MagazineOut of Eden Walk

Blessed. Cursed. Claimed.

On foot through the Holy Lands

This story appears in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Jerusalem is not a city of war. Avner Goren is stubborn on this point.

We are on foot, walking under a cloudless morning sky in the Levant, following a river of raw sewage that foams in torrents from East Jerusalem—12 million gallons a day, Goren informs me—a foul discharge that runs for 23 miles down to the Dead Sea. We are trailing the waste as a form of pilgrimage. Goren, one of Israel’s leading archaeologists, thinks like this.

“There have been 700 conflicts here since Jerusalem was founded,” he says over his shoulder, wedging his way through religious tourists in the Old City. “But there were long times without war too. And people lived peacefully together.”

There are three of us.

Goren: a native Jerusalemite, a tousle-headed intellectual with the watery blue eyes of a dreamer, and a Jew. Bassam Almohor: a Palestinian friend and photographer, a tireless walking guide from the West Bank. I join them both after trekking north over the course of 381 days from Africa, out of the biological cradle of humankind in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia, and into the rise of agriculture, the invention of written language, the birthplace of supreme deities: the Fertile Crescent. My slow journey is part of a project called the Out of Eden Walk, whose aim is to retrace, step-by-step, the pathways of the Stone Age ancestors who discovered our world. I plan to ramble for seven years to the last corner of the Earth reached by our species: the southernmost tip of South America. When I describe my trajectory to Goren, he replies, “Yes. You’ve come up from the south, like Abraham.”

Our sewage walk—Goren’s grand idea—is as compelling as it is eccentric: He wants to clean up the waste (Germany has promised support for a wastewater treatment plant) and establish miles of “green” trails along a fabled valley where 5,000 years ago Jerusalem was founded. These walking paths would unspool from the spiritual core of the Old City through the biblical desert, where the pollution oozes under a yellow sun. Because the effluent crosses the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank, such a route would bridge the lives of Palestinians and Israelis. The purified river, by collecting in its arid watershed the sacred and profane, would help build peace between the Middle East’s two archenemies.

“They’re Just People”

As Paul Salopek continues his journey through the Middle East, he talks about what unites the different cultures living in this embattled region.

“This pilgrimage will be different on many levels,” Goren says. “It follows an important cultural and religious corridor, true. But it also connects Palestinians and Israelis in a very real way. And of course there is the clean water.”

We start among the shrines of the three Abrahamic faiths: the Dome of the Rock, the spires of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the towering blocks of the Western Wall, bristling with prayers inked on paper. We sweat down shadeless streets in Palestinian neighborhoods. We follow the sludge through barren hills, where it encircles a sixth-century monastery like a grim moat. The effluent slides through an army firing range. In airless canyons we breathe through our mouths to blunt its stench. Two days later we reach the terminus: the salt sea between Israel and Jordan.

“Monotheism was born here,” Goren tells me atop a cliff overlooking the sheet of iron-colored water. “Once we invented agriculture, we didn’t need nymphs at every spring anymore. The old gods of wild nature were no longer required.”

Only ultimate mysteries remained.

It seems so impossible, so unworkable, so naive, Goren’s dream. (Weeks later, yet another round of Palestinian-Israeli fighting would flare. Rockets would scratch the skies. Israel would invade nearby Gaza. “This will set me back by two years,” Goren would sigh. “But I’ll wait.”) This is how we must have advanced, originally, across the dawn world. Against laughable odds. Across 2,500 generations of setbacks, despair, blows, crises of faith.

Yet surely it is the quest that matters.

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Contested Ground

For almost two years, the Out of Eden Walk project, which traces the global spread of early humans, has taken Paul Salopek from Africa’s Great Rift Valley to the Middle East, birthplace of cities and agriculture. On this stretch of his journey, Salopek left the “oceanic vistas of Arabia” to trek the ancient corridor of the Jordan River Valley to Jerusalem and the West Bank, a route long the focus of conquest and conversion.

We walk north, Hamoudi Alweijah al Bedul and I, from the Saudi Arabian border. We climb the brow of Syria.

What is the brow of Syria?

A rampart of rock: a colossal knuckle of sandstone punching up from the Hisma, the pale frontier plains of south Jordan. Arab mapmakers of the Middle Ages drew this high barrier as an edge, a fulcrum point, a divide. To the south, the vast geometrical deserts of Arabian nomads, a redoubt of feral movement, of fickle winds, of open space, of saddle leather—home to the wild Bedouin tribes. To the north, the lusher, more coveted fields of settled peoples, of walled civilizations, of layered borders drawn and scratched out—the many-chambered heart of the Levant. We walk into the Fertile Crescent, the prime incubator of human change. A cockpit of empires. A palimpsest of trade roads. A place of exile and sacrifice. Of jealous gods. The oldest of promised lands.

