With many thanks to Kelsey Whiting-Jones for this piece on the UK Friends’ walk in Jordan last May.
Some call them the ‘Three Musketeers” – Mahmoud, Abu Ibrahim, and Eisa – three local Abraham Path guides and leaders of the Al Ayoun Society. Mahmoud invites us to join in a song, huddled beneath the shade of a live oak tree. Abu Ibrahim bends down to show me a yellow plant that is used for stomach-aches. Eisa points to the hillside and explains the names of each peak and cave.
These trails run through their blood and they know shortcuts, where you can find the stunning black irises growing in April, or where to stop for a rest from walking and a enjoy cup of sage tea. They are proud of the landscape of their ancestors and of the history in the stones – the ruins of mosques, Byzantine mosaics, and castles. They tell tales of holy men – like the prophet Elijah –who have made this place a site of age-old pilgrimage. And they tell tales of the travelers they have come to meet on the path and made lasting friendships with. In the Ajloun region the path winds though forests, olive groves, and steep ravines. Huge boulders create narrow passages ways you nearly have to climb through. Summit vistas open out to rolling hills for as far as the eye can see. Through the haze you can spot the rolling hills of Israel and Palestine and on a clear day, even see the city of Jerusalem. Wildflowers bedeck path – purple hollyhocks, red poppies and little white daisies. You’ll wander through meadows pulling out little thistles and thorns from your trousers. Pistachio trees here, red-barked strawberry trees there. Tortoises may even join your walk. You will encounter countless flocks of sheep and goats, their bells tinkling through the valleys, accompanied by their herding dogs and friendly shepherds. Young boys on horses or donkeys many ride past you with a flicker of curiosity in their eyes. And as you pass through the hamlets along the route, school children will run to their windows giggling and calling you with shouts ‘Hello! What is your name!’ Shopkeepers and women in their homes will come out to greet you, saying Ahlan wa sahlan (loosely translated, it means: “May you arrive as part of the family, and tread an easy path” or “welcome”). They will invariably invite you in for tea. If it is hot out, you may be lucky enough to be offered a refreshing lemonade made green with the generous addition of mint leaves. The people on the path light up at the thought of sharing their hospitality with you – wherever you come from, wherever you are going. At the end of the day, my feet feel relieved as I take off my shoes to enter the homestay where I am spending the night at in the village of Orjan. Iman has spent the entire afternoon, after returning from her job as a school teacher, to prepare what was possibly be a feast unlike anything I’ve ever had before. The centerpiece is maqluba – a fragrant pillow of savory rice cooked with vegetables and chicken. Countless dishes served family style surround the maqluba – lentil soup, eggplant dip (moutabal), stuffed zucchinis (kousa mahshi), flavorful cooked tomato dip (galayet bandoura), stuffed grape leaves (yalangee), cauliflower fritters (mshat), tabouleh salad, and plenty of freshly baked bread. This is more than enough to satisfy an army, let alone a group of walkers. You dine on cushions, which line the perimeter of the family’s living room. Iman is beaming from ear to ear watching you enjoy her home-cooked meal. She asks eagerly which one was my favorite. I tell her I must have her recipe for mshat. We took to the balcony as the sun lowered in the sky, sipping on sweet tea and looking out onto the pomegranate, fig, and apricot trees that surround the house below. The next morning we awake to another feast – this time of various hand-made cheeses, olive oil and za’atar, humus, grilled taboon bread, thick savory yogurt (labneh), and pomegranate molasses. I am sad to leave Eisa and Iman and their children – especially 2-year old Tamar who was always up for hugs. I have brought a bottle of maple syrup from my home in New England as a gift for Iman and her kitchen. She bursts with excitement at the sweet taste. She has welcomed all of us strangers so warmly into her lovely home and I can’t even begin to repay her hospitality. But it makes me happy that in exchange for an unforgettable experience; she can have a little piece of my home with her. We are all nearly in tears as we say goodbye to one another. But as all goodbyes in the Middle East go, we say with a smile “See you again soon, inshah’Allah (God-willing).”
Thanks to Jeanne Coker for this blog – edited from a record of the journey written for ‘Christians Aware’.
