'ON YOUR left, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the greatest masterpieces of the architect Sinan. It may not look so very fine from outside, but inside you will be astonished: it is dazzling in its beauty.' Our Turkish guide was extolling the splendour of the 11th mosque of the day, but we were beginning to lose concentration.

Behind me in the air-conditioned coach, an elderly couple had stopped listening and were sleepily looking out at the seething minestrone of rush-hour Istanbul, when one of them noticed the mosque. 'Look,' he said, 'there's a scruffy little one over there. Must be a poor relation, I expect. My word, they've certainly got problems with their pigeons here.'

His wife agreed, adding wearily: 'All these mosques - competition between the vicars, I shouldn't wonder.'

You hear what you want to hear in the end, and what you make of what you see is anybody's guess. It was only the first day of a journey during which we were to visit as many wonders of the Near and Middle East as could be crammed into a fortnight. We were already beginning to feel a strange sense of solidarity - that unity in adversity that seems to prevail in old-fashioned farces in which a cast of unlikely allies is imprisoned by a snowstorm in a cottage on wildest Dartmoor.

They probably felt like that on medieval pilgrimages: today's package tourists are like yesterday's pilgrims, thrown together by a common desire at least to glimpse some of the marvels they learnt about long ago, totting up the shrines on a well-worn path and collecting enough stories to see them through the winters in Southwark and Southampton.

Thanne longen folk . . . to seken straunge strondes,

To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes . . .

On our trip, the evenings were for stories. Glutted with glories, we would settle in the bar and talk about our lives. Some of the things we heard would have had Chaucer reaching for his pencil.

Like the Clerk of Oxenford who set off on that famous trip to Canterbury, the retired university teacher travelling with us was formidably knowledgeable and highly entertaining.

Sowning in moral vertue was his speche

And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.

This is one of his many stories, The Tale of the Guest Lecturer:

A guide was taking a group of travellers on a Saga tour. Some people say that Saga stands for Sex And Gin Available, but a more plausible acronym would be Send A Granny Away. One member of the party was a grandad of advanced years.

Past a certain age, all passengers are asked to provide a medical certificate of health: this man had written his own.

While visiting a Turkish carpet shop, his moment of truth arrived. He staggered for a moment, then dropped dead.

The guide dragged him to the back of the shop, calling for help, whereupon he was surrounded by voluble Turks offering advice. They thronged about, holding mirrors to the dead man's mouth, feeling for a pulse. At the height of the drama, a new and foreign sound made itself heard. It was German - loud, imperative, acquisitive German. The guide looked up to see a party of determined shoppers approaching at speed. When he turned back, the dead man had vanished. A handwoven masterpiece had been briskly rolled around him and he was now standing like El Cid, propped up, fixed and steady, but quite invisible, against the wall while free raki was being generously offered all round.

This chilling story was told after a visit to the caravanserai at Kusadasi. Our particular group was not with Saga, but we were given the raki anyway, and only the very strongest managed to hold out against the weavers. (Our rug, luckily, looks even nicer at home.)

We had left Istanbul aboard a small converted trawler called the Caledonian Star. Our tour manager frequently exhorted us to call it the Little Blue Ship, but we were a mutinous lot and he was alone in using this affectionate pet name. The idea took on, however, and we often referred to Little Blue Films, Little Blue Funks and our Little Blue Magical Mystery Tour. Our captain was a suave professional charmer with a leaning towards cabaret and a dapper bearing that reminded you less of the cat-o'-nine-tails than the catwalk.

He introduced his crew to us like a game-show host, questioning them about their hobbies (sailing, mainly) and marvelling at their strapping appearance. He could certainly run a tight ship - well, the passengers often were, at least (ho, ho) - and it seemed merely a matter of courtesy that he took local pilots aboard for the tricky bits.