Hamoudi, my guide, sings his way uphill. He leads a pack mule by a chain, bowed against an icy wind. His faded kaffiyeh snaps like a flag. I walk ahead, pulling another loaded mule. Hamoudi steers me too, like a dumb beast. “Left!” he cries in Arabic. “Right!” And “No, no, straight ahead!” In three days of walking together, my Bedouin traveling companion and I pass life-size Neolithic bulls etched into rocks at Wadi Rum, a fabulous corridor of tangerine sand—a primordial valve of human migration that T. E. Lawrence called a “processional way greater than imagination.” We trace our fingers over 2,000-year-old inscriptions pecked by Nabataean incense traders and nomadic herders. We stagger over rubble from Roman forts. We camp beside ruined churches of Byzantium—the eastern Christian empire—their naves caved in, roofed now by desert skies marbled with cirrus. Everywhere we spot the prayers carved by long-dead Muslim pilgrims walking south to Mecca.

The storm belts us on the rim of the Jordan Valley. Gusts chuck up fistfuls of dirt. The mules moan. Deranged by lightning, a hobbled camel lopes past screaming like some mocking portent, only to vanish in the gloom. Bedouin women refuse us shelter. In violet twilight they warn us away, shouting objections from the interiors of their belled and tottering tents. Night falls. We walk on.

“Palestine,” Hamoudi tells three lean, unshaven, deeply filthy sheepherders of the Sayadeen tribe who finally take us in. It’s as good a destination as any.

The shepherds stir the cherry embers of their hearth. They accept our instant coffee sweetened with condensed milk, sipping from plastic cups with pinkies held out like lords. They ask politely after our well-being. They praise God that we are content. My feet are frozen. Hamoudi winks and grins. He will sleep with his dagger on a rug of sand. Tomorrow is Christmas.

Humankind paused, mid-step, while ambling through the Middle East. Wolfish bands of hunter-gatherers, weary from 200,000 years of wandering, sat down in the chalky valleys of the Levant. They sought out reliable springs of sweet water. They learned to sow wild grasses—barley, emmer wheat, flax. They tamed wild oxen with horns six feet wide. The nomadic imperative of hunting was set aside forever. Instead these newly settled peoples began stacking stone upon stone, building the first villages, towns, cities. Smelted metal appeared. So did commerce and armies. A new world entire, bustled, unfolded, expanded—one we still inhabit. This “Neolithic revolution” occurred between 9,000 and 11,000 years ago. It erupted, independently, in the earliest agricultural societies in China, Mesoamerica, and Melanesia. But it bloomed first in the rumpled dun hills and forested riverbanks along our route out of Africa.

Or so say the textbooks.

Hamoudi and I trudge 300 miles north through the lavender shadows of the Transjordan range. We tug our hammer-headed mules along the tourist trails of Petra, the fabled Nabataean capital cut from rock the color of living muscle. We walk past Bronze Age graveyards that contain dead so old and unloved they hardly seem human anymore—Fayfa and Bab edh Dhra, the famous boneyards of the sort that some biblical scholars link to the destroyed cities in Genesis, Sodom and Gomorrah. Wadi Faynan 16 holds no such notoriety.

Discovered in 1996, the site sits atop a remote gravel terrace above the gaunt and dusty Jordan River Valley. This obscure site is an enigma, a paradox. It upends the usual narratives of human progress. Circular dwellings, grinding stones, stone tools—its village relics date back an astonishing 12,000 years, deep into our nomadic Stone Age. The people who settled here weren’t farmers. They hunted. Yet they built a large amphitheater of mud, a platform carefully runneled to carry liquid—possibly blood. They came, apparently, to witness some ritual. To pray. And like Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, another profoundly antique cultic monument that has gained worldwide fame, Wadi Faynan 16 suggests that organized religion—spiritual hunger, not empty bellies—may finally have stopped our ramblings, kindled our urbanism, made us modern.

“The amphitheater looks designed for communal worship,” says Mohammad Dafalla, an archaeological guide who helped dig up Faynan 16. “Something very old ended here. Something new began.”

Hamoudi gathers twigs for a campfire. The Jordan Valley sprawls below in a broth of yellow light: a vast and barren causeway trodden by the feet of prophets. By Abraham and Moses. By Jesus and John the Baptist. Early humans strode past out of Africa nearly two million years ago, earlier probably. Hippos, now extinct, grazed in the valley’s vanished swamps. Yesterday the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. Not an inch of this antique vista hasn’t been fought over, cursed, blessed, claimed for one divinity or another. It is a land worn smooth like a coin traded through countless fingers.

