“Abraham Is a Notion that Half of Humankind Is Believing”

“Abraham is a notion that half of humankind is believing.  It’s a very low common denominator that connects people to something that’s easy to identify with.”

When David Benshabat and his wife Tali moved to Har Amasa almost 20 years ago, the community was small – only ten or eleven families lived in the forested village overlooking the Judean Desert.  For many years, David and Tali continued to share their hometown with only a handful of neighbors.  Then, about two years ago, newcomers began to pour into the village; and Har Amasa absorbed almost three times as many residents as it had previously contained.  The fabric of the town naturally began to change as a diverse community was built beneath the pines.   David and Tali found themselves brushing shoulders with musicians, potters, permaculturists, farmers making biodiesel from goat manure… As David is quick to admit with a sly grin, “There are a bunch of crazy people here.”  Despite this broad range of interests, though, the Har Amasa community has succeeded in finding shared ground and growing into a close-knit living environment.   Commonalities like a desire to live close to the earth in an environmentally conscious manner have helped establish a baseline for mutual understanding.

This knitting together of the residents of Har Amasa is also representative of the ways in which David and Tali have felt their community turning outward and engaging with its surroundings.  David believes that his region is uniquely placed in the Middle East.  Geographically and demographically, Har Amasa and its environs are characterized by variety.  “This area is…if you come and live here, it shows you many challenges,” he explains.  “It’s not simple terrain.  We’re at a crossroads of different geographies – mountains and desert and forest.  And we’re also at a crossroads of different communities, different identities.  In a very small square of five by five kilometers, you can find every identity of this region.”  David frequently refers to his region as a collage or a “playground of identities”; yet even amidst the different backgrounds surrounding him, he feels deeply connected to all his neighbors by one of his academic passions: the existence of a common linguistic heritage.

David firmly believes that the connectedness of the Semitic languages – specifically, of Hebrew and Arabic – allows him and fellow speakers of those languages to understand both biblical and shared cultural narratives in a uniquely meaningful way.  Pointing out that Abraham himself was thinking in Hebrew, David contends that modern speakers of Hebrew have an innate ability to connect to concepts that are contained in the very words of Abraham’s narrative and in other cultural narratives in a profound way; and the presence of many similar structures, features, and words between Semitic languages similarly allows David and many in his community to connect to the narratives of their Arabic-speaking neighbors.

Based on the feeling of shared heritage created by these linguistic ties, David has gone into business with some of those Arabic-speaking neighbors.  Together, a group of them produce organic grape juice, diligently ensuring that their production methods don’t harm the earth.  On the back of each bottle is their slogan, featuring two Hebrew words – zulatanut and svivatanut, defined as caring for one’s fellowman and caring for the environment.  The connection between these words is critical, David says: only by engaging with and connecting to the people living in our communities and cohabiting our space can we find the motivation necessary to properly care for that space.

This mindset is constantly thrusting David and Tali into new settings and communities and identities.  But they cherish this turbulence as a part of their Abrahamic heritage.  As Tali points out, Abraham was the first person to be called a Hebrew – an Ivri.  The word means one who passes or crosses – from one country to another, one people to another, one mentality to another.  “This is what our language means,” she says: “To be a nomad in thought, not only in physical geographies.”

Abraham’s Kitchen

By Stefan Szepesi

The spiritual heart of Urfa is buzzing with tranquility. A great many visitors, but each of them going about their own peaceful business. This is our fifth day of exploring the Abraham Path and our first city walk of the journey; we take it slow: the places to see easily outnumber the few miles to walk. Here we are not alone. From sunrise to late after dawn the Balikligol Park is filled with slow wanderers, a mixture mostly of locals and Muslim pilgrims. They stroll past the Fish Lakes, the rose gardens and the half dozen Mosques, each of them built at a spot of Abraham’s story in Islam. The secret birth of Abraham and his hiding in a cave up to his seventh birthday. The challenge the young Abraham posed to the pagan worshipping king Nemrut and the king’s resolve to kill him. Nemrut’s catapulting of Abraham from the cliffs overlooking the Balikligol into an enormous fire below, and the mysterious metamorphosis of the fire into water–and the firewood, according to legend, into sacred carp. The solidarity of princess Zeliha, Nemrut’s daughter, who jumped after Abraham, and whose flames also convert into water saving her from death. Today, the two Fish Lakes commemorate Abraham and Zaliha’s revolution against Nemrut, against polytheism and in favor of worshipping one single God. Both are overcrowded with large, enormous carp; their sacred status rendering them endless supplies of food for pilgrims. They have no enemies apart from their own appetite. On the Zeliha Lake, visitors can rent a small boat and row about the calm holy waters.

