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From the dawn of time, men and women have felt the need to worship.
To make sense of life and what lies beyond.
To find a purpose and to bring a shape to human existence.
Women have always been at the heart of our relationship with the divine.
But this part of our history is often hidden.
If you leave out Jesus and the Apostle Paul,
it's perfectly possible to tell the story of early Christianity
without ever mentioning a man.
We know that she was critical to Muhammad.
She became his first convert. She was the first Muslim.
For thousands of years, all over the world,
religion has shaped the lives of billions.
This is why I want to go back, to uncover the remarkable
and neglected stories of women and religion.
Their stories can unlock a secret history of the world.
It's not the male God who created this universe. It's the female.
Across cultures, I've uncovered the story of goddesses and earthly women who spoke directly with the gods.
Divine women were evicted from the heavens
and driven from temples,
but then, halfway between the ancient and modern worlds,
came a unique moment for humanity.
Branded "The Dark Ages",
this was in fact a golden age for remarkable woman
who used the power of belief in the word to rule in a man's world.
Their incredible achievements still shape our lives today.
A prostitute who became an empress and,
inspired by the Mother of God, pioneered modern justice.
This is the idea that you're innocent until proved guilty,
which is the foundation stone of every legal system in the world.
The wife of a prophet whose words are still read
by over two billion men and women today.
There's a saying that you can get half your religion just from Aisha.
And a woman who ruled as an emperor
and made her country's religion in her own likeness.
I'm going in search of the extraordinary women across the globe
who used their courage, charisma and sheer brain power
to put the female of the species back at the heart of religion.
My journey begins just 500 years after the birth of Christ.
Christianity has become the official religion of the Roman Empire
and the age is dominated by one of the most controversial
and reviled women in history.
Even her official biographer, Procopius,
wrote a vicious secret history of this woman, describing her as,
"a prostitute who tore up the roots of the Roman Empire".
The Catholic Church was even more damning in its assessment.
"This degenerate woman, Theodora,
"was another Eve who heeded the serpents.
"She was a denizen of the abyss and a mistress of demons.
"It was she who, driven by satanic spirit and roused by diabolic rage,
"spitefully overthrew a peace redeemed by the blood of martyrs."
But in the East, they tell a different story.
I've been granted an audience with His All Holiness,
the Supreme Head of the Orthodox Church,
in St Mark's in Istanbul,
once the capital of the mighty Christian empire, Byzantium.
"Perhaps one of the most powerful
"and influential women in Byzantium is St Theodora, the Empress.
"After a troubled childhood and a personal spiritual journey,
"she was married to the renowned Emperor, Justinian.
"St Theodora elevated the status of women
"by fighting for the rights of women."
So what is the real story of this extraordinary woman,
who's regarded as a saint in the East
and a mistress of demons in the West?
Theodora was born in the 6th century AD
in the great city of Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul.
The Roman Empire had divided into two separate territories.
Rome was the capital in the West and Constantinople in the East.
The Western capital was overrun by barbarians,
but in the East, Constantinople proclaimed itself,
"The heart of God's empire on earth",
and became the most powerful city in the Christian world.
So you could say Rome never fell, it just moved 850 miles east.
The new Rome modelled itself full square on the old capital.
There was a Senate, people spoke Latin
and there was a very Roman passion for chariot racing,
which took place right here in the ancient hippodrome.
The hippodrome was the beating political heart of Byzantium,
but it was also home to actors, dancers
and circus acts who kept the crowds entertained between the races.
Around 500 AD,
the wife of a bear-keeper here gave birth to a girl called Theodora.
Theodora didn't just start life at the bottom of the social ladder.
She was pretty much off the register.
Her mother was described as an actress and a dancer,
which was a polite way of saying a prostitute.
To try to get a sense of her world,
I'm meeting historian Haluk Cetinkaya.
-So she inhabits an underworld here?
-Definitely, because that was the place where the beggars,
the prostitutes, dancers, actors, thieves, everything was there.
All the bottom social strata was there.
So it's a really tumultuous time, this,
because you've got pagans here and Christians.
Exactly. This is the transition period, but what's impressive by then
is the processions.
For the first time in the history of the city,
they had the processions of the icons,
in particular, the icon of Mary.
The cult of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God,
was one of the most radical developments in Christianity.
A short while before Theodora was born,
it had swept through Constantinople.
As a child, she'd have seen worshippers
carrying Mary's sacred image around the city.
These enormous icons were thought
to radiate a kind of Christian force field
and to protect the city from harm.
It was a huge mosaic icon carried with great difficulty by four men.
Four men? That's a massive thing.
-That's an impressive role model to have, as a woman?
As a teenager, Theodora became the mistress of a wealthy politician.
They hit the road together but, after a few years, he dumped her.
Rejected and homeless,
she was befriended by a group of Christians who gave her shelter.