Hamoudi boils a pot of tea. We squint from the first house of god through a hot desert wind, down at the Holy Land’s novel idea: home.

A miraculous desert rain. We slog, dripping, into As Safi, Jordan. We drive the sodden mules through wet streets. To the town’s only landmark. To the “Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth.”

This whitewashed building sits near the Dead Sea, exactly 1,329 feet below sea level. Inside its exhibit hall, behind panes of glass, in a white-lit lab, a team of restorers works on an ancient Byzantine floor: 44 square yards of stone shards rescued from Lot’s Cave Monastery. (Lot: the Old Testament refugee from Sodom.) The floor dates from the fifth century A.D. and contains 300,000 jumbled tesserae in hues of red, brown, yellow, olive green, and white. Greek, Australian, and Jordanian experts have gathered here to piece the small stone cubes back into a whole. They have been doing this for 14 years.

Stefania Chlouveraki, the project leader, stands at a long sorting table. She turns the colored fragments over and over in her fingertips. She fits each one into its place: a magnificent tableau of lions, crosses, pomegranate trees.

“There’s a trick to it,” Chlouveraki says. “One small piece can bring a whole section together.”

Chlouveraki, a tenacious archaeological conservator, has salvaged antiquities all over the Middle East. There is so much history here—so much that needs to be preserved, documented, rescued. Chlouveraki is particularly fond of the neighboring country of Syria. She has many friends in the old Syrian city of Hamah, a major cultural hub. She worries about them—about their safety. Much of that city has been destroyed by the Assad dictatorship in Syria’s brutal civil war. She doubts she will ever see Hamah again. Yet she is wrong. Because Hamah is all around her.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians shelter beneath UN canvas in Jordan. In the irrigated fields of As Safi, these refugees survive hand to mouth, picking tomatoes for $11 a day. We have been staying with them, Hamoudi and I, almost every night. It is remarkable. All are from Hamah. An entire metropolis has taken to its heels, walked away from apocalypse, spilled across borders, over mountain passes, to scatter in the Jordan Valley. The women bring out delicate tea sets saved from blown-up houses. They pin fine Syrian embroideries, called sarma, inside their dusty tents as reminders of home. Their faces, as they remember their dead, become sadly luminous.

Such is the deeper mosaic of the Levant. Here, long ago, we invented cities. Here we scatter again from war, like broken tesserae, back into nomadism.

The Holy Land is coveted. It is profoundly walled. Few outsiders realize to what extent.

In Amman, at the banks of the Jordan River between Jordan and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, people gather for Epiphany. This is a New Year’s rite for Orthodox Christian believers. The faithful come to the sacred stream to sing hymns, to be rebaptized. They also exchange shouted greetings across five yards of sliding brown water: “How is Auntie?” “Hold up the baby!” And “Tell Mariam we will call her tonight!”

These are Christian Arab families divided by the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. A striped metal pole, almost within arm’s reach of each shoreline, juts mid-current above the water, delineating the border. Israeli soldiers in olive fatigues and Jordanian police in navy blue stand ready to halt anyone who might dare wade across it. A few days later I ford the Jordan River on a bus: Foot travel across Allenby Bridge checkpoint is strictly prohibited.

“Checkpoints. Checkpoints. Checkpoints,” Bassam Almohor tells me. “We have checkpoints in our minds. We wouldn’t even know what to do with free movement.”

Almohor is middle-aged, a storyteller. He is a compulsive walker, a Palestinian who expects the worst in life in order to be pleasantly surprised—a relisher of irony. Over the course of two sweltering days of rambling the West Bank, we squeeze through a thicket of visible and imaginary borders, fences, walls, frontiers, barriers, no-go zones. After a year steeped in the oceanic vistas of Arabia, of Africa, such a dicing of landscape into countless micro-turfs makes me dizzy. My head spins.

Smaller than Delaware, packed with 2.7 million people, the core of a proposed future Palestinian state, the occupied West Bank is partitioned by the Oslo Accords into zones of Palestinian and Israeli control: Areas A, B, and C. Each of the zones has its own restrictions, guidelines, regulations. A political map of the territory looks like an x-ray: a diseased heart, mottled, speckled, clotted, hollowed out. We inch past Hisham’s Palace, in Jericho, a little-visited treasure of eighth-century Islamic art (Area A). Sweating under the sun, we scale the barren eastern scarp of the Great Rift Valley (Area B), edging carefully around controversial, razor-wired Israeli settlements (Area C). Plodding 26 miles on through a nature reserve and an Israeli artillery range (Area C again), we collapse in Bethlehem (back in Area A).