Note to readers: Italicised sentences have been added to the original text for additional clarification.
The group met together at the delightful Amman Pasha Hotel. A meal on the roof, overlooking the Roman amphitheatre, to introduce ourselves before setting off the next day. We start by driving to Ajloun Castle, built by one of Saladdin’s generals in 1184. We walk North up and down the rocky hillsides and along the wadis. It is tough walking but our guides take good care of us. We are led by Murad from “Experience Jordan” (the Jordanian travel agency which is the local AP partner) and accompanied by a person from the local community. The trail has recently been marked by a group of young people from the local community together with people from the UK and the USA. The team need to explain to local villagers what they are doing. There is some suspicion that they might be a political party and need to overcome this! Another problem is what to mark. The only static objects are electricity poles but in between rocks are chosen which are unlikely to be moved by a local farmer. Our trail takes us through the village of Baoun and visit the site of Mar Elias (known as Tishbe in the Bible) the home-town of the Prophet Elijah. It has been a hot, tough day so we are pleased to reach our homestay in Orjan where we will spend two nights. Homestays are an essential part of the itinerary – local people provide food and somewhere to wash and to sleep. The money we pay for this hospitality goes directly to the local community. We are also able to learn a little of the local customs and culture. Some visit the Soap House, a local income generation project, but I need to rest my weary feet! Our hosts feed us well, too well; the showers are very welcome and the beds are comfortable so we are refreshed for further walking – Rasoun, Beit Idis, and finally Pella which is one of the Decapolis cities located along the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.
Sharhabil Bin Hassneh Ecopark
Here we participate in some community service
The Sharhabil Bin Hassah Dam (Ziqlab) is the first dam built in Jordan (1964). It is one of the clearest water resources in Jordan.
The park was established in 2005 – to rehabilitate and conserve the natural ecosystem of this area. Prior to that time this area was suffering from pollution, overgrazing by livestock, and soil erosion. Now it is a green oasis. Staff outlined various projects, the aim of which is to improve the lives of people in the local communities in the Jordan valley.
There are 10 wooden eco lodges which are used for residential conferences and the paying public (to raise money to resource the park). Visitors are guided on the walking trails – another source of income. There are two natural wetlands which are major breeding grounds for birds and animals. There is a small artificial wetland where grey water from showers and sinks is treated and then used in plant irrigation.
A geodesic dome was built by local students. These domes are easily built with no need for internal support. They have good acoustics so can be used for lectures without the need for amplification. It is also used for theatre where the audience sit outside.
The area is green with mature trees (which need little water) where once was stony desert. We spent some time weeding with hoes around established plants and filling 2 litre drinks bottles with sand to create the walls of a bird hide.
The next day we took to transport instead of walking which was considered unsafe by our guide after 24 hours of rain (more rain fell than during the winter rainy season) which pleased the Jordanians but limited our activities. As we drive north along the ridge we see the River Jordan way below and the Ash-Shaykh Husayn crossing into Israel. One of our group took this crossing into Israel and then on to Nablus where he was planning to set up a town twinning in Colorado. Onwards to Um Qais, another Decapolis city. It is a large site with paved Roman road looking over the Golan Heights down to Lake Tiberias. The town is called Gadara (reference Mark 5 vv 1-15. And v20 – So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him.). We return to Amman for our first encounter with refugees.
Helping Refugees in Jordan (HRJ)
Founded in 2011 in response to the influx of Syrian refugees arriving in Jordan, HRJ is a volunteer organization that seeks to support local and international charities meet the basic needs of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees and Jordanians. HRJ currently supports over 20 local charities all over Jordan and many formal and informal schools. These numbers are expected to rise.
Funds permitting, HRJ is able to respond quickly to needs highlighted by these charities, acquiring essentials such as baby and children’s clothes, shoes, toys, blankets, kitchen supplies, milk powder, hygiene items, school supplies and medical equipment.
HRJ has over 150 international and some local, non-political, non-profit charities working with refugees and Jordanians in the host communities. The close working relationship between Mercy Corps and HRJ ensures that items bought complement existing programs, plug any gaps and meet any emergency needs that are highlighted by field workers in host and camp communities.