Now she had faith, but little else.
She was in a very bad place.
She'd pretty much run out of money.
She had very few connections and now, as a discarded mistress,
she was one rung lower on the social ladder.
The young Christian had to fall back on the only skills she had.
Then her luck changed when she came across a woman called Macedonia.
Macedonia was a dancing girl by day but, by night,
she was a spy for Justinian, the heir to the Emperor.
Spotting Theodora's potential,
she recruited her to what was now a burgeoning secret service.
Justinian, the nephew of the old Emperor,
was tipped to succeed his uncle.
To build a power base and secure the throne,
he used a network of spies to keep track of potential rivals.
Why do you think she was asked to be a spy?
Because of her skills, because of her charm,
because she was very much connected with every walk of life.
Is she accused of being a prostitute at this point in her life?
Most probably she was.
And the information she grabbed from bed hopping,
from one to the other,
she was able to divert into the administration itself.
I wonder if that's why she ends up meeting Justinian,
because there's rumour of this extraordinary woman.
She's beautiful, she's smart,
and she obviously achieves results as an informer.
Oh, definitely. Well, she played her cards quite well.
She realised a rising star is Justinian.
So, she definitely aimed at him.
So, one way or the other, she had access to him,
and she was able to prove herself to be worthy.
She had her eye on a big prize.
Oh, definitely, definitely.
'When Justinian, the heir to the throne, met his spy, Theodora,
'he quickly fell under her spell.
'Within a year, she'd moved into the palace.
'Shortly afterwards, Justinian persuaded his uncle, the Emperor,
'to change the law to allow him to marry an actress.'
On April 1st, 527 AD,
the failing Justin named Justinian and Theodora as his successors.
Three days later, on Easter Sunday,
their coronation was held here in Hagia Sophia.
Theodora, the girl who'd started life in the gutter,
was now in command of a vast empire.
And she was the most powerful woman in the whole of Christendom.
'As the Empress of the first empire ruled by one god,
'Theodora was now allied to the most powerful woman in heaven,
'Mary, the Mother of God Himself.'
When you think of Theodora
and her relationship to the Virgin Mary,
it's really important to mind-shift back to the 6th century AD,
because it had only been relatively recently
that a young girl from Nazareth
had been turned into something quite extraordinary.
'At the ancient of Ephesus, in southern Turkey, in 431 AD,
'leaders arrived from across Christendom
'to settle fundamental issues of the Christian faith.
'I'm meeting historian Kate Cooper to find out how decisions taken here
'would shape Theodora's world.'
This is THE question.
It's the nature of Jesus.
Is he human? Is he a god?
Or is he some combination of the two?
And, of course, it's really whether or not his mother gave birth
to a god or a human that it all boils down to.
Whether or not she was "Theotokos", is the Greek for it. "God-bearer".
That was the hottest topic of debate you can imagine.
'The location of the council was no coincidence.
'For thousands of years, Ephesus had been home
'to the pagan goddess Artemis, the virgin goddess of childbirth.
'Those early Christians who wanted to elevate Mary to the Mother of God
'were connecting her to the power of the great goddesses
'who'd once held sway across the world.
'And this movement had some influential supporters.
'Imperial women who wanted to put a girl next to God.'
If you think from the perspective of women,
it's the women of the imperial household who really want
the cult of the Virgin, which, in a sense, is their cult,
to gain the honour that it deserves in the official church,
as well as in the imperial family.
For the imperial women,
there is a sort of wonderful hall-of-mirrors effect
that they are venerating the Virgin,
but they're also having that kind of glory reflected back on them,
that they are themselves powerful.
Do they almost morph into the Virgin at any point?
Is there a sense that, in some ways, they incarnate her?
I certainly think that's something
that is always at the edge of everyone's mind,
this idea that the Virgin Mary,
the Mother of God, the queen of heaven,
is the direct counterpart of the Empress here on earth.
With the support of the women of the imperial household,
the Council of Ephesus decreed
that Mary was not just the Mother of Christ,
the Mother of God.
This mosaic from a church in Ravenna
Is the only contemporary image of Theodora,
and it drives home this divine connection to the Virgin Mary.
On one side of the church is the Emperor Justinian,
flanked, like Jesus, by 12 Apostles.
On the opposite wall is Theodora,
portrayed as the Mother of God,
with a halo round her head.
And embroidered on the hem of her robe are the Three Kings,
who came to pay court to Mary and the baby Jesus.
Justinian and Theodora presided over the imperial court
as if it was the court of judgment in heaven.
He was God and she was the Virgin Mary.
Those who were allowed access had to prostrate themselves
and press their foreheads into the ground.
And the senators were allowed
to brush the imperial feet with their lips.
I bet Theodora loved every minute of it!
Justinian and Theodora made their mark throughout their sacred empire.