A line of clocks in our cheap hotel displays the time in Lagos, Bucharest, Kiev: the capitals of pilgrims who come to kneel at the birthplace of Christ. In reality the entire world funnels through the Church of the Nativity. The next morning, on blistered feet, Almohor and I join long lines of Argentines, of Russians, of Americans, of French. In clouds of incense, they lay their palms on flesh-polished stones where the Godhead touched Earth.

A medieval Greek Orthodox church controls access to the grotto of the manger. Next door a newer Roman Catholic cathedral makes do with a peephole. Catholic visitors peer through this hole into the yellowed light of the holy birthplace. The hole is big enough, I note by testing, to admit my pencil. Here is a classic West Bank arrangement: a celestial Oslo Accord.

See the men dance. Arms draped on shoulders, kick-stepping in circles, they swing bottles of wine. Purpled thumbs cork the bottles. The wine leaps and jumps behind green glass. They throw back their heads, the dancing men. They laugh at the sky. They are happy. They lurch into streets. They reel among cars to the blare of horns. On the sidewalks their children walk, oddly attired—a carnival of pygmy soldiers, ninja, geisha, Roman centurions.

“Everything we hate,” one man explains in broken English. He means sin. Laughing, he dances on.

He is Haredi, a member of the conservative Jewish sect that rejects modern secular culture. Bene Beraq—a low-income, ultra-Orthodox satellite of Tel Aviv—broils on the Mediterranean plain of Israel. Its male residents dress like crows: heavy black suits, black Borsalino hats, the old grandfathers hugely whiskered and the boys in peot, the curled sidelocks of the pious. The women pale and staring under the sun. In plain skirts, drab shoes. In hair scarves. Their drunken revelry jars. A fiesta of Quakers. An imams’ jamboree. A bacchanal of Mennonites.

These godly folk—have they gone mad?

No. It is simply this: After walking the timeworn horizons out of Africa, I have entered a corrugated maze, a knotted crossroad of the world where landscape is read like sacrament, a labyrinth of echoing faiths called the Middle East. The strange zeal at Bene Beraq is a festival of joy, of survival: Purim. Purim commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from a genocide under the Persians almost 2,500 years ago. That slaughter, plotted by the courtier Haman, was foiled by two brave Jews, Esther and her stepfather, Mordecai. Every 14th day of Adar, Jews celebrate their continued existence. They exchange gifts. They make themselves “fragrant with wine.” They drink until they “cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman!’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai!’ ” It is a holiday one feels one can get behind.

I join in. Unkempt, in threadbare clothes, with holed shoes and sun-cured hide, my costume is permanent: the traveler, the man from far away. At Bene Beraq the masked children laugh. They ask for coins.

My walk is a dance.

The anthropologist Melvin Konner writes how the num masters of the Kung San, the shamans of the Kalahari—members of perhaps the oldest human population on the planet—induce a spiritual trance through hours of dancing around campfires. Such arduous rituals deliver up to 60,000 rhythmic jolts—the number of footfalls in a long day’s trekking—to the base of their skulls. The result, Konner says, is a psychological state that we have been questing for since our species’ first dawn, “that ‘oceanic’ feeling of oneness with the world.”

This may explain the neurology of rapture. But why the pursuit of it?

I will exit the cauldron of the Levant at the Israeli port of Haifa. I buy passage on a cargo ship that will carry me around the abattoir of Syria to Cyprus. From there, it’s on to Turkey.

One day’s walk south of Haifa gape the Mount Carmel caves. They holdHomo sapiens bones a hundred thousand years old. This famous archaeological site marks the farthest limit of human migration out of Africa in the middle Stone Age—the outer edge of our knowledge of the cosmos. I trudge to the caves in a squall. The government has seen fit to prop mannequins inside these rock shelters: plaster cave people dressed in skins. In gray stormy light, their painted eyes stare out at the Mediterranean—at Homer’s wine-dark sea, at a corridor into modernity. But in memory my walk’s true coda in the Middle East came earlier.

I had camped months before, on the shore of the Dead Sea, with a family of Bedouin.

The father, Ali Salam, was poor. He gathered aluminum cans alongside the highway. His teenage wife, Fatimah, a shy, smiling girl in a filthy gown, rocked her sick baby under a plastic tarp. She cooked tomatoes pilfered from nearby fields. We ate from a sooty cook pot. Across the asphalt, not 200 yards away in the night, blazed a pod of luxury resorts. I imagined, back then, another couple standing behind plate glass windows: Glasses of minibar wine in their hands, they might have stared out into the dark. Did they see our campfire? Could they hear the child’s persistent cough? Of course not. I tried to resent them. But they weren’t bad, the people in that well-lit room. Certainly no worse or better than anyone else traveling the lonesome desert road. Such was the walk’s only theology. The Bedouin. The people in the hotel. The road that divided and united them.