Bettany Hughes talks about the day she toasted the Queen with a tribe

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But she remains amazed by human kindness, recalling how a remote mystic sect she encountered on her latest travels offered their condolences – and a toast – to the late Queen Elizabeth. Bettany was in deepest Albania when she came across members of the Sufis, a sect of Islam.

She said: “We were welcomed by this remote Sufi group. We couldn’t have been made more welcome and, as it turned out, the Queen had just died.

“And these Sufi, in this remote Sufi Bektashi community, all stood up and toasted the Queen. They said, ‘We’re really sorry for your loss’. It was really lovely, a lovely moment. You know, we hadn’t even mentioned it, either. They just sort of took it on themselves. They said, ‘So you must be sad. Let’s stand up and remember the Queen’.

“And we did. It was really, genuinely touching.”

Bettany has been filming for the second series of Treasures of the World on Channel 4. Series one was a global hit, attracting an astonishing 450 million viewers.

She said her latest travels had shown her there was a “Dunkirk spirit” that ran throughout history and that our ancestors had refused to succumb to the challenges they faced.

Having visited Arabia, Turkey, Cyprus, Oman, Albania, Jordan and along the Silk Roads of Azerbaijan, she said: “What I came back with was this really positive warm feeling that throughout history, that even thought there are terrible times and challenges thrown in our way, we are a very resilient species.

“Although we make stupid mistakes a lot of the time we are also very good at looking for the beauty in life.

“It’s almost that the Dunkirk spirit we find right across the world and it’s just people refusing to be defeated by what life is throwing at them.”

And her role took her close to modern-day action, with the invasion of Ukraine underway.

She said: “In Azerbaijan, at one point we were a few miles from the Russian border and another place we were a couple of miles from Iran when everything was kicking off – so it just really focuses the mind.

“Nine times out of ten the histories I’m covering, these borders aren’t there and that is when you see civilisations working: when we have influence and ideas coming from all points of the compass.

“It was a real reminder of that, of the terrible irony of us looking at these beautiful places and poems generated by people coming together when the world is fracturing.”

In the first episode of the series, she visited central Turkey and the pre-Roman ruins of King Antiochus’s tomb sanctuary atop Mount Nemrut.

The diplomatic King was “not a bad guy” but was “not a man without ego” and showed how little autocrats such as Vladimir Putin have changed over time, she said.

“Definitely in history, again as a species, we are not very good at knowing when to stop,” she said.

“I think getting addicted to that buzz of power, the achievement and I definitely see it.

“That is what you see. It’s seeing where ambition leads people and often it’s just that thing: almost being addicted to success and the chance of expanding your own territories.”

Among her adventures was visiting a Game of Thrones-like community in the Albanian alps.

The walled Christian town dating to 800 AD had a “huge” population of 8,000 with artefacts from across the Silk Road.

She said: “It feels like you’re in Shangri-la it’s completely unspoilt.

“Women would have worn these thick metal chokers around their necks. Rings of eagles as a symbol of the town – eight thousand people, that’s huge.

“There were beads from Baghdad, beads from Venice. It’s this absolute lost world.”

She didn’t feel in personal danger as a female historian in any of the countries, she said.

“None, the opposite really. Walking through Eastern Turkey and Azerbaijan, often when you’re filming, I’m 100 yards away from the crew who are hiding behind a bush somewhere. So it looks as though I’m alone.

“But the second I walked past a house, let’s say an open doorway, I would be invited in, in Turkey and Azerbaijan for four cups of tea and chocolate biscuits even into the sort of poorest homes.”

She has been compared to Lara Croft and Indian Jones and revealed it was Harrison Ford’s character who set her on the path to unearth hidden secrets.

She said: “Indiana Jones is not an example of good archaeological practice but you know, I watched it when I was a child and I do remember thinking, ‘This is the world I want to be a part of’.

“Of course, Indiana Jones is not real but sometimes it feels like the real Indiana Jones because we are going into pretty extreme places. And that’s because that’s where the archaeology is and the history is.”

And she believes it will be a long time before interest in history dwindles.

She explained: “When I was starting out as a historian, people just said to me history is dead, nobody is interested in watching history programmes on television but actually 450 million people around the world watch these programmes.

“I was kind of the first female historian to have a history series on TV.

“I think you have to earn your stripes and I think people when I first started out thought it was a bit of a gimmick having a woman doing these serious shows. People talked a lot about what I wore and how I looked.

“What’s been really great is with each series people are just focused on what I’m talking about. So I think there has been a bit of a change.

“I was walking through an Indian temple and a couple from Poland came over and said, ‘We’ve just been watching your Greek shows and thank you so much’ – it was one of the reasons that they booked to go to one of the places I’ve been to’.

“I think people have always been interested in history. In a way, television feels confident about that now. And if you think about it, history is just learning about other people’s lives in fascinating places.”

  • Bettany Hughes’s Treasures Of The World Season 2 will air weekly on Channel 4 from February 11

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