Deutchlandfunk, a German public radio station, recently broadcasted a program about the Abraham Path in which Alexander Davydov and Martin Franke (check out their other work here) recount their experiences walking the Abraham Path in the Hebron region. Their ability to connect the things they learned from the cultures and landscapes they encountered with the rich history that is a big part of Abraham Path’s focus is impressive, and although the piece was originally produced in German, we have published an English translation on our blog to share it with a wider audience. While you’re at it, don’t forget to also check out this video piece they produced for the German television channel ZDF.
It’s sunrise over Bethlehem in the West Bank. The air is still crisp and a couple of cars are rolling along the hilly streets. The holy land is the birthplace of three world religions and it is a walking paradise. Not many people know that the oldest pilgrim route on earth, the Abraham Path, leads through here. It is 1000s of years old.
Mohaned Banura is a tour guide on the Abraham Path. The Christian Palestinian guides tourists who are searching for the patriarchs. His road in the West Bank leads from North to Southwest from Nablus to Hebron. Our walking tour starts beside an asphalt road near a little village named Tequoa and from there the dusty path winds along through narrow wadis. Thorny bushes and wild thyme emerge from the dry earth, and shepherds frequently cross our path with their flocks. The children are sitting in the winter sun, they greet us with surprise because they hardly ever see any walkers in this area.
“We are currently in a rocky valley. To our left are a couple of goats on the road with their shepherds. One has his son with him, he is teaching him how to tend the herd. But there are also greener surroundings. We see plants and little plots of farm land scattered about. To our right, we see someone seeding his land with grains or wheat.”
Mohaned is a sporty type. He wears jeans while he is walking and carries a small backpack. In 2005 he decided to move to the United States to live with his uncle because of the economic situation at home. After three years, he returned to the West Bank at the age of 37. He says that the connection to his land was too strong. Shortly after returning, he heard about the Abraham Path – for him the path has become a symbol of plurality.
“I very much like the idea of the idea of the Abraham Path because it shows a different picture of Palestinian society. Palestine is not only made up of cities. Palestine is not only the conflict with Israel. There is so much more: our nature, our culture, the Bedouin. You can learn more about us in the villages, and as Palestinians we have an opportunity to learn as well.”
As a tour guide, he has walked this stage more than 30 times but he always finds something new. There is a Bedouin family on their way home. A mother is at home with her two daughters, cooking a meal while the father and son are guiding the goats through the mountains. For Mohaned this is a very special chance encounter.
“There is always something new to discover. These people are living in a cave, and that is fascinating to experience. They don’t even live in a tent. I find it really impressive that they spend their whole life like this. They live there in the summer and even in the winter.”
The Bedouin guard their traditions. They still live like Abraham. God called him to leave his land and walk through the Middle East, all the way from present day Iraq to Beersheba. According to the Old Testament He had a tent with entrances open to all four directions. This symbolizes the transparency and hospitality of the culture – because no one should encounter closed doors.
We approach to meet the family. The father’s name is Ishmael and just like Abraham, he too welcomes strangers in his home – the desert. He knows every path there. He is able to follow the tracks animals make, and he can set up his tent anywhere. However he is not averse to progress, evidenced by the Arabic music blaring from smartphone in his bag. Despite the deep connection to tradition, things have are much different for his family. His grandparents never saw electricity or telephones, and we are curious to hear his thoughts about the changes he has seen. Mohanad asks him if he could imagine himself living in a city in Arabic. He is quick to respond:
“I would never consider living in the city and in a house. There are too many people and there is no nature… or at least the nature there isn’t as she is in the desert.”
Based in Bethlehem, the Masar Ibrahim al-Khalil coordinates walking trips along the path. George Rishmawi, Executive Director, believes that walking is the most fundamental way to get to know a land. They have won multiple awards thanks to this approach to alternative tourism.
