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Friday, March 27, 2020 9:08am ET by  


Interview with Edwina Currie on Pilgrimage: The Trip to Istanbul

 Coming to BBC Two on Friday 27 March

Why did you decide to join the pilgrimage?

[I was] fascinated by the Sultan's trail and its history, which most Brits have never heard anything about; [I've] never been to that area before (except Istanbul which is marvellous). And I was curious about Jewish experience there - there used to be lots, but the Holocaust wiped it out.

Have you ever taken part in anything like this before?

Yes, a couple of years ago; I joined a pilgrimage to the Holy Land led by our local Methodist minister. I've been to Israel before, but seeing it from a Christian viewpoint was quite different and very special, and I got to go to Jordan (Petra and Jeresh in particular) for the first time.

Did you have to prepare in advance for the pilgrimage? What did you do?

Yes.. I did a lot more walking in our Derbyshire hills which turned out very useful when we got to Bulgaria. Oh those mountains! Way above the highest point in the British Isles. And I read John Julius Norwich's book The Four Princes, about Henry VIII, Francis I King of France, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Suleiman who were all 16th century contemporaries. It helped me understand the wars, the rivalries and tensions of that time.

Have you ever walked this far before?

Not all in one go! And carrying a backpack too!!! It was quite an ask, but I am so glad I did it. 

Did you find it hard? A challenge? Fun? 

Hard and a challenge, yes, because I was nearly 73 when we filmed it, and being at a higher altitude than normal didn't help. Fun, because my fellow pilgrims were great; they helped me a lot and were remarkable people and wonderful companions. I'd single out Amar and Fatima especially.

Tell me about your experience on the series?

Where to start...? Hilltop monasteries giving way to ruined synagogues and glorious mosques. A concentration camp right in the middle of a city. A merchant’s house restored by the Bulgarian government as a tribute to its Jewish citizens. Nuns and priests and fervent worshippers. Churches hidden in the hills away from marauders. Terrible toilets. Fatima running, running, always ahead of me. Dom and Pauline and Adrian joshing and teasing (often very funny). Mim asleep...

What was your highlight?

Highlights... Independence Day in Bulgaria, people dancing in the streets of Sofia. Loved Sofia, would like to visit there again. The Suleimanye mosque, so beautiful, majestic, perfect. Breakfast in the hunting lodge where the pilgrims began to open up and share with each other. Adrian Chiles talking about his finding faith - wonderful. Amar Latif speaking in such a matter of fact way about going blind. Lots.

What was the hardest part?

Not being able to climb up to the Devil's Leap.

Are you affiliated to any religion. If so, which?  Do you practice?

I was born and brought up orthodox Jewish. I respect it and gained a lot from it but I am not practising.

If you don’t have any faith, are you atheist/agnostic? What helps you explain the world? 

Not sure what I am... the world is explained largely through science. But myths, philosophy and history play such an important part too in creating belief and regulating human behaviour. The way we treat each other is more important than whether there is a God and if so what He/She is like.

Has the experience changed or increased your faith or changed you in any way

It has increased my knowledge enormously and made me think about faith more. But no, I don't think it has made me more religious.

Did anything about this pilgrimage surprise you?

I was surprised (not always pleasantly) in Serbia by the certainty of their convictions, including: "Serbia has always been on the right side of history." Said by a priest to cheers from the congregation. I was intrigued to hear about the success of Bulgaria in shielding most of its Jewish citizens from the Holocaust so that 44,000 of them were able to get to Israel. And it was a bit sad that more people don't know about this pilgrimage route and use it, but hopefully this programme might change that.

Have you stayed in touch with the other pilgrims?

Yes - we started a WhatsApp group and it's still in use. Amar has been to my house, and he, I and Fatima hope to meet up in London.

Describe your feelings/emotions when you reached the end of the pilgrimage and arrived in Istanbul...

Tired and exhilarated. Thrilled we had done it. Relief - that we'd got there, with nobody getting injured or having to quit. That was quite an achievement in itself. Astonishment at the beauty of Istanbul from the hills - not arrived from that end before. Sadness, that it was all at an end.

Would you do it again? 

Oh, sure. As long as someone else is carrying the backpack.

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