We went out, with other international volunteers, to a refugee camp in an industrial area of Amman. There are about 200 families living in tents on waste land beside modern commercial buildings. We took craft material and other activity material together with a clown from Ecuador! On the way we bought bananas, tetra packs and cakes. We were told to expect 100 children, we catered for 120 but many went away disappointed. I watched three brothers who walked around holding hands, disappointment on their faces not to get a banana; they only know the daily round of having nothing to do, nowhere to go where a shared banana is their greatest treat. I walked around the campsite and talked to a teenager in a wheelchair. The mother invited me into their tent where there was another severely disabled child about 8 or 9 (both children probably have cerebral palsy). Inside the tent the thing that struck me most was the total absence of possessions.
The Christian Missionary Alliance at Al Mafraq
“Behold how good and pleasant it is to dwell together in unity” psalm 131.1
It has opened the church to co-ordinate the work with refugees living in the community in the area of Al Mafraq to the northern border. The church is supporting Muslims – my brother in need. It has brought church members (about 70) together as a family. The paid pastors in the church are all Jordanian. Currently there are 38 short term volunteers, funded from where they come. These revitalise the long term volunteers where there are problems of “burn out”. There is a building programme at the church for more accommodation for the volunteers with much of the funding coming from a church in Surrey. The Missionary Alliance is audited (by Mercy Alliance) to see how the donor money is spent.
We were given a presentation on the CMA’s work with refugees. It was explained that there is limited access for volunteers into the UNHCR camp where most refugees start out. Refugees need to be sponsored by a Jordanian family to leave the camp but many leave illegally. (Hence the work of the CMA who run their own registration process to track the families they are supporting). About a dozen NGO’s support the CMA. These include: local Jordanian volunteer organisations; Docas Aid, a Dutch NGO; Medair, who pays the rent; Mercy Malaysia, who provides the heating; and the Czech Republic,a major donor.
(At first CMA’s work was mainly handling out a welcome pack to each family they registered. The welcome pack contents, in two parts, were:)
Basic provision: mattresses, blankets, pillows, floor mat, gas stove, gas bottle
Consumables: food packages, clothes, diapers, medical equipment
660 packs have been delivered in the last three months (February to May 2014).
40 families were registered in the winter 2011/2012; the following year this number was 3,000. Now there is an average of 40 new families registering, twice a week (family size average is 5.8 people). Families fled Syria with no possessions, and Jordanian families sheltered them (where they were supposed to pay rent). Now, over a year in, the CMA has turned its attention from basic relief toward development to address the long-term problems arising from permanent refugee status. Jordanian schools have opened a second (afternoon) shift for Syrian children but there is no capacity for the remaining 50%. Muslims pay 2% a year to local organisations. It is called Zakat and helps poor Jordanians too.
The CMA’s approach to the refugee challenge is governed by a set of simple principles: Everyone is an individual; Openness; Flexibility; Help in what people need; Do what can be done; Patience in listening to people’s traumas; Accountability; Weekly meeting for encouragement and feedback
After our morning with the CMA, we drove to the border at the Jabir checkpoint and crossing, taking with us packages of provisions (containing much the same as UK food banks) and clothing. We distributed these to families who fled at the beginning of the hostilities. They live in concrete rooms, open at the front, which were intended as shop premises. I asked about toilet facilities and how they managed to wash clothes. The response – “The neighbouring shopkeeper is so kind”.
With all the recent turmoil in the Middle East, this video report from the Abraham Path from CNN’s programme ‘Inside the Middle East’ makes for a refreshingly different view. It’s part of why we do what we do.
NationalGeographic Traveller rates the Abraham Path the world’s #1 new walking trail. The path truly comes to life in this beautiful traveler’s piece which you can read here.
NationalGeographic‘s Ben Lerwill writes, “The landscape has a hardiness that conceals gifts: mistletoe, wagtails, dragonflies and pink cyclamen. … We sleep in welcoming homestays. I learn that lamb-filled flatbreads and pomegranate juice make good hiking fuel, and the valleys glow gold at first light.”