“Our vision is for the Abraham Path to be a integral part of the community based tourism here. We would like to connect tourists with the local experience, because Abraham also came as a traveller, that is his story.”
Rishmawi explains that the Masar Ibrahim’s goal is first and foremost to strengthen tourism in the country, and is therefore non-political. However even though it is not a project of peace, there is potential for more understanding to develop between people, cultures and religions. Tourists are coming from Germany, France, and even travelling 1000s of kilometers from the United States to experience the path.
“In the high season, meaning in spring and fall, we organize several walking tours every week. The number of participants is growing steadily.”
Around 1200 travelers have traveled the Abraham Path since 2010 and the rate is always climbing. Much like the path we are taking, which has also been climbing up a mountain for some time now. The terracotta colored hilltops of the wadi loom in the distance and my tongue is covered by a fine layer of dust and sand, gluing itself to the roof of my mouth. They recommend that a walker should bring three to four liters of water to avoid the thirst. Unfortunately there is no such recipe to guard against the flies swarming my head. Our guide Mohaned has tied his jacket around his waist to stay cool, one doesn’t find any shade from the hot afternoon sun.
Walking the Abraham Path means crossing large expanses of dry, cracked earth, but at the same time it is a path where relics from times long gone find a home. For instance, shepherds still bring their goats and sheep to an old Roman well in order to quench their thirst. Mohaned explains as we pass by:
“That is a well in the desert. There are several around here. The Bedouin use them for themselves and for their goats. This here is a big well – located between Beni Na’im and Arugot Na’im, a Bedouin village. I guess it was dug 2000 years ago in Roman times.”
From here the road leads out of the desert as if cut with a pair of scissors, and grazing fields suddenly begin to appear on the side of the road. This transition from barren desolation to fertile farmlands is not far away from Beni Na’im, an ancient travelling hub. The caravans used to stop here on their way from Cairo to Damascus. You will also find a place mentioned in the Bible here: this is also the final resting place for Lot, the Abraham’s nephew.
“Beni Na’im is one of the villages around Hebron. You can see how this land is different from the desert. There is desert on one side, but on the other there is agriculture. This area is known for its vineyards and wine but it also produces grains, eggplants, tomatoes and lots of other things.”
We halt in Beni Na’im. There are several families who have furnished rooms for pilgrims to rent. Tea is served, and we talk about God and the world. There are also delicacies: homemade bread with hummus, several different kinds of salads and olives. The main dish is chicken with potatoes, but there is more than enough variety to make vegetarians happy as well.
Palestinian hospitality is found throughout the Abraham Path. The people here are convinced that the path will benefit the local economy. Although this project is still in its infancy, there is much optimism to be found as Rula Ma’aya explains:
“Although there are political problems and although we are still under occupation, we hope for more tourists in Palestine. We are not an industrialized country and we have no oil. Therefore tourism is our oil. Masar Ibrahim is a very important project because it allows people to come here and experience a different kind of tourism – a community based tourism. To walk here means to visit those places that Abraham visited thousands of years ago.”
The last stage in our journey leads us to Hebron. It is here where and his wife Sarah are thought to be buried. Mohaned leads us through the oriental market in the old city and brings us to the Machpela, known to be the resting place of the patriarchs.
There are two entrances to this holy place: one to the mosque for Muslims and another leads to the synagogue for Jews. That which belongs together is separated in the Machpela. Abraham would probably have imagined that differently.
“Abraham is a father to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Because of that we are all related. We should be fiends – a family – we shouldn’t kill each other because of religion, because of ethnicity or because of our nationality. Because of Abraham, we all belong together.”
A group celebrates a bar mitzvah in the Jewish part of the Machpela. It is already evening by the time we meet these young men, and they are full of joy and a deep belief as they sing in a place that marks the end of the Abraham Path. This too is a part of his living heritage, along with the legends, and along with the path that is now accessible – 4000 years after Abraham.
– Translated with permission from the authors by Aaron Cederberg and Theo van de Laar