The Middle East Special was a special episode of the BBC motoring show Top Gear that aired as the second of two Christmas specials in 2010. The episode saw the presenters of the show, Jeremy, James, and Richard, retrace the steps of the three wise men on a journey across the Middle East to Bethlehem in Palestine. The presenters were given a budget of £3,500 and then told to each buy a second hand two-door convertible sports car (James spent £466 extra on his). Their cars, along with themselves, were shipped to the starting point in a Russian Cargo Plane with no knowledge of where they actually were.
|Fiat Barchetta||Richard Hammond|
|Mazda MX-5||Jeremy Clarkson|
|BMW Z3||James May|
The episode opens in the cargo hold of the Russian Cargo Plane; the three presenters introduce their cars. Richard had bought a special Fiat Barchetta with black paint and red leather seats, Jeremy a Mazda MX-5, and James a BMW Z3 despite spending more than the budget of three and a half thousand pounds. Jeremy therefore proclaims they are not 3 wise men and that they're "one wise man, an idiot and a cheat."
As the plane descends towards the runway the presenters climb into their cars. The door of the cargo hold opens, much to the discomfort of the presenters, particularly Richard who freaks out. The pilot of the plane aborts the initial landing and pitches upwards sharply to retry pushing all of the presenters forward. On his second attempt, the pilot successfully lands the plane, taxiing it to a stop in front of the airport terminal. The presenters are then formally issued with their challenge, which subsequently reveals where they are.
The presenters learn that they have landed in Iraq; they are also given bulletproof vests and helmets to wear. In order for James and Jeremy to disembark the cargo plane and begin their journey Richard must drive his car out first. James and Jeremy promise Richard that they will follow him after he leaves the aircraft however do not stick to this promise and remain parked. Richard hides in a nearby "shed" as Jeremy and James leave the aircraft. With all three presenters together they consult a map to figure out the best route to take.
The presenters are in Arbil and decide that it is best not to take the most direct route to Bethlehem as this would require travel through Baghdad and Mosul, two very dangerous cities. Keen to leave Iraq as quickly as possible, they decide that the safest route is travel into Iran, through to Turkey, then to Syria, Jordan, and finally Israel. The presenters set out, ironically in the wrong direction, in a row. All of the presenters ideally want to be in the middle of the other two so that their chances of being attacked are lessened. All three of the presenters fight for the middle position and lose track of where they are, inevitably becoming lost.
The presenters find themselves traveling along a small path surrounded by enormously tall walls. The presenters gun it, eventually finding a route back to civilization. However, James car begins to break down and after pulling over to the side of the road he tells the other two presenters to leave him alone. Before setting on their way, Jeremy and Richard reveal the back up car to James, an old Astra Convertible. James' car soon begins to draw the attention of the local Iraqis and within minutes he has kids sticking their hands into his bonnet. Despite this, he manages to temporarily fix his car. He begins to set off after Jeremy and Richard, however his car breaks down again. He is forced to pull over at a garage and spend the night fixing his car. The following morning the presenters are reunited as they leave Arbil and head into the countryside of Iraq.
Along their journey to the Iran-Iraq border they encounter numerous military checkpoints, further reminding them of how dangerous the place they are in actually is. They also notice the unusual slipperiness of the Iraqi roads with Jeremy spinning out twice. The presenters head into the mountains near the Iranian border, pulling over to put the roofs on their convertibles up. The mountainous area is abandoned due to the frosty relations between the people of Iraq and Iran. Jeremy develops an idea on how to protect himself whilst driving his car and he makes the convoy pull over at a restaurant to explain his idea. Jeremy proposes that he lines the inside of his doors with sand bags. James is skeptical of the idea whilst Richard agrees that his proposal James have some merit. The presenters pull over at a quiet spot on the side of the road to test Jeremy's idea. The presenters call in their "pixelated" special forces soldier who fires a round into Jeremy's door. The bullet goes straight through the sand bags and splits into three pieces of shrapnel: Jeremy's sand bags are deemed to be useless.
On the road again, the presenters make the final push to the Iran border as night begins to fall. Arriving at the border crossing, Jeremy heads inside to complete the paperwork. He returns after a short period of time with bad news saying, "for political reasons the BBC isn't allowed into Iran". The presenters are forced to rethink their route and head aimlessly down the road in search of a hotel.