In Constantinople, they built the great church of Hagia Sophia.
In Egypt, their names were carved in the beams of the church
of the Mother of God on Mount Sinai.
And in Greece, the Parthenon, on the Acropolis,
was now home to Mary, the Mother of God.
But Theodora remains an elusive figure.
The accounts we have of Theodora are so highly coloured,
it can sometimes feel hard to get close
to the physical reality of her life.
But after being buried for 1,500 years,
this extraordinary new excavation is bringing us closer
to the great city that she lived in.
As foundations are laid for a new metro line,
the ships being uncovered here tell us
how closely connected Constantinople was to a vast empire.
At this point in history,
Theodora ruled over a territory that spanned three continents -
Europe, Asia and Africa.
Evidence of her influence can be found,
not just in the earth,
but in words on a page.
Together with Justinian, she introduced
a radical series of reforms,
building safe houses for homeless women,
banning prostitution and outlawing infanticide.
'Peter Frankopan has studied Justinian and Theodora's legacy'
'in Byzantium and beyond.'
How far do you think the laws at this time
were inspired by a kind of Christian morality?
This is primarily a Christian empire and one which distributes justice
from the top to the bottom of society.
The slaves and the children and the women and the dispossessed
were given rights in Byzantium.
These laws that were passed under Theodora and Justinian's watch
were obviously immensely impactful in their own day,
but what about their legacy?
Well, one of the most important parts of the laws, I think,
is the idea that you're innocent until proved guilty,
which is the foundation stone
of every legal system in the world, pretty much.
I remember travelling round Eastern Europe
after the Berlin Wall came down.
There was a lot of discussion about
what kind of legal systems would emerge in Communist Europe,
and I was very surprised in 1990,
looking back from Moscow and from Berlin,
that the place they looked for their reference point,
was to Constantinople in the 530s, which, as a historian,
I found lovely, but also a bit of a surprise.
Theodora's Christian ideals have clearly shaped the world
we live in today, but how did her own society react?
These legal reforms and the social reforms
really stuck in the throat of the rich and the powerful.
Within the first three or four years,
they faced a real showdown
about whether they'd actually manage to hang on to the throne.
In 532 AD, the clash between rulers and ruled
came to a head where Theodora had grown up,
the great Hippodrome.
Thousands started to crowd into the Hippodrome
and began to make their complaints to the Emperor.
Accused of blasphemy by the imperial guards,
the protestors stormed out.
Within days, violence broke out in pockets right across the city
and Justinian decided to act.
He ordered the deaths of the ringleaders.
That night, the mob went on the rampage,
setting fire to the city and butchering innocents.
The next day, they were calling for a new Emperor.
As chaos engulfed the streets of Constantinople,
Justinian and Theodora sheltered in their palace.
Soon, it looked as though they were going to attack the palace itself.
Justinian ordered a ship to be loaded with gold
in preparation for their flight.
But Theodora was made from sterner stuff.
It was at this moment of absolute crisis
that Theodora showed her true mettle.
Summoning Justinian's generals and advisers to her
in the palace right here below,
she spoke out to them.
"No man who has ever been born can escape death,
"but for an Emperor to slink away in the night is unbearable.
"I hope that I will never be stripped of the imperial purple
"and that I will not live to see the day
"when men fail to call me Empress."
Inspired by her leadership, loyal soldiers led an assault on the mob.
35,000 rebels were slaughtered
and the ringleaders captured and executed.
Thanks to Theodora, the rebellion had been crushed.
Until she died,
Theodora continued to shape religious and political policy
in the world's first true Christian empire.
By drawing on the power of both the old goddesses and a new faith,
she made a difference.
Theodora might have started out in life rejected by Christendom,
but she ended up as one of the greatest champions
of the Eastern Church.
Empowered by Mary, the Mother of God,
she introduced a series of laws that transformed people's lives
and that we all benefit from today.
Just as Christian ideas were transforming
the great Byzantine Empire,
another religious revolution was brewing on its southern borders.
It began in a city called Mecca and, with the help of two women,
it would sweep through the East and shape the world we live in today.
The word of God, according to all Muslims,
was revealed in a desert cave high above the city of Mecca.
Here, one man had a vision of the Archangel Gabriel.
"In the name of your lord and cherisher who created everything.
"He created man of a mere clot of congealed blood. Proclaim!
"And your lord is the most bountiful who taught the use of the pen,
"who taught man that which he knew not."
And the first person to hear news of this
revelation of the word of God was a woman.
Islamic sources tell us that Khadija bint Khuwaylid was the daughter
of a merchant who built the family business into a commercial empire.
Her caravans travelled thousands of miles
to the great cities in the Middle East.
From all accounts, Khadija was a powerful
and independent-minded woman.
Once she was widowed, she vowed she would never marry again.
She was clearly accustomed to making her own way in the world.