Balikligol holds so many people but it never feels crowded. Tall, blonde and blue-eyed visitors, like myself, are very rare, but no special attention devoted to them either. We are left alone to our own impressions; free to wander and discover as we please. Pilgrims feed the obese carp, locals drink tea in the neatly kept gardens, and school groups visit Abraham’s Birth Cave. Worshippers quietly enter and leave the Mosques that we visit. We can photograph anything; there are no minders, special guardians or tourism police. Some men swipe the plazas with brooms; others plant flowers in patches adjacent to a small madrasa.

On the streets of Urfa I hear Kurdish and Arabic. All signs are in Turkish. English is virtually absent. Our up-scale hotel at the edge of the park caters for all things we had to make do without in our homestays these past four days: private rooms, western-style toilets, a wireless connection, and dinner at a table rather than cross-legged on the floor; there’s even Efes available, Turkey’s prime beer brand. But no English; instead, we get smiles from the staff. The rooms are comfortable and quiet. Apart from a moment around 4 in the morning when the call for prayer from the four Mosques in the park reverberates against the massive rock on top of which sits Nimrod’s Castle. Chanting follows. Abraham is revered even before the first rays of sunlight.  

At the edge of the park I come across a campaign collecting donations for Syria. The pictures need no words, though Arabic and Turkish handwriting is present all over white banners. To visitors, the refugee crisis is not overtly present in Urfa, a city 60 km north of the border, relatively far from the camps managed by the Turkish government. Urfa is also a city that traditionally has a mixed Arab, Kurdish, and Turkish population. But we did notice UNHCR tents near the cotton fields in Harran yesterday, probably moved from their original set-up near the border, as Syrians seek work on the plains of Harran. The day before that we met a man who had fled from Homs and was now living in the community of Kisas with his family. He had tried to do field work during the recent harvest, a hard fate for someone from a well-educated middle-class background. The schooling of his children had stalled; they were trying to learn Turkish to proceed with their lives in a new land. These are but a few of the hard stories of this torn up region. We know them from the clinical daily news cycle. But they are harder and more real when you look them in the face. For many these stories have become the single simple face of this region and the chief reason not to visit. They miss out on the other side of the story–the deep cultural and social fabric of the Middle East, the resonance of places such as Urfa, which for millennia has been at the crossroads of civilizations. Barely a hundred yards from the banners on Syria, I pass the Mevlid-I Halil Mosque, which commemorates Abraham’s birth in this city. A sign in the far corner of its courtyard reads Hz. Ibrhim çorba evi, which means Prophet Abraham’s Soup House. A peek inside reveals a simple kitchen. This is an aşevi, a soup kitchen, which has been here since time immemorial, known to both hungry pilgrims and local people in need, serving them each morning without asking anything in return. The kitchen is literally a stone’s throw from Abraham’s Birth Cave. It reminds me of that other soup kitchen in the troubled city of Hebron about 1,000 km from here, and a stone’s throw from Abraham’s Burial Cave. And so the path connects not only through footsteps, but also through the scent, sound, and tastes of soup cooked and shared in Urfa and Hebron and many places in between. The two kitchens symbolize a theme weaved across the stories about Abraham’s journey, and about this region more broadly: that of compassion; compassion for travellers, for pilgrims; compassion for the stranger that wanders in.

Ascending Abraham’s Nemesis

 

At the summit of Mt. Nemrut, a king has surrounded himself with the gods. These are our last two days of exploring new stages of the Abraham Path in southeastern Turkey.

The climb up makes me realize it should have been the start of our trip rather than its end. This is by far the most spectacular walk of our weeklong journey. Lead by guides Omer and Haji, we are perhaps the first visitors to explore the eastern ascent on foot. For some in our group it also the toughest stage, the grand finale of roughing it for a week in a region that is pretty much devoid of Western travel deluxe.