We jump forward and it is revealed that the presenters have stayed the night at an Iraqi amusement park, complete with working rides including a ferris wheel, bumper car track, and roller coaster. After riding the rides the presenters agree to ditch their bulletproof vests and helmets after all agreeing that this part of Iraq feels safe. The presenters head back down the mountain roads enjoying their cars and the winding, twisting road. The presenters all admit that they are glad they hadn't traveled into Iran as otherwise they would have missed the natural beauty of Northern Iraq. After traveling for a day the presenters pull over to stay the night, agreeing that the following day they would travel into Turkey. Along the road to the Turkish border Jeremy pulls over a petrol station to fill up. He tells Richard and James that the Iraqi words for petrol and bastard are very similar. There is seemingly no one at the petrol station with the exception of the owner who is asleep. James and Jeremy decide that is probably not the best idea to wake him up especially if "we accidentally call him a bastard". After a simple drive the presenters arrive at the daunting Turkish border. At the border the cars are checked by sniffer dogs. One dog stops at Richard's car finding a cigarette lighter that is shaped like a machine gun bullet. The customs officers question Richard on the bullet in a tense exchange however, they let him go after discovering that it is simply a lighter.
The presenters eventually clear the Turkish customs and pull over next to a road sign to receive an update from the producers. The producers tell the presenters that Turkey is currently involved in a war and is more dangerous than Northern Iraq. They advise the presenters that they should make haste to get to their hotel in the "safe-zone". The presenters also receive an official letter from the British Government who advise against "all but essential travel in the provinces of Hakkari, Sirnak, Siirt, and Tunceli", with Sirnak being a region the presenters have to travel through. The presenters once again put on their bulletproof vests and helmets and set off. The presenters have to travel more than 200 miles to reach their hotel by nightfall and decide to travel as fast as they can.
The Turkish roads are incredibly bumpy and uncomfortable and, to make matters worse, the Turkish people travel on both sides of the road. Jeremy's car breaks down and he is forced to pull over to mend it. After fixing the car the presenters leave the highway and forced to travel more slowly, passing through military checkpoints were tanks, armed soldiers, and APCs are commonplace. Whilst stuck in traffic near the hotel Richard boasts about the reliability of his Fiat so, after reaching the hotel, Jeremy and James decide to tamper with his car. The following morning Richard revealed to Jeremy and James that the preceding night he had gotten 'the trots'. Richard started his Fiat which revealed Jeremy and James' modification: they had tampered with his car stereo such that it only played Genesis, a band Richard hates, and it could not be switched off whilst the car was running. The presenters later arrived at the Syrian border at which James' Z3 broke down again and would not start; as a result Jeremy had to push James' car with his own across the border.
After waiting for hours at the border the presenters eventually crossed into Syria, heading in the right direction for the first time on their journey. Once inside Syria the presenters realized that their route faced another problem. The border between Syria and Israel was shut due to frosty relations between the two countries. The only solution was to travel from Syria into Jordan and then from Jordan to Israel. However, the presenters worried that if the Israeli border patrol officers knew that they had been in Syria they would not be let in to the country. James was confident that the people of Syria would not watch Top Gear and, as such, there would be no media attention regarding their visit. At the next town James was proved wrong; the Top Gear crew were surrounded by Syrian fans, all demanding pictures and autographs. The presenters headed for a bar and came up with a solution while watching the Syrian-dubbed version of the show.
Jeremy suggested that the presenters sneak across Syria, avoiding the main roads and traveling across the desert. James and Richard agreed on this plan and so all three presenters headed for a garage to make necessary modifications to their cars, working through the night. The presenters headed off road into the Syrian desert the following morning, revealing their modifications. Richard had fitted a Bedouin tent to the rear of his car, concealing the majority of his vehicle. Richard had also glued sand to the remaining visible portion of his car for further camouflage and mounted two large spotlights. Jeremy had repainted his car with numerous vastly coloured stripes and added two extra wheels to the rear of his car to create an "axle of evil". He also fitted a hubble pipe via a bracket attached to the bullet holes produced from his sand bag test earlier in the trip and a cooking grill that would be heated by the sun. James had resprayed his car for an army camouflage look, mounted a spare wheel and shovels to the rear and front of his car, water canisters to the sides, and an enormous set of spot lights to the roof of his car. Within a few minutes of the presenters trek across the Syrian desert Jeremy's wheel arches had fallen off. After traveling for a few hours Jeremy decided to lead the presenters into a small ditch, getting himself stuck in the process. To make amends for this Jeremy offered to cook lunch on his grill only to find that this too was a pointless addition. Further along, the bumpy desert terrain claimed it's first casualty, shearing the Fiat's radiator bracket.