Max Farrar, Board member of UK Friends of Abraham’s Path, writes:
Leeds Metropolitan University linked up with what was then called the Abraham Path Initiative back in 2007. The Vice Chancellor at that time, Professor Simon Lee, could immediately see how important this project was. I was Head of the Community Partnerships and Volunteering office at Leeds Met. Simon suggested we took a party of our students to help develop the Path in north Jordan. This was to be one of our ‘international volunteering’ projects, enhanced by joining with a party of students from Yarmouk University in north Jordan. In June 2008 seven Leeds Met students, the Yarmouk students and me worked with the API team on road-and-home stay-testing the path in the Al Ajloun region. It was a life-changing experience for us all.
As a result, with help from Daniel Adamson, the British member of the API staff in Jordan, I started the process of forming the UK Friends of Abraham’s Path. I retired from Leeds Met in 2009 but the university wanted to continue its international volunteering in the Middle East. So the UK Friends partnered up with my old office, now run by Chloe Hudson, and we developed, with great input from Daniel, a trip to Israel and Palestine, which duly took place in the summer of 2013. We learnt a lot from the students’ responses to the 2013 trip (some of them appear below) and a different version of that experience is happening in the summer of 2014.
The sheer amount and impact of what I learnt and experienced in those short two weeks will stay with me forever. From the highs of the breath-taking scenery of Abraham’s Path to the lows of a refugee camp created a trip of a lifetime for me. Having been lucky enough to go on a number of other volunteering trips, even I was surprised at how emotional, complicated and deep the trip was for me.
Two immediate and practical outcomes: I have cut down the time I spend in the shower knowing of the dire water shortages on the Palestinian side; and I talk about the beauty and safety of the region we hiked, travelled, home-stayed and laughed in.
My aim from now on be able to confidently answer back to the shocked faces and stern enquires of ‘Why the hell are you off there?!’when I told the bank manager, friends and colleagues that I was off to Israel and Palestine for two weeks. It is a place of historical importance, beauty, culture, entrenched politics, the centre of the three Abraham religions and key to the future as we all know of the efforts that have gone into securing peace in the Middle East. The people are so friendly which I am especially happy to report due to the fact most will have either lived in fear or oppression all their lives.
I have learnt that hope is an immensely powerful emotion – one that people spend their entire lives living by and, for some, justifies their very existence to HOPE for a solution and for the Palestinians at least the hope to, one day, return to their homes. The state of Israel was formed by the hope of the Jewish people for somewhere to finally call home and somewhere safe for them in the Land they believed was promised to them by God. I will never use the word ‘hope’lightly anymore or lessen its use in future.
I’ve learnt that no peace can come without justice too. How can there be a two state solution when there are Palestinians who have no access to water or electricity? Those basic needs were always in my head even in the relaxing times on the beach in Tel Aviv and in the historic city of Jericho. I almost could not stomach the Herculean admiration and awe for an ancient water cistern hand-carved in the rocks beneath the ground on the Israeli side, as we knew they were still building and using them to collect rain water on the Palestinian villages and farms scattered across the land. It was either ignorance or the human emotion of simply forgetting, especially in this case, that made me feel so ill. It will be extremely difficult to find a solution due to the politics and views that are entrenched from birth about the opposing sides.
If only the path to a solution and true peace was as beautiful, thought-provoking and inspirational as Abraham’s Path itself we would be in a much better position.
One thing that I definitely got to appreciate a lot more after having seen all the injustice, segregation and deprived living conditions in general of the Palestinians, is that we in Western Europe have real democracies, with fair and (politically) independent jurisdiction.
I experienced injustice. I also experienced hope.
I remember Hamsah (a guide) saying that he was still full of hope for the return to his family’s house/land one day. And if not him, then maybe his children or grandchildren…this hope I find is good and inspiring although it might hold worrying potential in the future. This hope is what keeps them going: alive, calm and mostly peaceful – for now I’d say. But what happens with future generations who will get more and more detached from the original conflict?
It is truly admirable that people like Hamsah or Amal (from the Tent of Nations) can still be so positive and are able to transform negative feelings into something that can actually have a great positive impact on their local communities but also inspire visitors like us with their great attitude!