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At 2,150 meters (just over 7,000 feet), Mt. Nemrut’s summit is only a lower to medium range peak to climb in Turkey, whose mountains in the far east reach as high as 5,000 meters. But no mountain has a story like this one. After a slow start to the day, a brisk climb leads us across narrow shepherd trails and scrambling over sharply jagged rocks that ring the summit as a barrier of natural barbed wire. All guidebooks mention Mt. Nemrut but none is helpful on how to ascent it on foot. Fortunately, our guide Haji climbs as if it was his own backyard. I also carry a map ably pre-scouted through Google Earth by Julian Bender, one of Abraham Path’s trail experts. We can see the sharp peak for most of our ascent. It appears deceivingly close at the start, but as we progress our legs tell us otherwise. Haji (pictured) is the oldest of our group and probably the fittest; he seems to enjoy moving up and down between the front and back end of our group. For the rest of us, the summit is not for free.

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But what is the summit, exactly? The natural peak of Nemrut has remained covered for more than two millennia and the pyramid that sits on top of the mountain consists of hundreds of thousands of small stones, the debris of the larger than life godly statues at its foot. This is, allegedly, the last resting place of King Antiochus I, who ruled over this region 70-38 BC. From high up the gods still watch over its fate, greeting the sunrise and sunset each day. In the last hour of our climb, we step up the pace to make sure we do not miss the spectacle of the gods bidding farewell to the day.

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Apart from meeting the giant statues and the pyramid, the objective of our venture today is to test a possible extension of the Abraham Path into these mountains. The trail presently starts in Yuvacali, situated in soft gentle hills some 50 kilometers north of one of the birth cities of Abraham, Urfa. It was there that, according to the local Muslim tradition, Abraham was born and where he challenged a king by the name of Nemrut and his worship of idols. The mountain we climb up is named after that king, the nemesis in Abraham’s early life. Though Antiochus only enters the story two millennia later he chooses this mountain top at the end of his life, not only as his last resting place, but more prominently as a symbol of his companionship and peer stature to Greek and Roman gods.

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Beyond his own depiction amidst Zeus, Apollo, and Hercules, there are giant stone slabs depicting Mars, Venus and Mercury. Antiochus himself takes center stage, allegedly being buried somewhere underneath the 50-meter tall pyramid of small stones. It is a place inaccessible to man as any excavation would destroy the structure. Apparently not all visitors understand this: multiple signs read “Do Not Climb!” The pyramid style grave — a burial mound called a tumulus — is an unverifiable story of burial but regardless of the presence of a megalomaniac king underneath, its iconic shape stands out from the mild, rounded and natural summits of the sister peaks in the area.

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Far below us flow the tributaries to the Euphrates, a river central to the story of Abraham. We cross it by ferry the next day. It has been a rewarding journey with a true grand finale. Mt. Nemrut in all senses is the other half of the Abraham Path. It is topographically the half that was missing until this week: a true mountain stage for fit and adventurous walkers, and a natural balcony overlooking the more gentle stages on the other side of the Euphrates. And until we explore northern Iraq, a journey planned for the fall of 2014, this will certainly be the path’s highest point to date.

But thematically also, it is the other half of the story: all that Abraham revolted against. Mt. Nemrut represents the deeply fascinating heritage of an old world before the dominance of monotheism. It will be approximately six days walking to connect Mt. Nemrut back to Yuvacali, the village where we started last week. That route will include a spectacular descent towards and crossing over the Euphrates. Yet another journey to look forward to.

Wandering between Sacred Foxes and Abraham

By Stefan Szepesi

Days two to four of my seven-day walk-and-talk with a group of seven friends. Our purpose: to test new sections of the Abraham Path between Urfa and Harran in southeastern Turkey and then climb up into the mountains north of the mythical Euphrates river. We come across plenty of landmarks not immediately associated with Abraham: we walk past an ancient Yezidi shrine and mysterious Roman ruins, visit the world’s oldest religious temple and climb a “Holy Hill” in the centre of the Chief God of the Pagans to find desert rock carvings in devotion to the Sun and the Moon. These places pretty much sum up everything Abraham rebelled against: especially in the Muslim and Jewish traditions, he was the father of monotheism, the belief in One God. But they are no less a part of the story of this region.