In fact, it was her business acumen that would set her on a path
that would eventually change the history of the world.
To find out more about Khadija,
I'm meeting Professor Leila Ahmed from Harvard University,
a world authority on the history of women in Islam.
She was a powerful woman, a merchant, with a lot of money
and she hired Muhammad because he had a reputation for honesty
and she admired him.
She was very impressed and actually proposed marriage to him.
He was a 25-year-old. She was 40.
That does seem to be key though,
the fact that she is choosing this young man.
You know, she spots him,
she thinks he's got potential and then she decides to make him hers.
What in Khadija's back-story gave her the confidence to propose
to Muhammad like this?
Was she typical of her society?
We know it was a tribal society and I think probably different tribes
had somewhat different customs.
For instance, when women married they might stay with their own tribe
and the husband would come and visit.
We know that in some situations women had the right to divorce
and we also know that there were prophetesses and priestesses.
So Khadija, it seems, had reason to be confident in Muhammad's company.
From all accounts, their early years were a partnership,
both emotionally and in business.
But gradually Muhammad withdrew,
growing more interested in spirituality,
leaving his home to seek solitude in the hills above Mecca.
It was the beginning of his transformation from man to prophet.
We know that when he first began to experience Quranic revelations
he even doubted himself
but it was Khadija who affirmed the reality of his prophethood.
So we know that she was critical to Muhammad.
She became his first convert. She was the first Muslim.
Fascinating it was a woman who was the first convert to Islam.
The fact that she was a major figure in society meant the tribe
respected him, even if they didn't like his message.
Her support was extraordinarily important to him.
For the next ten years, Khadija used her family connections
and all her wealth to support her husband
and fund the fledgling faith,
a religion built on the controversial principle of one god
in a society that believed in many.
Now Muhammad decided it was time for action.
In defiance of the tribal elders, he was going to publicly preach his new faith.
"There is one god, Allah," he said.
"To worship all others is blasphemy."
The tribal elders in Mecca responded by issuing an ultimatum.
"Muhammad's followers must abandon him or be ostracised."
Throughout this period of persecution,
Khadija did everything possible to help her husband and Islam
but, in 619, she fell ill with fever and died.
Muhammad was heartbroken.
For 25 years, Khadija had been his best friend and his closest ally.
Muslims still remember the year of her death as the Year of Sorrow.
Muhammad campaigned to forge Arabia into a single nation,
united by one god, one religion and one word, Islam.
As was the tradition, he took other wives,
but we're told his favourite was called Aisha.
Controversies surround Aisha,
not least rumours of her tender age when she married.
I'm meeting academic Myriam Franois-Cerrah to find out
why this young woman became so central to Islam.
She understood the religion. She understood the context.
She's scholarly, she's smart. She's eloquent.
She wants to be part of the public sphere and very much is.
This was not a shy and cowering woman.
She really took to the front and if she had something to say,
she said it.
After many years in exile,
Muhammad eventually defeated his enemies and took control of Mecca.
But a few months later, he was dead.
And the person instrumental in maintaining his legacy
was his wife, Aisha.
In its early years,
Islam depended on word of mouth to record its core beliefs.
Called "Hadith", which literally means "sayings",
these accounts of the words and deeds of Muhammad
were eventually written down to help believers to understand the Quran.
We're told Aisha's intimate knowledge of the Prophet
made her central to this development.
She was known for having memorised thousands of Hadith,
or the sayings of the Prophet,
peace be upon him, throughout her lifetime.
Scores of men learnt from her.
There's a saying that you can get half of your religion
just from Aisha.
Aisha's role in early Islam wasn't a one-off either.
Mohammad Akram Nadwi is a research fellow
at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies,
who's just completed a groundbreaking 53-volume history
of female Muslim scholars.
Where is that happening? Where are they holding these lessons?
So your opinion, from having studied this for over 35 years,
is actually if you look back to the roots of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad
wanted women to have an active role in the teaching of Islam,
the promotion of it, and the understanding of what the faith was?
It seems that women were incredibly influential
in the early years of Islam.
So why did this change?
Within just a dozen years of the Prophet's death,
the fledgling faith had conquered Persia
and two-thirds of the Byzantine Empire,
transforming Islam into a super power.
So where did that leave the women?
The critical thing was how quickly it expanded militarily.
The Arabs became very, very wealthy.
The conquest brought with it a lot of slavery,
so that a lot of very negative views of women
were taken from the neighbouring cultures which they had conquered.
So compare the conditions of women in Iraq, in Baghdad,
100 years after the Muhammad's death to the women of early Arabia,
like Khadija or Aisha, the contrast is dramatic and appalling.
I mean, women were really in terrible conditions.
The number of wives that rulers had were in the hundreds.
The number of female slaves that they had was also vast.
