The Israelite fortress at Tel Arad is situated atop a high hill. An impressive structure, it is visible from a great distance away. As I was sitting on the hill, looking out at the enormous expanses of the Negev, I thought of what William Ury, of Harvard University, had said to me the previous day: "The route is already there. We are only removing the dust from the footsteps of Abraham." At Tel Arad, for a moment it seemed that the idea of which Ury speaks is neither fantasy nor an exercise in naivete, as it at first sounded. This landscape has not, after all, changed a whit since the days of the patriarch Abraham, some 4,000 years ago. For a moment, looking out at the sun, an enticing thought crept in. Maybe the development of the "Abraham Path" is a practical, optimistic, intelligent plan of action.

The idea of the Abraham Path was first raised at Harvard University in 2004. Ury, an anthropologist employed in the Harvard Negotiation Project, has promoted it energetically and is now considered the spearhead in its implementation.

Ury is on a campaign to mark the path, which will run through several countries of the Middle East. The route will follow in the footsteps of the patriarch Abraham. According to the Jewish tradition, Abraham was born in Ur of the Chaldees, in today's Iraq, and then wandered with his family to Haran, in southeastern Turkey. Conversely, in the Muslim tradition Abraham was born in Urfa, which is near Haran in Turkey.

From Iraq to Jericho

The Abraham Path, which is now being marked, begins in Haran and meanders its way to the city Gaziantep. From there, it continues southward, crosses the border into Syria and wends its way to Aleppo. The path then moves south, passing through Damascus before crossing the border into the kingdom of Jordan and the city Amman. At that point it crosses over to Jericho in the Palestinian Authority, and then to Nablus, Jerusalem and Hebron, where Abraham was buried. Additional offshoots of the path follow Abraham's journeys through Iraq and Israel.

Genesis describes this long journey in a single verse: "And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came" (Genesis 12:5).

The path does not profess to accurately track Abraham's journeys, or to reenact in detail the route that he walked. That would evidently be impossible, and is of no special interest to the developers of the Abraham Path. The idea of Ury and his collaborators is to develop a cultural path along which tourists would be able to drive or hike, to become familiar with the heritage of Abraham and the landscapes in which the Abraham myth, so well known around the world, developed.

The route is approximately 1,200 kilometers long. The Harvard team is aware that very few people will ever hike its entire length, but in a telephone interview with Haaretz, Ury clarifies that the intent is to create among visitors to the Middle East a profound cultural experience and a familiarization with the local culture, the residents, the landscapes and the regional tradition. "Hospitality is one of the greatest legacies that our culture received from Abraham," he says, "and when you hike or drive along the path, you feel it every day, in the best possible way."

A tool for conflict resolution

Ury himself has twice travelled the entire route, from Haran to Hebron, and his travels have left in him a deep impression, he says. His great expertise is conflict and crisis resolution. Development of the Abraham Path is, in his opinion, a tool for resolution of the prolonged crisis in the Middle East.

When I express my incredulity at what could be termed fantasy, he laughs, like somebody who just heard a great joke. "It is important to understand that there are three sides to every conflict, not two. Aside from the sides to the conflict, there are all those who are watching from the sidelines, and for them, the third side, it is at times much easier to see where the correct solutions may be found. In the case of the Middle East, I think that we, the Americans and also representatives from other countries, have to serve as the community that will help to resolve the conflict."

As an example, Ury suggests considering France and Germany in 1945. "If I would have told you then that in another 60 years, these two countries would be close allies with a common currency, you would have told me I was fantasizing. The Middle East is no different, and 60 years from now the Abraham Path could be a popular tourism route."

Ury describes the creators of the path as people with vision and practicality. Although one could travel the entire length of the path (and several delegations have already done so in the past few years), it is clear to him that given the current political reality, the longer route will not be especially popular any time soon. "At this stage, we have chosen to work separately in each of the countries that are partners in the project," he clarifies.

Meaningful travel

"The results are good, because everyone in Turkey, Jordan, Syria, the Palestinian Authority and Israel wants tourists. This is the broadest common denominator. Our activity is based on the realization that today there is a powerful trend in tourism to seek travel that has meaning."

It seems that the story of Abraham fascinates people from all over the world. Ury says he has learned this in the course of the journeys of the various delegations in which he took part. Aside from that, the participants underwent a profound experience, and many said the preconceptions that they had about the sites they'd visited during the journey had changed, in particular in regard to the residents they met along the path.

"Due to the reputation of the region," he adds, "everyone is concerned before they set out that they will encounter hostility, and they are bowled over by the marvelous hospitality extended to them along the Abraham Path. This hospitality excites them, and it links directly to the Abraham story. After all, he was the first traveler, the first tourist and also the first host, who engaged in tourism when he welcomed the angels."