In between sightseeing and walking these places we eat and sleep in villages on the trail. We are the odd strangers walking into a different home and a different world. This idea of cultural exchange is central to the path: hospitality bridges the East-West cultural divide. Not that this is always easy. Nearly all of the facets of conventional travel are absent in the homestay model. Guests need an open mind and an ability to adapt: there is little personal space, few moments alone and less control over events. Everything is shared except a common language. In a curious way that also helps. Perhaps because we speak no Kurdish or Turkish and the families speak very little English, a rigid protocol of any kind is absent. There’s one exception: the ankle length skirts the women in our group have to put on in most homestays; a cultural prerequisite that comes with travelling this particular part of the Abraham Path. That’s not always convenient or comfortable. And as with so many issues coming one’s way on the path, it is best dealt with by humor. And by the daily walking –without skirts– that allows for all the mental and physical space one could possibly desire.

On our second day, we walk between the Kurdish villages of Yuvacali and Golli. A gentle stroll of five hours over mellow hills.

We find the first red and white Abraham Path trail markers of the Urfa section of the path. This is no easy job: the terrain is mostly agricultural here so finding large stones to mark is not straightforward. At times, the markers venture across a field that has just been harvested. In six months from now, they may well be hidden amidst the wheat or tobacco that is planted here. But all in all, it is a major step forward that the trails are now marked: no symbol states more clearly that the path is real. In addition, walkers can download maps and GPS data of the route before they set out, but today I keep my GPS switched off as I follow the footsteps of Fatih Salva, our guide, who has been down this route countless times already.

After lunch in the tiniest hamlet of Golli, we are driven 30 km southwards to the mysterious excavations of Göbeklitepe for sunset. In 1996, the discovery of the world’s oldest temple -built 11,500 thousand years ago- put conventional theory on the origins of religion on its head.

Rings of huge T-shaped pillars up to six meters tall were constructed inside and on top of one another; they feature larger than life carvings of foxes, wild pigs, scorpions, snakes and a dozen other animals. Every few decades the rings of statues would be buried and a new round of temple construction would commence. It is but one of the many mysteries. Humans settling down and starting agriculture was always supposed to have preceded the origin of religion and the construction of places of worship, let alone pilgrimage. But at this place no remnants of human settlement have been found.

Darkness falls and we arrive for dinner and our third homestay experience in Kisas. It is an Alevi town in the midst of endless cotton plantations irrigated by the abundant water from the Atatürk Dam. We sit on carpets mixed between the extended family of hosts Izzet and Asia. There is abundant food for hungry walkers, plenty of laughter and then Alevi music. Kisas more than any village I’ve been too on the path takes in each visitor as an imperative to display local culture to both guests and their own community. The Alevi are a group of intensely fascinating yet complex communities spread across Turkey, and making up anywhere between 10 and 40 percent of its population. Estimates have varied so widely because identity, language and religion are part very distinct, part overlapping with Kurdish, Arab, Turkish, Turkmen, Azeri and other communities. Two musicians from the village come into the room. They sit in our midst, but do not speak; instead, they let their instruments talk for them. Without a common language and in a region battered and bruised by definitions of identity, poetry and song are the save ground to get to know one another.

The next two days we venture into the Tektek Mountains, a desert landscape of nomads, desolate temples and ruins of empires long past. After the gentle cultivated hills earlier on, the landscape towards Sogmatar provides for a different walking experience all together. The group explores the two-day route for the first time, aided by Kurdish guide Fatih and his Arab colleague Hussayn. It is rough and solitary terrain, filled with rocks, and without any shade. It is sunny and 25 degrees Celsius, warm for the time of the year, but comfortable for a few hours walk. The Tektek region must be merciless in scorching summer temperatures of 40 and above. A few hours later, in the midst of nothing, the small village of Sogmatar appears, surrounded by pagan temples, mystic wells, caves and the ruins of grand towers.

This is the center of  Marelahe, the Chief God of the Pagans. It is surrounded by the ruins of seven temples built in worship of the Sun, Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury. Syriac inscriptions of an amazing clarity adorn a cave and two rock carvings on top of the “Holy Hill” that rises above Sogmatar.

We stroll through a village that is nearly empty.