I woke early the second morning as we took on the pilot for the Dardanelles. Outside the porthole Gallipoli was slipping bleakly, silently away. Sipping coffee up on the bridge in the grey dawn, the Turkish pilot was meditative. 'Five hundred thousand men dead,' he said, 'and for nothing.'

He told me that some years earlier a few remaining veterans had walked or been pushed in wheelchairs along those straits - Turkish, English and Anzac, in silent memory of those lost men. Into the hillside were carved some lines from a Turkish poet, which he translated as: 'Halt, stranger, for in this spot the tide of history turned.'

'What a stupid thing is war,' he concluded quietly. The ship's log read laconically: 'Cloudy, calm, following sea'.

OUR journey took us from war to war, further back than Troy, further forward than Suez. As we approached the Gulf, a soldier among us came forward. Like Chaucer's knight,

Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre

And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre

As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse

And evere honoured for his worthynesse.

The Marine's Tale:

During the early stages of Operation Desert Storm this soldier had been attached to an advanced unit laying mines in the desert. It was wild, inhospitable country, inhabited only by Bedouin groups, who lived, as they always have, by following their camels in search of water.

Our Marine spoke fluent Arabic, so that when some Bedouins were seen approaching the minefield, he was instructed to send them away. He went to their camp and was ushered in to the presence of the chief, a man of dignity and authority. Unfortunately, the two men spoke different dialects and the Marine was unable to make himself understood - besides, he was impressed by the man and reluctant to give him orders. When he reported back, his commanding officer was furious and said that if the message could not be delivered, he would start shooting camels.

Back went the Marine with a new idea. He wrote it all down in the elegant calligraphy he had mastered at university and handed it to the chief. To his guest's horror, the man flung himself to the ground and began throwing sand all over himself.

The humiliation of being illiterate was intolerable. The situation was only resolved when the fourth daughter of the family, a girl who had been given a little schooling, was brought in to interpret. Even then, as the small group got itself together to move on, the Marine knew that the chief would be forever disgraced in his own eyes because he had had to rely on the intervention of a woman.

SOON the Marines made their presence felt on our ship. At dawn, enforcing the United Nations' embargo, an American warship challenged us as we entered the Gulf of Aqaba. We were instructed to assemble on the top deck and a group of seven or eight warriors came aboard. Armed to the teeth, dressed for battle and kitted out with dark glasses and headphones, they stood stiffly guarding the exits while the ship was searched. (The search cannot have been thorough, because nobody found Mike, a soporific fellow passenger, who slept blissfully in his cabin throughout.)

One of us felt a little perturbed when the bridge was asked if there were any VIPs or journalists on board (an unlikely coupling of categories). But our vessel was cleared and the force returned to its powerful black inflatable - where it stayed. We watched and wondered why they didn't zoom noisily off in the direction they had come. The truth became clear when they took out paddles and began rather awkwardly to row away.

This bathetic incident reminded a member of our party who worked for the Foreign Office of something that had happened to a colleague in a remote African outpost of empire. The incident demanded all the quick-thinking resourcefulness associated with diplomacy:

And sikerly she was of greet disport

And ful pleasaunt and amyable of port

And peyned hire to countrefeete cheere

Of court, and to been estatlich of maneere.

This was The Diplomat's Tale:

The ambassador, a small man of uncertain temper, asked his young administrative assistant to find a smart car for an important occasion. The car arrived in a container, which the girl managed with some difficulty to locate and the vehicle was delivered to the embassy. She opened the car up and began a thorough inspection. When the ambassador joined her she was proud to report that it seemed perfect, except that the radio would not work. He seemed unreasonably angry, jumped out and slammed the door. She could do nothing but glumly follow, closing the bonnet and boot and locking up the car.

Inside the embassy the ambassador's wife was waiting for lunch. The girl joined her and they chatted for a while before beginning to wonder where the ambassador might be. He was not in his office. He was not to be found anywhere in the building.