I’ve also learned that it is difficult to talk about this conflict with many Israelis. There are a lot of very open people and those against what their government does, but I feel it is a topic where the general rule is “Don’t ask them about it.”
Other things I learned: how perfectly safe it is to travel and be in the West Bank (at least with a good guide like Dan). I never thought the food would be so amazing….I’ve never experienced such hospitality towards total strangers! That moment of being invited to a cup of tea on my first night definitely was a key moment.
I felt very welcome in the West Bank and liked the overall atmosphere and environment the people create with their mentality.
It was also great seeing what kind of skills Muhanned (another guide) has with regard to our senses. He smelt a cadaver ten minutes before we got there; he knocked out that scorpion; he made tea and made a fire with a few stones and wood he collected on the way. If there was to be any big catastrophe he would definitely know how to survive and feed his family. We’re already starting to be useless and feel helpless if we don’t have our phones or the internet around all the time.
First of all I would like to say that I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity. I have learned so much about the conflict in Israel-Palestine, and we were welcomed by lovely people everywhere we visited. The experience that we’ve had is beyond what anyone could learn from an academic course and also beyond the news headlines. I was very touched by the stories we heard and I have great admiration for the resistance and strength of the Palestinians despite the oppression imposed by the Israelis. Unfortunately, when we visited Israel I didn’t feel that the Israelis had much compassion for the Palestinians and they seemed to be unaffected by the conflict, but it was important that we visited both sides.
I will continue to share what I have learned with my colleagues, friends, family and hopefully raise awareness of the conflict. The experience has also made me appreciate having running water, electricity and overall freedom of movement. I now feel that I have a strong connection with the areas we visited and I would love to go back and help the people who are affected by the conflict in any possible way.
It has been an amazing journey and a life changing experience. Over a small period of time I felt I was fairly educated about the conflict and the situation on both sides which was one of my main objectives. It was physically and mentally challenging but I believe the amount of time, effort and research put behind each activity really facilitated us and made it such a joyful experience.
We worked with the communities on the ground and had dialogues across the borders. This was a great sense of achievement as we felt that we contributed to making a differences by reducing the barriers and bridging the gaps in a most divided community. We worked with people with such positivity and spirits who taught us that in spite of suffering , injustice and oppression their determination to do good has only become stronger and stronger.
It was wonderful to know that in spite of on-going struggle a large number of organisations are striving so hard to promote non-violent resistance and bridge the gap between Palestine and Israel.
We have had some of the most amazing memories to take away such as playing with children at refugee camp; visiting Batir; the home-stay in Kufr Malek and the Palestinian wedding; the visit to the Dome of the Rock and the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.
It was just days after the cease fire between Israel and Gaza war last November that we flew into Ben Gurion. Jerusalem and Bethlehem, normally crowded at this time of year, were empty. Since we had last visited Palestine in 2008 on a politically focused bus tour, Erika had been eager to get her “feet on the ground” and get some feel for the reality of life in this conflict ridden country. We were a little group of four with a great guide, Daniel.
The countryside is beautiful and when walking through the wadis (giant rocky red desert valleys that have occasional flash floods), one is continually aware of the history of this land: ruins here and abandoned buildings there, ancient terraces for agriculture (often abandoned or under-used), ancient beautiful olive trees, place names familiar from bible studies. Walking along, it was easy to imagine how over many centuries herders have driven their goats and sheep just as they are still doing now.
Daniel (a British historian currently living in Bethlehem and former employee of the Abraham Path Initiative) who would describe with great enthusiasm how this village or that mosque had been under the control of successive rulers from Rome and Greece through Ottomans and Islam (and had been successively a church, a mosque, a synagogue and then a church again).