The seclusion of women became unimaginable.
Women were thought of as so inferior and they need to be silent
and they shouldn't have any kind of rights whatever.
Today, the position of women in Islam is one of the most hotly debated topics
from Baghdad to Bradford.
Many see Muslim women as oppressed.
If you think of these great role models, Khadija and Aisha,
what do you think they would think of Islam
as it's developed in the 21st century?
I'm not entirely sure that they would recognise
the practices that we have today.
I'm certainly not sure that Aisha would take very well to being told
to move to the back of the room and not speak up.
You know, she was very much used to teaching men, educating men.
If she had something to say, she would say it.
And the idea that Khadija, again a very powerful figure,
would somehow be curtailed in her voice, in her rights,
I'm not sure that this would be anything
that they would be willing to accept or recognise.
It's easy to see how Aisha
and Khadija can be role models for Muslim women.
They were key to the early days of Islam
and challenged many people's perceptions
of women's role in the faith.
Shocking really that, outside Islam,
so few of us have even heard their names
and that the part played by female Muslim scholars has been ignored.
Away from the Abrahamic faiths,
this golden age for women was shaping another belief system,
driving one nation to become the greatest civilisation on earth.
And thanks to religion and the written word,
one woman would secure her place as its supreme ruler.
I've come here to trace the story of what has to be one of the most
extraordinary characters in the whole of human history.
She ruled China from Inner Mongolia to the south of Korea
and she demanded to be called, not Empress, but Emperor.
Her name was Wu Zetian
and she's buried somewhere deep in this holy mountain.
Like Theodora and Aisha, her legacy is deeply controversial.
The stone army that guards Wu's burial site has been vandalised
and contemporary writers were even more brutal.
"With the heart of a serpent and the nature of a wolf,
"she slew her sister, butchered her brothers, killed her prince
"and poisoned her mother.
"She is hated by men and gods alike."
Even her memorial stone was left unmarked.
This is really a unique case, actually.
Her memorial stone remained blank
because her successors found her too controversial.
I'm meeting historian Liu Yang to try to uncover
the story of this remarkable, elusive woman,
who is huge in China, but barely known in the West.
Wu Zetian was born into a noble family in 624 AD.
Her society was dominated by an ancient religion called Taoism
that believed in many gods and the ideas of the philosopher Confucius.
In terms of a religious and spiritual aspect,
this is really a very dynamic and diverse period.
There are many traditions around
and people can adapt them to their own need
and sometimes they simply mix them together.
For example, Confucianism,
which emphasises everyone has its proper place in society
and there's very little chance for them to change their status.
And women, in particular, are very much restricted by those aspects.
But there was an alternative, in the form of Buddhism,
a philosophy gaining ground in China.
She was brought up in a family heavily influenced by Buddhism.
That has a lot to do with her later choices in life.
It gave her, probably, inspirations as well.
During Wu's childhood,
the emperors had begun to build great Buddhist pagodas,
like this in the capital, Xi'an.
When Wu arrived here, aged 13, this was the biggest city in the world,
dominated by the royal palace, which would become her new home.
Recently, archaeologists have uncovered new evidence
of the palace's sheer scale.
So what exactly are we looking at here?
We're looking at the foundation of the southern gate.
The so-called Vermilion Bird Gate overlooked the city in the past.
How big would the gate originally have been?
Oh, this entire building is built to match the original
dimensions of the gate.
-It is huge.
But still, this is just one of a dozen gates of the palace.
And there's more rich evidence of the palace culture
underground in the tomb of an Emperor's daughter.
Look at these majestic-looking guardsmen.
-Gosh, they're everywhere, aren't they?
Here, you get a snapshot of some of the 30,000 courtiers,
like Wu, who once lived in the vast palace complex.
Look at this!
Yeah, these are among the most beautiful murals ever discovered.
Oh, they're fantastic!
These are female attendants.
They come from very distinguished families.
They served under the princess and other distinguished ladies.
It's great to see. Because it can be hard to imagine Wu at this point
in her life, but it's almost as if she's there in front of us.
Exactly, yeah. She can be one of those women.
Do we know exactly what kind of day-to-day tasks she'd have been responsible for?
Most historical records seem to give us the impression
that she started with a very low rank, almost like a chambermaid.
So prepared the beds for the Emperor Taizong
and even served in the toilet.
One day, the Emperor's health began to fail.
His son and heir, Gaozong, came to his father's sickbed
and it was now, according to some accounts,
that Wu began a passionate affair with the Crown Prince.
Wu was using the oldest trick in the book
to turn the situation to her advantage,
but her meteoric rise came to an abrupt end
when the old Emperor succumbed.
The old Emperor was dead, but Wu was still considered his property
and, as a childless concubine, she no longer had a place at court.
So, instead, she was sent to live out her life as a nun
in a Buddhist nunnery.