For years, archeological protection has stopped any new construction inside the community; whilst preserving the heritage of Sogmatar it is also gradually depopulating the town: the old buildings are often unfit as living quarters. We settle down for our first Arab homestay. It is run by the father of our guide Hussayn, Halil Ibrahim. Yet another namesake of Abraham.

The following morning we explore a new route connecting Sogmatar to another protected enclave in the desert, Shuayb City, and then move southwards, 15 km from the Syrian border, to walk around the ruins of ancient Harran.

Here the world of pagan worship that Abraham rebelled against fuses with the order of monotheism. For centuries, the two existed side by side; a place of religious tolerance where one of the world’s first universities was founded. It is from Harran that Abraham starts his long quest, a walk that spans across the entire region to places such as Damascus, Jerusalem, Nablus, Beersheva, Egypt and Mecca. Abraham as the first pilgrim, the first backpacker, the first long-distance walker.

 

Aleppo, Abraham, and the Eid

By Anisa Mehdi

The story goes that Abraham took his knife, ready to kill his son, and “the Lord’s angel shouted from heaven, ‘don’t hurt the boy or harm him in any way!  Now I know that you truly obey God, because you were willing to offer him your only son.” (Genesis 22)

Then Abraham saw a ram nearby and sacrificed it instead.

That is the story of Eid al Adha, the Islamic holiday being celebrated now by Muslims around the world.  “The Feast of the Sacrifice,” one of the two biggest holidays on the Islamic calendar, is all about Abraham — Ibrahim, in Arabic.  This dramatic test of Abraham by the Almighty concludes the Hajj pilgrimage.  Ibrahim is the prophet mentioned second-most in the Qur’an — after Moses.

Muslims join with Jews and Christians in believing the Abraham is the first human being to declare the Oneness of God.  His journeys throughout the region we now call “holy” are legendary.  It seems he wandered everywhere with his family and flocks.  Oral tradition has survived for thousands of years in places as remote as Ahwaz, Iran, Urfa, Turkey, and Egypt’s ancient Memphis, with tales of Abraham, wisdom, munificence, and hospitality.  The stories live today, too, in the now tormented city of Aleppo.

That historic city, built in the days of King David, was once a village where Abraham may have stayed.  Proud residents would ask visitors, “Did you know that Abraham is supposed to have milked his cows up there at the Citadel?”  Indeed, the name of the city comes from haleb, which is the Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic word for milked.

Residents used to ask visitors, that is.  Only two years ago tourism to Aleppo was on the rise.  Its souk was a living market, born at the crossroads of the historic spice and silk routes.  In January 2010 the New York Times reported that tourism in Syria was up by more than 30% from the year before. Turkey had loosened visa restrictions, resulting in a wave of trade and tourism from across that border.  Intrepid Europeans and Americans were finding their way to the land of Paul’s epiphany, multi-confessional harmony, plentiful pomegranates, and savories of all kinds.

Current reports are that Aleppo’s souk is in shambles.

Still, it is a city with deep Abrahamic roots — and therein may lie some hope.  In anthropological terms the story of Abraham, says renowned mediation expert William Ury, is one of the world’s most widely shared origin stories.  It is shared by over half of humanity.  On an exploratory visit to Aleppo in 2006 for the newly-launched Abraham Path Initiative, he was delighted to hear regular reminders of flowing milk from the flocks of the Patriarch.

The idea of Abraham’s Path, now an active route with 400 kilometers of cultural walking trails spread through Turkey, Jordan, the Palestinian countryside, and Israel, is to bring a profound sense of connection to tourists and pilgrims who want more from their travel experience.  By retracing Abraham’s journey and inviting tourists to eat and sleepover along the route, the Path provides economic benefits to local communities and place of meeting and connection for people of all faiths and cultures.  It begins in south-central Turkey, where Abraham first heard the call to “go forth.”  The route passes through some of the worlds’ most revered cultural, historical, and holy sites, ending in the city of Hebron/El Khalil at the tomb of Abraham.  People have found that beneath the ancient arches of Harran and on the verdant hillsides of Al Ayoun in Jordan, the simple, personal act of walking can heal the wounds of conflict and refresh souls exhausted by hostility.