We were inevitably faced with the political reality of the occupation and of suppression. The Wall can be seen from almost everywhere, dividing the land. The Wall and the associated travel restrictions on Palestinians isolate them from Israelis except for their one-sided contact with the army and the settlers. They also isolate the Israelis. There is minimal personal contact, no getting to know each other. Each community demonises the other. At turn-offs from the main roads, which go past Palestinian villages, you see government signs warning Israelis that it is dangerous to enter. Where Palestinians are allowed to drive on these main roads (often they are restricted to old country roads and farm tracks), you see them having to show papers at the frequent check points. Palestinians need permission to travel outside the West Bank and (except for the few who live there) are not allowed to visit Jerusalem. Palestinian land is regularly taken for settler use. The Israelis control all water supplies, drill wells for the settler farms, prohibit drilling by the Palestinians and, as we learned whilst we were there, often do not allow the Palestinians even to repair their old water pipes and aqueducts. The situation is not helped by statements from Hamas that their aim remains to drive Israel from the land, “inch by inch”, thus encouraging Israeli illegal annexations.
If only more people would walk and meet each other walking! When walking in Palestine you frequently meet an individual or a small group of Bedouin or Palestinian farmers. You are invariably invited to share a cup of tea and often freshly baked bread: hospitality and smiles and common humanity. We ate most evenings with local families and thus not only got a gourmet trip but also a real experience of how Palestinians live and raise their children in difficult circumstances.
The food was superb! Of all the wonderful meals we want to mention one in a Bedouin community. After an idyllic walk through a wadi ending by a beautiful spring, we got to the village where the mother of our local guide had prepared a huge meal for us. It was chicken on unleavened bread, the bread had been baked freshly on stones in the outdoor oven and had soaked up the juices of the meat and with them the glorious seasoning. Erika’s mouth still waters thinking about it. With it were local fresh vegetables (this was in the fertile Jordan Valley). Much later we learned that the guide had forgotten to tell his mother about our arrival until the afternoon! All the women of the community must have helped with the baking of bread and the cutting of vegetables.
We ate this meal sitting outside, with relations coming and going and joining in the conversation. Many men speak enough English to converse. We saw the women working away in the background and only the oldest generation joined us by sitting down with us.
Happy children were everywhere. Everywhere we went, the children were loved, played with, danced with and had a lot of adult interaction (as well as a developed system of slightly older children caring for slightly younger ones). However, we saw no toys. By contrast TV was everywhere, even in a very basic Bedouin tent deep in the desert (powered by solar panels) where water had to be brought in by small tankers.
In the villages most Muslim families have arranged marriages, intermarry and live together in wider-family communities. You can easily imagine both the positive cooperation and the deep stresses and strains this creates. Erika cannot imagine living this way as a woman. Even in liberal families the husband dominates and has the final say over what his wife does. In more urban environments the young girls may not want to follow these rules anymore, and we met several parents of teenagers who do not expect to dictate their children’s marriage partners. We were impressed by the sophistication, the good English and the high aims of many young women and teenagers with whom we spoke. Palestinians value education above everything. It is a way “out” for their children and many have sons and daughters who, awarded scholarships, now study abroad.
We were also with Christian families who are now very much in the minority (they have smaller families and more of them emigrate) and struggle to continue their way of life. Another day, in a refugee camp, we sat with an 81-year-old man who had left his village in 1948 with his young wife and baby and a herd of 150 goats. He then spent 7 years in a tent and is still in the camp where stone buildings now give it a feeling of permanence.
One woman’s day
Finally we spent three days with our dear young friend in her community (many of them family, including the local mayor) who could not have received us with greater welcome. Living with her in her village amongst her large and nuclear family (she now has five children), was a powerful experience. She works so hard. Up during the night with the baby. Up at 5:30 to prepare the main meal and breakfast. The children up and off to school at 7:30, she and her husband off to work at the same time, having dropped off the baby plus food etc with a local widow who cares for him.
Back from school, the family eats the main meal about 2:00 and then they might have a brief nap. Chores and work take up the afternoon and in the evening there is likely to be a large gathering in the big sitting room with the men playing cards (a form of rummy which Roger was delighted to be invited to join in) and the women chatting. Our friend will continue to be busy preparing tea and coffee and offering sweets whilst encouraging the children to do homework and running the household. And she is only 32 years old!
Our friend and her husband took time off work whilst we visited and a highlight was a trip into Hebron to visit the Mosque at the tomb of Abraham. It was a treat for them as well, as they would normally not expose themselves to harassment from settlers and soldiers; however they felt safe in the company of foreigners. To think about this situation makes us both angry and sad.