A terrible thought struck the assistant. She went back to the car. There was a furious banging coming from inside the boot and she realised that he had crawled in, trying to connect up the radio aerial. Her mother's words came to her: when you cannot think of an excuse the best thing to do is to attack. She flung open the boot saying, 'There you are, Your Excellency. We've been looking for you everywhere.' Silently and furiously, the ambassador emerged, dusted himself down and went in to lunch. The incident was never mentioned again.

OUR trip drew together people who would be unlikely ever to meet under other circumstances. At first we were wary.

Our guest lecturer, the one who told the story of the carpet salesmen, was a man of erudition, lucidity and modesty, but he began by finding the Americans on the expedition baffling. I was talking to him on the first evening when a woman joined us. The conversation went like this: 'Hi] Are you our professor?' 'No. I'm Mr.' 'Well, are you our Mr Professor?'

'My name is Parker.' 'Well, I'd just like to say hi, Mr Professor Parker. I'm Audrey. I'm from Louisiana.' And off she drifted. He turned back to me. 'Extraordinary people, Americans. I talked to half a dozen of them before dinner. All drunk. Quite incoherent.' Yet, he was won over by the four who stayed the course and particularly by Pat, a retired college administrator from California who was a million miles away from the if-it's-Wednesday-it-must-be-Port-Said mentality.

On the windy hill of Troy, in the steamy depths of the tomb of Rameses IX, haggling manfully in Dr Ragab's Papyrus Institute, there she was, revelling in the whole mind-boggling experience, yet never averse to sharing an ouzo, a sherbet or preferably, a Canadian-on-the-rocks.

In felaweshipe wel koude she laugh and carpe.

We had a Buddhist from Plymouth respectfully and ludicrously wearing an anorak hood in the Blue Mosque; old Africa hands settling on shooting sticks at Knossos; widows forgetting their sorrows in a welter of new experiences; and Meg and Harry, married for 54 years, riding horses gamely for the first time and making friends wherever they went. 'He says I'm like his mother,' said Meg, of a waiter in Luxor, and she probably was.

Everyone had a story and some of them were true, even if only in the mythic sense. The ship's doctor told of a colleague forced to remove his own appendix on the high seas, with the aid of local anaesthetic and a mirror; a seasoned financier from Manchester described trapping cockroaches on the Yangtze; an over-anxious dog owner from Surrey had left her darlings with a firm called something like Aunty Pets, who moved in and gave the creatures every comfort. 'I've done wrong by my cats,' Pat muttered.

In Petra, a place so overwhelmingly majestic that no superlatives can do it justice, a little girl with an enchanting smile held out a basket full of pieces of that extraordinary striped red stone and appealed to us with her three words of English: 'Half a dinar?'. 'Never give to beggars,' advised our manager, strutting briskly past, but those who brought home a little piece of Petra have more than half a dinar's worth.

Just outside the Valley of the Kings, a 10-year-old invited me into her house, where her grandmother sat on the earth floor, bright-eyed, black-veiled, rocking a baby on her lap. After proudly showing me her house, which could have been the home of Lazarus in its ancient simplicity, she pressed a small piece of rocky alabaster into my hand. 'Take,' she said, 'a present.'

In Cairo, an hour or two after the earthquake, the stories were beginning: 'Have you heard? The epicentre was just next to our hotel . . . the whole place swayed like a pendulum . . . there's going to be a much worse one tonight . . . the pyramids are falling apart.'

But they weren't. When we arrived the next day, there stood the only surviving wonder of the ancient world, rock-solid and unmoved. And around us thronged the traders, selling us the tallest story of all: that, by giving them their price, we were getting a real bargain. A man in a long brown caftan and a Mister Softee scoop of a turban held out a handful of baubles to me.

And he bigan with right a myrie cheere

His tale anon, and seyde as ye may heere.

This was his irresistible line: 'Whole bloody lot for five quid,' he said. 'Take it.' I did.