As is tradition on Top Gear the other two presenters left Richard behind. Jeremy and James enjoyed the scenery of the Syrian desert as the sun set and arrived at their camp site shortly before nightfall. Richard meanwhile had mended his Fiat but was now traveling in complete darkness. Eventually arriving at the camp site, the presenters traded stories until it was time to sleep. The following morning, the presenters once again set on their way. The desert proved to be a worthy adversary; over the course of the day the presenters were continually bogged in sand and their cars were taking a battering from the rocky, steep hills. At one point, Jeremy's convertible was stuck on the rise of a hill. To pull him out Richard tied a rope between his Fiat and Jeremy's Mazda with James holding onto this rope. The rope was loose originally but once it became taut James was pushed backwards headfirst onto a rock, knocking him unconscious.
Regaining consciousness sometime later James was sent to hospital, leaving Richard and Jeremy in the desert. After both agreeing that the desert sneaking wasn't working Richard and Jeremy decide to rejoin the roads of Syria and to instead disguise themselves by wearing burqas. The two presenters drive to a nearby hospital to pick up James and put their plan into action. All three presenters join Syria's main highway, all wearing a burqa, and head towards Damascus, where they will stay the night. Along the motorway Jeremy's car broke down once and Richard popped a tire. The presenters eventually arrive in Damascus, convinced that they were blending in to their surroundings. The presenters head to their hotel only to discover that a "welcome Top Gear" banner greets them. Realizing that the burqas were now pointless the presenters ditched their attire and head for the local souk to buy gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Richard was in charge of gold, James of frankincense, and Jeremy was to find myrrh. Meeting up at a traditional Syrian restaurant the presenters revealed their gifts to one another. Richard had bought a golden necklace with Jesus' own face imprinted on the front, James had found a bottle labeled frankincense (which the other two joked was merely shampoo from their hotel), and Jeremy, unable to find myrrh, had bought a Nintendo DS.
The following morning the presenters left Damascus, which Jeremy deemed to be the fifth best city he had ever visited, heading towards the Jordanian border. After crossing into their fourth country, Jordan, the presenters stumble across a large complex of Roman ruins, one of such is in the shape of a NASCAR track. The presenters decide to have a race on this ciruit (they label this Roman Rallying) to see whose car was the fastest. The race is violent, with the presenters constantly crashing into each other due to the lack of visibility. The track is made from dirt and the constant sliding and drifting kicks him up a considerable amount of dust. Fearful that an angry mob of Jordanians James notice the dust the presenters decide to abandon the race, unanimously agreeing that Richard's Fiat is the fastest. After the race the damage is revealed: Richard had lost a large portion of his bodywork and Jeremy's spotlights had been smashed. Making the last push to their final border crossing the presenters encounter the crazy, unorganised Jordanian traffic.
Finally arriving at the Jordan-Israel border the presenters switch passports so as to hide the fact that they had been to Syria. The border patrol officers let the presenters into Israel where the presenters have to rethink their route once more. They had been advised to avoid the West Bank, a region which they would have to drive around. Because they were heading in the wrong direction Jeremy suggests a detour to look at the Sea of Galilee. The road to the Sea of Galilee takes the presenters through the mountainous Golan Heights where the roads are, according to the presenters, fantastic despite the prospect of crashing into a mine field. Finally arriving at the Sea of Galilee the presenters take in the beauty of their surroundings before spending the night on the shores of the sea. The next morning Jeremy attempts to walk on water, unsuccessfully, before the trio depart for Bethlehem.
The convoy enjoy an eventless drive to their final destination, with the exception of James destroying Jeremy's hubble pipe, and pull over on the Mount of Olives to decide whose car is the best; The presenters all agree that Richard's Fiat is the best, due to it being the most reliable and having the most character. Having decided this the presenters take the final drive to Bethlehem as night falls. The presenters spot an ominous beam of light in the distance and follow it to a stable; here they know they will see the baby Jesus. After presenting their gifts the baby is revealed to be a baby Stig, much to the surprise of the presenters.
- At 7.68 million viewers on the date of broadcast, this is the 8th-most watched episode of the show throughout its entire run.
- Due to the Arab Spring and the successive desecration of Palmyra in the 2010s at the hands of terror group ISIS, this episode holds an unusual distinction of being one of the last and one of the only high-definition pieces of video media to feature such sites of historical significance.