Turkey: Walking for peace

Published in Wanderlust, June/July 2008

“Eighty lira for that? You must be joking. Take fifty and it’s a deal.”

“Fifty? No good. Seventy.”

In a couple of decades roaming the Middle East I’ve had many experiences to savour, but the cultural resonance of seeing a Jordanian haggle with a Turk – in English – over the price of a carpet made my afternoon.

A hundred years ago these adversaries would have been compatriots, but the 20th century, with its wars and nationalisms, had divided them. Now a man who lived 4,000 years ago had brought them together again.

The Jordanian – a journalist, like me – was in the easygoing Turkish town of Urfa (or, as it likes to style itself, Sanliurfa, ‘Glorious Urfa’) to walk in the footsteps of Abraham.

Just another hiking trail? Not really. When complete, the Abraham Path will cross almost 1200km of the Middle East, from Urfa, where Abraham was born, to nearby Harran, where he heard the word of God, then to Aleppo in Syria, where he stopped to milk his cow (the city’s name is derived from haleeb, the Arabic word for milk), then Damascus, northern Jordan and over to Jerusalem, ending at the Palestinian city of Hebron, site of Abraham’s tomb.

It is being modelled on successful cultural routes such as Spain’s Camino de Santiago or Turkey’s St Paul Way – with the crucial difference that it is universal. Abraham, the first monotheist, is common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam: three billion people view him as their forebear. As such, this is a path for peace.

It’s a mammoth undertaking. All the places on the route have long-lived associations with Abraham, but nobody before now has tried to string them together. Credit that to William Ury, director of Harvard University’s Global Negotiation Project (formerly the Project on Preventing War), of which the Abraham Path Initiative, API, is one part. Ury has been working on the idea since 2004, gathering funding from charitable foundations, enthusing tourism ministers and communicating the vision.

Two employees, Daniel Adamson, a former hiking guide for ATG Oxford, and Mahmoud Twaissi have spent the last couple of years plotting the path across the northern Jordanian highlands, mapping it using GPS and discussing the project with local communities. This June, 45km of the total 120km mapped so far in Jordan will be opened to the public.

We walked a modest 12km stretch from Parapara village outside Urfa to the ancient city of Harran, through vast cotton fields irrigated by dams on the nearby Euphrates. Traces of Abraham were elusive, but – as with the Camino de Santiago – this is as much a metaphorical journey as a physical one.

Ambitions are high. In 1970, maybe fifty people followed the Camino; last year, there were perhaps 200,000. Northern Spain is now seeing a reverse migration, with locals returning to the countryside to start businesses servicing the route. The API are hoping for the same effect in rural Turkey, Syria and Jordan.

And there may be other results from travellers exploring the hinterlands of the Middle East at a walking pace. “Paths are the opposite of walls,” was one of William Ury’s soundbites; Mehmet Kalpakli, of UNESCO, put it more elegantly: “Cultural dialogue can undermine radical ideologies.”

As with any new idea in the Middle East, there are a hundred good reasons why not to do it. Most scholars believe Abraham was born not in Urfa, but in Ur, 1000km away in southern Iraq. Cultural routes from Urfa already exist, but are based on east-west trade along the Silk Road rather than north-south pilgrimage. Hebron, the path’s endpoint, has long been the West Bank’s tensest, angriest city.

Then, as a demo outside our Urfa hotel proved – local people protesting that the Americans had come to take Abraham away from Islam and give him to the Jews – everything in the Middle East is political, even walking.

Yet as long as the API does it right – acting as facilitator rather than overseer, and ensuring ownership of the route and its meaning remains with local communities – the whys and wherefores need not matter. Establishing a trans-national cultural trail centred on Abraham remains a great idea.

It’s easy to be cynical, and say they haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance of getting the Palestinians and the Israelis to cooperate on multifaith pilgrimage, or of persuading Syria to embrace a tourism initiative sponsored by an American university.

Then again – like watching a Jordanian haggle with a Turk – there’s a first time for everything.