Rabbi Nilton Bonder, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, accompanied the first delegation in 2006, along the Abraham Path. Reached by telephone, he relates that it was not an easy trip: "I was the only Jew in the delegation, and most of the other participants arrived with strongly anti-Israel feelings, but it was a very powerful experience for me." Following the trip, Rabbi Bonder published a book entitled "Taking Off Your Shoes." The meaning, he says, is that each of us must break free of the places in which we are comfortable, and must challenge ourselves and walk on exposed ground in order to learn and develop.

For him, the most exciting part of all was when he realized that each one of the participants and the hosts brought to the project his own private Abraham. "I always thought of Abraham as a Jew, as the father of our nation. On this trip, I learned that there is a primeval memory of Abraham, and that other peoples have adopted different versions of him. We met dozens of children named Ibrahim, and I understood that Abraham is a mythical figure around which the entire region is wrapped.."

The Israeli branch of the Abraham Path is coordinated and directed by the archaeologist Avner Goren. He relates that for many years, ever since his days as an archaeologist in the Sinai Peninsula, he has explored options for creating genuine and practical contact with people throughout the Middle East, and the Abraham Path furnishes a likely possibility for doing so. "If we accept that there are different narratives of Abraham...tolerance will result," Goren said enthusiastically.

At this stage, he and his partners are engaged in the segment of the path between Beer Sheva and Arad. It includes the traditional site of Abraham's Well, which is currently closed to visitors, although a tourism center is set to be built there. The segment also includes the archaeology sites Tel Be'er Sheva and Tel Arad, which UNESCO has declared World Heritage Sites. These tels in the Negev are dated to the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, up to the Iron Age. Abraham is usually portrayed as having lived in the Middle Bronze Age, some 4,000 years ago.

As part of his spade work in creating the Abraham Path, Goren has had contacts with the Bedouin communities in Kohala and Derijat, with the "Daughter of the Desert" women who produce cosmetics in Tel Sheva and with the "Desert Embroidery" women in Lakia. These communities will be way stations along the Israeli segment of the Abraham Path. Goren explains that in the absence of precise identification of the sites along Abraham's original route, the sites of the Abraham Path are selected in accordance with the messages that the initiators wish to transmit to the travelers.

Goren adds that what makes the Israeli segment unique is the fact that it is in a desert region. "The desert has immense significance in terms of the values that Abraham represents. He left the fertile, green culture and walked here, to a more challenging and less pampering place, and you can only see that in our segment."

Guest-host relations

In preparing this article, I attempted to correspond with the various branches of the Abraham Path. The Syrian and Jordanian branches did not reply to my emailed entreaties. The Iraqi branch does not have email. The Palestinians and the Turks, on the other hand, eagerly responded to my requests for interviews.

George Rishmawi from Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, heads the Palestinian branch of the Abraham Path. This segment of the path is currently the most developed one of all. To date, it has between 25 and 30 days' worth of hiking trails. The path crosses the West Bank from north to south, from the area of Jenin down to Hebron.

Rishmawi says that about 2,000 tourists hiked along the path's trails this year. The most popular segment stretches between Nablus and Hebron, and takes about two weeks to walk. It is not currently possible to hike the Abraham Path independently; hikers must hire an authorized guide, who also arranges overnight stops for them. They sleep in villages along the path, for the most part in the homes of rural families. Signage is still lacking along the path. "The values of Abraham, which are highly regarded by members of all the religions, will bring visitors here," he says. "This will create jobs and give dignity to people who currently have very little dignity."

Rishmawi and other members of the Palestinian team are now training additional guides to lead hikers along the Abraham Trail. The Palestinian branch is represented on the general web site of the Abraham Path (www.abrahampath.org) as well as its own site (www.masaribrahim.ps).

Kevin Rushby, a British journalist who writes for The Guardian, hiked last year along the path in the PA, between Jenin and Hebron, and describes the experience as fascinating and enjoyable. "I was accompanied by a guide and we stayed with families in villages. The hosting and the hospitality were the key part of the experience...I did not come across hostility or bitterness. One of the families proudly told me how they had hosted a Jewish tourist from New York, who was at first fearful to talk about her roots and about her religion, but eventually the relationship grew closer and gave way to openness."

Rushby has the impression that the segments in Syria are still inaccessible, but that the situation is better in the PA and they are prepared to receive tourists. "If only the day comes when it will be possible to overcome all of the fears, and enjoy this massive experience, of a Middle Eastern journey in the spirit of Abraham."