We will not attempt describe the spectacular monuments and souks we saw. You can get that better in guide books. But there was much to digest, much to think about.
We are grateful and happy that we were able to go, that the weather held and that Daniel was such a great guide who had tailor-made the trip with care and led us with expertise.
Our wish is that more people go and walk in Palestine, meet the people and let them know that they have not been forgotten.
Our journey on Abraham’s Path (AP) took us to the very start of the four thousand year old story of the prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) – to his (contested) birth place in Sanliurfa, Turkey, and to Harran, where he is recorded as receiving the call from God to set out on his wanderings Our journey took us through remote rural villages some of which were opening their doors for the first time to international travellers.
Our starting point was the Kurdish village of Yuvacali where Alison Tanik (originally from Burton -on-Trent and now an Abraham’s Path representative) lives with her husband and two young children. Here she has set up a local tourism business to encourage visitors to her adopted homeland and supported the establishment by the local community of a 105-mile (170km) walking route in South Eastern Anatolia.
The village has been settled since the dawn of civilization. Sumerian cuneiform tablets have been found in the mound, created by humans and dominating the village. Its more recent settlement is by Jews, Armenians and Kurds. Remains from 9 000 BC have been uncovered in the neighbouring village of Nevali Cori. The fields are literally littered with materials from earlier civilisations – outlines of the buildings, pieces of pottery, Roman roof tiles, very early cutting implements, etc. A piece of a (small) Roman column is used to roll the earth on a flat roof.
The once-abundant river water supply has shrunk due to the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates and the implementation of the South-Eastern Anatolian Project known as GAP, a multi billion dollar project of Turkey. Instead, households have piped water but water for irrigation is some 100m below the surface.The Turkish government has made recent improvements in the area so we found piped water and sewage systems, although toilet and washing facilities are still simple. Sleeping on the floor on mattresses was very comfortable. We sat on the carpeted floor for our meals.
School starts aged seven, but if you have not registered the birth until your child is two years old then your child starts school at nine! There is a primary school in the village – one class where younger children are taught in the morning and older ones in the afternoon. All education is in Turkish so these Kurdish speakers start with a disadvantage. There is no concession to dual language teaching. Adult literacy and Turkish speakers are both about 50%. Kurdish speakers are disadvantaged as, for example, they cannot speak to a doctor or the police. The pre-school from the age of four was opened in 2009 and equipped by visitors on Nomad tours and now supported by travellers on Abraham’s path.
Average life expectancy is 70 in Istanbul but here it is 58. The last generation had up to twenty children. This generation is now seven. Infant mortality runs at 20% – 30%. The village is home to four extended families and 80% marry cousins. One of the prevalent outcomes is gestational diabetes (large babies).
Most people are self-sufficient in many foodstuffs but average income is less than a dollar a day which is well below the poverty line. Home-stays, which are well established here, make a huge difference to the participating families – eight households are involved in the project. Due to the income from travellers home-stays now have immersion boilers which was a pleasant surprise!
Typical jobs created are:
Drivers – pick up from the airport, luggage carrying service
Providers of breakfast, dinner and packed lunches
Households for home stay – 2 involved for a maximum of 12 guests.
Escorts – a local person walks with the group each day but is not, by Turkish law, a guide as such. Our escort, Orhan, accompanied us and was invaluable – talking to local people en route who allowed us to use their toilet and offered us the invariable glass of tea.
In the household where we stayed both parents are illiterate. Life has been transformed for their children. Faruk is at university, Fartih is developing the tourism business and Aylin is at boarding school. The role of women has also been changed. Pero (the mother of the household) is very confident interacting with her guests. She encouraged us women to help her make the unleavened bread. We were not very good at it – it needs a lot of strength!
Our wandering starts
We were driven to Harran where Abraham lived (about 2,000 BC) before answering God’s call to go to Canaan – “When Abraham was 75 years old he set out from Harran”, Genesis 12 v.4. Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, also lived in Harran: “Jacob left Beersheba and went to Harran”, Genesis 28 v.10. Jacob’s sons (except Benjamin) were born in Harran. It was a caravan city at this time – a nomadic time. Jacob’s well is being turned into a tourist attraction. Islam’s first university was built here during the 8th Century and many important scholars of natural science, astronomy, and medicine originate from Harran; they were non-Arab and non-Islamic ethnic Assyrians.