It's hard to imagine what it would have been like for Wu Zetian
in a place like this.
It could not have been more different to the edgy splendour
of the palace that she was used to.
And here her days would have been dominated by prayers and chanting.
She might well have had her head shaved
and she would have vowed to deny all the pleasures of the flesh.
She was just 22, so this would have been like a life sentence.
After just a year in the nunnery, Wu got an unexpected reprieve.
The new Empress Wang summoned her to the palace.
The Empress, certainly at this time, feels a bit insecure,
because she hasn't really produced an heir for the emperor
and she's facing a new rival,
who is a favourite consort of the new Emperor.
But how is it going to help to have Wu here?
I think she thinks that she can bring Wu in as a tool
to distract the Emperor,
to get attention away from that favourite concubine.
-It's quite a risky strategy, isn't it?
-It is, it is!
And she never really thought that Wu would ever really rival her
in the palace.
And she certainly underestimated Wu's ability.
Wu was back in the palace with her eye on the main chance,
but now she wasn't satisfied just to hold her place in the Emperor's bed,
she wanted to share his throne.
Wu quickly produced an heir for the Emperor
and staked her claim to the old Empress's throne.
It wasn't long before she made it clear that she was in charge.
The Empress Wang was locked away in a filthy room
at the very edge of the palace and left to die a painful, lonely death.
Wu was now the most powerful woman in China
and she made religion her greatest weapon.
She showed her true colours
at an ancient festival in China's Holy Mountains.
Traditionally, this was a man-only affair,
but Wu was having none of it.
Wu argued that the deity in charge of the Holy Mountain
was a goddess and that the earth herself was female
and so, naturally,
she should have a presence.
She must have been very persuasive, because she won her case.
The Emperor led the ceremony to the gods of the sky
from the top of the mountain
and she officiated on behalf of the earth goddesses at the bottom.
It was the first time in Chinese history
that a woman was present at this most sacred of ceremonies.
Wu had used religion to promote herself,
but the old gods only offered so much for a woman in medieval China.
So when the Emperor died, she looked to the beliefs of her childhood,
to help her reach the pinnacle of power.
She embarked on a massive propaganda campaign right through her empire
that had Buddhism at its heart.
The previous Tang rulers had been generous patrons of Buddhism,
but Wu took this to a whole new level.
Now, you don't get a statement much bigger than this.
We know that Wu Zetian used her own money,
20,000 strings of silver coin,
to have this enormous image carved out of the rock face.
Originally, the Buddha had carved on one shoulder the sun
and on the other the moon.
And these are symbols of the Buddha as a universal leader.
But they're also images that Wu Zetian used
to create a new Chinese character to write her own name,
implying that she was the sun and the moon combined.
The illumination of all the world.
Once this was built, rumours also started to circulate
that this Buddha's face was actually modelled on Wu Zetian's own.
It's clear that Wu saw Buddhism
as a means to consolidate her grip on power,
but why was it such a useful tool?
Professor Valerie Hansen from Princeton
is an expert on religion in the Tang Dynasty.
Buddhism is much more flexible in the options it offers
and there's a specific Buddhist idea called the "Wheel-turning King",
who contributes money or land
or food to Buddhist monasteries.
And that idea was so flexible that there was a place for a woman.
Empress Wu takes that "Wheel-turning King" name
for herself in 693.
Just the first step in Wu's master plan to harness Buddhism
and the power of the word.
She sent monks to India to scour the country for sacred texts,
called sutras, until they found what she needed
to cement her position as ruler in heaven and on earth.
The Great Cloud sutra tells of a prophesy that a woman ruler
will govern in a small Indian, not a Chinese, a small Indian kingdom.
She attains nirvana.
She has the option to become a man and she rejects that option
so she can stay on earth and be a woman ruler.
And when she was the ruler of the kingdom, the kingdom flourished.
So it was the perfect text
for a woman who saw herself as a wheel-turning patron of Buddhism.
Buttressed by texts like the Great Cloud sutra,
Wu declared herself Emperor of China,
founding a new dynasty in her family's name.
She left inscriptions across the kingdom proclaiming her power
and commemorating her ancestors.
This carved stone, still protected by the fearsome Shaolin monks,
as it was in Wu's own day, is a poem praising her dead mother.
The majority of the poem is actually rather melancholic
with very beautiful descriptions of the landscape round here.
But then you find a couple of lines that really explain
what it is that matters to Wu.
"Truly, it falls to those of benevolent means
"to aid the almighty to perfect the world."
Basically, what she's saying is that Buddhism needs her
as much as she needs it.
Wu's pragmatic devotion to Buddhism had an unexpected consequence,
a kind of side effect that would change the course of civilisation.
At the height of her power, a new technology was emerging in China.
700 years before the first Bible was printed in Europe,
Wu realised the printed word could help her gain ever more religious
and political influence.