Someday Aleppo may take its rightful place on this path.  At this time of Eid al Adha, a celebration of redemption, Aleppo’s people deserve the chance to remember a heritage of generosity and trust.  And in the quiet of the promised cease fire, they may teach their children the stories of a man who epitomized hospitality and compassion, and who left an indelible mark on their culture.

In the Footsteps of Ibrahim/Abraham

By William Ury

Today is our last full day of walking to Hebron — al Khalil — the City of the Friend. After eleven days for many of us, four days for others of us, we are arriving…

We rose early, had breakfast prepared by our hosts Mohammed and Ibrahim, and set out with blue skies and the bright sun to climb the last stretch up to the distant hill line where the village of Beni Naim sits. It is steep but we set our backs to it. After an hour, we see our first destination in the distance, a simple ancient brown building set off from the village and commanding the heights. It is the maqam of Ibrahim, the place where Abraham is believed to have witnessed from afar the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah far below in the Jordan River valley. It is the perfect destination for a pilgrimage — simple and beautiful. The view from the top is breathtaking — looking over the rolling spring green hills down to the desert wadis — valleys — all the way to the lowest point on earth — the Dead Sea — and in the distance faintly the mountains of Jordan — of biblical Moab and Edom.

As we stand outside the shrine, taking in the views, George Rishawi, our friend, colleague, and guide, explains to us that this village is the first place on the Masar (the path) where he heard the words: “We have been waiting for you.” Beni Naim is indeed the place of Ibrahim, a beautiful bead on the necklace of Abrahamic sites that stretches from Mesopotamia to Hebron and, eventually, onto Mecca. George also explains how Abraham was known as a peacemaker among the four Canaanite kingdoms that constituted ancient Hebron — and it was for this work that they willingly agreed to his request to buy an ancient cave in which to bury his beloved Sarah.

I feel deeply moved, recalling the ancient story of how, as the Bible describes, Abraham negotiates with God, challenging him about the justice of the destruction. “If I can find fifty good people, would you still destroy it?” “What about forty-five?” And so on, until the number is ten. Sadly, Abraham cannot find even ten. So I can imagine what a heavy heart, filled with compassion, he must have had as he witnessed the destruction. A human being negotiating with the most powerful on behalf of human life — this may be the earliest such story in the ancient scriptures. To challenge the all mighty might normally mean risking death and worse but Abraham is the friend, after all. And in my book, this story makes him the father of human rights and the father of negotiation. And in this time, in this place, where there is so much conflict and injustice, what more important values to invoke and walk into life than the values of Abraham — of justice and peace, of human rights and negotiation?

The maqam, mentioned in old pilgrims accounts from a thousand years ago, could not be simpler. There is no one but us to visit. Inside there is a little enclosed section with a piece of rock with two footprints, two handprints, and the print of a forehead — the place where Abraham is believed to have prostrated himself. It is a place of humility and awe.

From the maqam, we set out for Hebron along such a lovely little valley with blossoming almond trees, olive trees, oak trees, stone fences, the green fields of spring, flocks of sheep, and ancient ruins and caves where people once lived…. We had a picnic lunch under an old oak tree, reminding us of course of Abraham and how he sat under a spreading oak and received the three divine visitors with such hospitality, washing their feet. We looked for acorns, which have become the symbol of the Masar Ibrahim, Abraham’s Path and found a few at last that had been eaten by the goats.

After lunch, we walk into the town another hour or two, reaching the city streets. George leads us to a place where we take in the vista of the old city and its ancient stone buildings nestled in between four hills. Prominently standing out is our destination — the ancient tomb of Abraham/Ibrahim and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob and Leah, encircled by huge stone walls erected two thousand years ago.

As we wait outside the Tomb for a service to end, a large group of young school girls emerges, smiling and asking questions of us, practicing their English. Not long after we find ourselves inside the Tomb, a place of awe, honoring its three generations of men and women. It is an ancient tradition that here in the cave below lies the entrance to the Garden of Eden. Adam discovered it by its sweet fragrance and here he buried Eve. Generations later, the story is repeated with Abraham and Sarah. And then when Abraham is laid to rest here, his sons Ishmael and Isaac come together, a hint of the potential for reconciliation.

May it be so! And may the travelers and pilgrims who follow this ancient path each contribute to the remembrance of common humanity, to the urgent need for justice and peace, each in their own small way! Step by step….. may we all get there!