A Gathering at the Home of the Friend

By Stefan Szepesi

For travelers with a sense of the world map, southeastern Turkey does not strike as a place you immediately crave to visit. It borders Syria to the south, where a terrible civil war rages on, and more eastwards is Iraqi Kurdistan, a word combination that would puzzle any travel marketing professional.

But that is the mental geography of the Middle East. Reality is quite different: Urfa and Harran in southeastern Turkey are safe, inspiring places to travel, remote in every sense of the word. Urfa is a city of Islamic pilgrimage, one of the places where it is believed that Abraham was born. Its peaceful parks and water lakes stands in very sharp contrasts to neighboring Syria. In northern Iraq, tourism has actually been booming for years. But that’s a story for another day…

Between Urfa and Harran, I embark on a seven-day walk-and-talk with a group of seven friends. The purpose is to test walk the Abraham Path, with overnights in Kurdish, Alevi and Arab villages, and explore new trails in the desert and the mountains to the north of the mythical Euphrates river. Traveling from Beirut, London, Pretoria, Jerusalem, Skopje and Rotterdam, our group has just one thing in common: an odd habit of walking together in unusual places. Our last practice, though, was two years ago in the Palestinian West Bank and few have done any serious walking since…

The first day is one of reunion and slow arrivals. We meet in the Kurdish village of Yuvacali, a small hamlet with more cattle than human inhabitants. A hundred years ago Armenians, Kurds and Jews still lived here together. That seems a while back, but it is just yesterday compared to the Neolithic origins of the area. It is here that humans evolved from wandering hunter-gatherers into farmers with settlements, where wheat was first cultivated and man built the first religious temple some 12 millennia ago. The cradle of civilization is a fitting title.

But fast forward to 2010 when, thanks to the efforts the Tanik family, the village of Yuvacali gradually becomes a small but exemplary hub for community-centered tourism. No room keys here, no check-in forms, no private bathroom or western style toilets. Instead, there is an orchard with plastic chairs and a room with carpets to sit on, drink tea and eat freshly baked bread with fried aubergines and peppers. Our hosts Halil and Pero come armed with big hearts and two words of English.

A few hours after arriving, we sit cross-legged on the floor and talk about our confused state of anticipation. The journey ahead of us feels pretty dissonant to the term “holiday”. Why would we willingly seek physical and perhaps cultural discomfort in a place so remote? The answer must lie somewhere in between a desire for adventure, a fascination with walking, and a tickling curiosity about the mad ambition of the Abraham Path project. And there will be plenty of conversation along the way no doubt.

Our host Halil helps to prepare our beds for the night, turning our room of reunion and tasty food to a make-shift bedroom by folding out mattresses onto the carpet. His name is similar to the second name the prophet Abraham is known by, “Al-Halil” or “the Friend”. His home is a fitting start to our journey.