Timothy Barrett from the University of London
is an expert on Wu and early printing.
I'm right in thinking, aren't I, that this is the oldest extant
printed book in the world?
Yes. It's certainly complete.
It's dated to 868,
quite clearly at the end.
This is the first real book where you can see the whole thing
printed from end to end.
This is a Buddhist text,
as you can see from the Buddha being right up at the front there.
And why does she need to print things?
How is it part of being a good Buddhist to sponsor printing?
OK. A Buddhist scripture, like this,
a sutra, is taken as the word of the Buddha and, in a sense,
it is the Buddha himself.
It's part of him, so it has the power of the Buddha inhering in it.
It's so fascinating, that, isn't it?
That you've got this mechanical process of printing but,
through printing, she's creating these sacred texts
and it's a sacred act in a way to distribute the words.
Yes. A sacred act but also a royal act.
So it's using religion, but it's also having a good eye to politics.
Wu Zetian's sponsorship of printing ushered in the modern world
and her support for Buddhism gave it a solid base in the Far East,
at a time when it was waning across the Indian sub-continent.
She deserves to be a household name.
How ironic that she's been consistently written out of history.
But Buddhism never forgot Wu Zetian.
Every morning at 5:00am for the last 1,300 years,
monks of Famen Si monastery in Central China
have gathered for prayers.
and the opening words to their chants were written by Wu herself.
Master Wisdom is a Buddhist monk, scholar and historian.
Wu Zetian was determined to change the face of the country
that she ruled over 1,300 years ago and, precisely because of that,
after her death her name was slandered and her memory was damned.
But her legacy does survive.
Thanks to her promotion both of Buddhism
and of the written word, her influence is now writ large
in an ever-burgeoning 21st-century China.
As Buddhism was revolutionising Chinese society,
thanks to the power of faith in the word,
a remote island in northern Europe
was also on the brink of seismic change.
Again, it would be a woman who'd play a critical role
in this transformation.
Her name was Hilda and she was the niece of an Anglo-Saxon king,
Edwin of Northumbria.
I've always been fascinated by this woman,
who seemed to have one foot in a kind of mythical past.
There are stories that she turned snakes to stone
and was a pioneer who blazed the trail for women.
Above all, she's revered as someone who championed learning
for ordinary people.
As one monk poetically put it,
her life was an example of the works of light.
In 627, when Islam was evolving into a religious super power,
Hilda would help set her country on a course
to become one of the greatest nations in the world.
For the last 100 years of Roman rule, Britain was,
nominally at least, Christian,
but with the withdrawal of Roman troops from 410 AD,
the Christian flame was all but extinguished.
The next 200 years were a fractious, messy time.
Germanic invaders brought back in pagan gods
and took away Roman benefits, like unity and literacy.
But in the 7th Century, when Hilda was a child, there was a revolution.
Monks from Christian, literate Ireland led a bold mission
to help re-establish their faith in barbarian Britain.
Two of Ireland's visionaries, Columbanus and Aidan,
established major monasteries at Iona and Lindisfarne.
These missionaries didn't just bring religion.
The monasteries they came from
were great bastions of knowledge and learning,
so when these monks came to convert, they brought books,
reading and writing,
helping to change the face of this country forever.
Crucially, these Irish evangelists
believed that knowledge should be for all,
for men, women and children.
I'm meeting Professor Sarah Foot from Oxford University
to find out what this meant for Hilda and her people.
It's bringing a whole series of things
that the Anglo-Saxons haven't experienced before
and it's going, fundamentally,
to change the nature of their whole society and culture.
It's going to bring this religion of the book
and with it the technology of writing.
It's going to bring artistic and cultural materials
and artefacts from the Roman and Mediterranean worlds.
It's going to introduce new ways for kings to run their realm
using writing and literacy.
For Hilda, the Irish missionaries' passion for education
proved inspirational and life-changing and, at the age of 33,
she joined their ranks.
Under the tutelage of Irish bishop Aidan, Hilda devoted her life
to education and study.
She founded an abbey at Whitby in Yorkshire and became its abbess,
responsible for the welfare and education of a whole community.
This must be a great job for a woman,
because this is quite a warrior culture at this age.
You know, it's a lot about brawn and muscle.
But here she can use her brain.
An abbess had probably more power than any other woman
in Anglo-Saxon England.
Hild had enormous political, economic and educational power.
It's the best career opportunity for girls in 7th-Century England.
We've got lots of evidence that she was directly
involved in teaching here.
There are five men educated in this monastery
who go on to become bishops.
No other single monastery produced that many figures,
and all of them had been taught in this place by this woman.
In medieval England,
religion provided women with not only a rich education
but the ability to shape and influence
future leaders of the country.
Hilda wasn't just a character in history.
