, she dares to venture down again. 

Historian Bettany Hughes (pictured) is starring in a new season of Treasures Of The World. The series takes her through Turkey, Jordan, Oman, Albania and Cyprus

Elsewhere in Turkey she visits the stunningly well-preserved, recently unearthed tomb of the 4th-century BC ruler Hecatomnus, built by his son Mausolus, whose name gave us the word mausoleum. 

The series also takes Bettany from the deserts of Jordan and Oman to Albania and Cyprus, where as well as visiting ancient sites she enters the UN-patrolled buffer zone that divides the island. Places there remain untouched since the 1974 ceasefire between the Greeks and the Turks. 

‘It’s like Pompeii because it’s frozen at the moment when everyone left,’ she says. ‘You walk into a shop and the till is still open, and a handbag and a newspaper from 1974 are sitting there; in a garage there are cars with just 30 miles on the clock. 

Camels sit round the fire as part of the family in Oman, they seem really engaged in the conversation

‘They were new; now they sit covered in dust. It’s like time has stopped.’ 

It’s 21 years since Bettany’s first TV series and her enthusiasm remains undimmed. ‘People told me then that nobody wants to watch history on TV or be lectured at by a woman,’ she recalls. ‘That just put fire in my belly.’ 

She’s not the only woman historian to have flourished on TV since, with the likes of Mary Beard, Alice Roberts and Kate Williams now household names. It’s something she welcomes. 

‘It’s great there are so many of us,’ she says. ‘We’re very supportive of each other and sometimes some of us meet up for a glass or five of wine.’ 

Bettany says she was inspired by a brilliant teacher at school, but her interest in ancient history started even younger when she was blown away by the 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition in London. Aged just five, she wrote her first ‘book’, giving her theory that the boy king had died of malaria, which may well be true. 

It’s 21 years since Bettany’s first TV series and her enthusiasm remains undimmed. She's pictured here in her series Paris to Rome

It’s 21 years since Bettany’s first TV series and her enthusiasm remains undimmed. She’s pictured here in her series Paris to Rome

As she explores temples, villas and burial sites in the new series, she also brings places to life with personal stories – like that of a little girl in the ancient city of Jerash in Jordan in 749AD. The girl would have been working in her family mosaic workshop when an earthquake struck. 

An archaeologist shows Bettany pictures of the girl’s skeleton with a smashed skull, and a glass jar found just feet away. ‘The door lintel smashed down and killed her,’ says Bettany. 

‘It’s so poignant because the jar was untouched. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

‘History helps you feel connected to people across time, and the brilliant thing about archaeology is you never know what’s about to be discovered. When I walk through these landscapes I care about these people, I feel I’m with them.’ 

She also felt at home with some of their animal companions. ‘I love camels. We were in Oman as they opened up a frankincense trader’s tomb from 2,500 years ago. 

‘Then I spent that evening in the desert and drank delicious, fresh camel’s milk with a Bedouin family who are the descendants of those traders. I felt like I’d travelled back in time. 

‘Camels sit round the fire there as part of the family, and they seem really engaged in the conversation. They’re just adorable – if I didn’t live in the suburbs of London I’d definitely have a camel!’ 

  • Bettany Hughes’ Treasures Of The World returns on Saturday 11 February at 7pm on Channel 4. 


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