From there, like Abraham, our walk started.
Walking to Bazda
Having sampled the sights of Harran we set off on our 20km walk to Bazda. For most of the journey we see the structure and product of the GAP project. Green fields which once were desert (the crops look very healthy to my urban eye!); water troughs alongside the road; flexible irrigation pipes with sprinklers that farmers move from field to field – and one huge artificial channel not yet filled with water.
We sit under trees in Koyunluca where local women come to “talk” to us. Sign language leads to an invitation to sit on chairs on the veranda of a local home and drink tea. The women are all wearing beautiful traditional dress. One – a newly wed – has a stunning outfit but does not want to be photographed. She has come to live with her husband’s family and is still rather shy. This is quite a prosperous home with a tiled toilet attached to the house. Nearby is some sparkling new farm machinery and I observe someone using the road grader on the back of a tractor to flatten the approach to his house. These people seem to have benefited rapidly from GAP. We are told farms are becoming larger: families are losing their smallholding and work for the larger landowners.
The desert hills appear as we approach Bazda. On arrival we are surprised to see a village shop. We sit at a table and sample the ice cream!
Here are fantastic caves where rock has been hewn for the buildings in Harran. Overnight we stay with a local Arabic family – Arab communities now dominate. We are privileged to be their first home-stay guest.
On to Suayb
Well fed and rested, we set off next day for the 18km stretch to Suayb and the shrine of Jethro (father-in-law to Moses). The scenery is rocky desert with occasional green fields, lots of sheep and occasional cows. Families club together to pay a shepherd for the year. Mid morning we pass through Goktas and the remains of Han el Ba’rur caravanserai, built in 1128 to accommodate passing traders and their animals. This is a well-marked historic site so people, used to visitors, demonstrate washing and pounding their grain. Children follow us around the site and I notice one with very blue eyes – evidence of the mix of people who have passed through this place.
Arriving in Suayb we are met by some young people who took us to our home-stay where people are also hosting visitors for the first time and make us very welcome. After resting our weary feet for a short time the children take us to explore their historic site – a hill that hides a whole underground village stretching from hillside to hillside. The children demonstrate this by disappearing underground and then popping up all over the place. One area is still used as a place of worship. We visit Jethro’s shrine where there are wall drawings.
A night in Sogmator
Another 18km to travel to the isolated village of Sogmator, where once sun worship was the order of the day. We are now firmly in rocky desert. There are a few irrigated fields. I see where the irrigation pipes go under the road and there are women moving the flexible hoses in the field. This appears to be the furthest reach of GAP. It is a lovely day and I am intent on making the most of this wonderful scenery. There are desert flowers in abundance and I note sixteen different flowers (but cannot name any of them!). The village was important in the cult of Sin. Hilltop temples to various planets litter the landscape. A cave with moon god statues is in the centre of the village. There is script carved into some of the rocks on the top of the hillsides. Coptic? Syriac?
To rest in Sanluirfa
On our final day we make an early start to reach Gobekli Tepe by bus before the main tourists arrive. It is a temple dating from 9,500BC, discovered in 1994 and still being excavated. The discovery of this temple has altered the way archaeologists and anthropologists think of the development of civilisation. It was thought that places of worship were built after people became agriculturalists but there is no evidence of agriculture around the temple site.
And so finally we are taken into to the city centre of nearby Sanliurfa (or Urfa) to visit the birthplace of Abraham and the sacred fishponds. It is strange to be back in the traffic and in a town once again.
But for all that GAP has brought almost instant wealth to some and that Goblekli Tepe will soon have one of a worldwide chain of hotels built nearby, the area is still very conservative. Long trousers were the order of the day for walking and long skirts for the women inside the house. Women are not allowed out of the house on their own and family ties are strong.
And so, far from the Mediterranean resorts which for so many characterise a holiday in Turkey, our visit has taken us to a world apart, and a culture still embedded in a time traceable to man’s earliest settlements.