You could argue that she was instrumental in the foundation
of English history itself, thanks to her influence on a man called Bede.
The monk, Bede, was a brilliant scholar and intellectual,
who wrote the very first history of England.
I'm meeting historian Peter Darby
to find out why Hilda was important
to the man described as "the Father of English History".
Bede absolutely saw the value of what Hilda was doing at Whitby and
presents her as an ideal type and something to be emulated.
And this shows as well that Bede really saw
a role for women in the Church going forwards.
And so Hild, I suppose, blazed the trail for the achievements
of Bede and really showed that it was possible to establish
a great centre of learning.
There is a debt there to the actions of Hild at Whitby
and the programme of learning that she introduced there.
Bede's biography of Hilda records one of the most important
events in the history of England.
It took place in 664 and it's called the Synod of Whitby.
Hilda's abbey hosted a great debate between Irish monks and Rome
about the right date of the key Christian festival, Easter.
Hilda's role in orchestrating this event was critical.
This was something that mattered so much to these people,
for whom Christianity was a new, exciting faith.
Nobody wanted to think that they were doing it wrong.
But it's a much bigger question than that,
because deciding how to calculate the date of Easter meant deciding
to line themselves behind the power of Rome and so make themselves
part of a Central European, but also much wider, Church.
Because the choice is between this rather remote West and the East,
which is the powerhouse of Christianity at this time.
Absolutely, so it's a decision to make England part of a global
Christian Church and the opportunity to develop further artistically,
So who wins?
In the end, the Roman party win.
Although Hilda owed her education and status to the Irish Church,
she embraced the majority decision.
England's future lay with Europe.
Incredible to think that this place that she ran
witnessed this extraordinarily important decision.
Yes, it is and so extraordinary to think that this moment that
really puts England on a Christian map,
that one of the key people who made that happen was a woman.
You could say that the decision at 664 in Whitby is a decision
that really changes the future of English history.
This is an age when religion
and new ideas gave women like Hilda the power to make history.
The 7th and 8th Centuries represent really a golden age
for women in English Christianity.
There's no other period where women are able to exercise
such genuine power and influence in the Christian culture and, indeed,
the wider political sphere than they are in this period.
Hild's a major figure educationally,
but she's also a major figure in the political life of the nation.
Kings and bishops came to consult Hild
about what they should be doing.
Beyond the 9th Century, the idea that women would hold such positions
of authority and influence is one that you just don't have any more.
Women tended to be enclosed, cloistered, constrained,
walled inside houses where there aren't any men.
Eventually, the great abbeys were downgraded.
Now all that's left is a haunting reminder of their former glory.
With the establishment of universities in the 12th Century,
at a stroke, the role of nunneries
and monasteries as educators of the world was virtually eradicated.
These places only admitted men.
For the next 1,300 years, all women were barred
and it wasn't until 1920
that a woman could be legally awarded a university degree.
I'm sure Hilda would have been horrified.
The moment in our history inhabited by Hilda, Wu Zetian
Khadijah, Aisha and Theodora should not be called the Dark Ages.
This was a time of illumination,
when women used the power of ancient traditions
and embraced exciting new ideas to rewrite the story of our world.
By searching through 12,000 years of human history,
I've discovered compelling proof that the female of the species
and religion have always been inseparable.
Divine women have nurtured us with their fierce power.
They've helped found religions
and been at the heart of our greatest civilisations.
During the Dark Ages, they brought light and leadership,
showing us the way forward.
Forget or ignore them, and we impoverish history and ourselves.
We have to understand the connection between women and the divine
because the product of that relationship
over tens of thousands of years of human history
has shaped the world that we live in
and the lives that we all lead today.
For a free Open University booklet
covering the issues and themes featured in this programme,
and to learn more about
controversies surrounding women in religion, ring
or go to bbc.co.uk/religion and follow the links to the OU.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Award-winning historian Bettany Hughes discovers how the period known as the Dark Ages was in fact a golden age for a few remarkable women. She finds that education and the written word became vital tools for these women.
First, she looks at Theodora, a prostitute turned empress, who allied herself with Mary the Mother of God to rule over a great Christian empire. Then she looks at the legacy of the wives of the prophet Muhammad, including Khadija, the first convert to Islam and Aisha, whose words are still read by over two billion men and women today. Bettany also discovers the story of Wu Zetien - a courtesan who harnessed the power of a philosophy, Buddhism, to become the only woman to rule China as emperor.
Finally, Bettany explores the history of St. Hilda, a great educator and wise woman, who presided over the crucial conference, the Synod of Whitby, which decided when Christians in Britain celebrated Easter, and cemented the islands' links with Rome and Europe.
Bettany Hughes concludes that these extraordinary women across the globe used their courage, charisma and sheer brainpower to put the female of the species back in the heart of religion. Their incredible achievements still shape our lives today.