Hiking in Abraham's Footsteps, From Turkey to the Holy Land

The man who created 'The Jesus Trail' now connects the places where the Patriarch lived, emphasizing the historical story.

“Hiking is the real thing,” David Landis says enthusiastically a few minutes after we meet at Tel Be’er Sheva. “Anyone who says that we, the developers of the Abraham Path, are naive has not yet discovered the power of hiking in the Middle East.”

Landis is the regional director of development for the Abraham Path, a long hiking trail that is scheduled to cross the Middle East, recreating the journey of the patriarch Abraham, from Urfa in Turkey to Hebron in the West Bank. According to Jewish tradition, Abraham was born in Ur Kasdim, in Iraq, and journeyed with his family to Haran in southeastern Turkey. Muslim tradition says that Abraham was born in Urfa, near Haran. The Abraham Path connects the places where Abraham lived, spread over thousands of kilometers in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. So far, 400 kilometers of hiking trails have been marked. In Israel, an 80-kilometer section from Be’er Sheva to the Dead Sea that goes through Lakiya, Meitar, Tel Arad, Arad, Kfar Hanokdim and Masada has been marked.

“The people who say we’re a bunch of crazy Americans don’t understand what’s happening here,” says Landis. “There’s a rapid and amazing change going on in the entire region. Lots of groups are coming from abroad for long hikes. It’s also happening without our involvement, and we want to participate in the process. It’s obvious to us that this is a long-term project. We put an emphasis on the historical story of Abraham, which unifies the area, and the personal stories of members of local communities. These are things that interest every person who comes here. Everybody wants to be part of the social and historical story, not just see places from a bus window.”

Landis is clear that neither he nor any of the other people involved in the project have anything to do with politics or religion. “People can label us, but we won’t waste energy on that. We are developing the economy, culture and tourism,” he says.

Landis does not look particularly powerful. A slender man in his 30s with a ready smile, he is an experienced hiker. Several days before we met, he returned from a week-long trek in Jordan, where he hiked from Petra to Wadi Rum − roughly 150 kilometers of desert terrain. He described it as “an incredible experience.” The Abraham Path is the third long trail to which he has devoted time and attention. In 2007, he and Maoz Inon conceived and marked the Jesus Trail, a 65-kilometer trail from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee. Later on he and his wife, Anna Dintaman, published an English-language guide to biblical trails in Israel, including the Jesus Trail.

The unique thing about the Jesus Trail is that is passes through Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities, including Kafr Kana, Kibbutz Lavi and Nazareth. Last year, Landis and Dintaman hiked the Camino de Santiago (or Way of St. James), a world-renowned pilgrimage trail in northern Spain. It took them more than a month and a half to hike the 800-kilometer trail, which ends in the city of Santiago de Compostela. After they completed the trek, they published a guide to the trail for hikers.

Today, they live in Jerusalem and devote their time to developing the Abraham Path − “to put the Middle East on the map as a hiking trail,” Landis says. They emphasize that they are not developing the Israeli section only, but also throughout the region. This means that most of their attention is devoted to developing sections of the trail in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. They receive a salary from the organization that is developing the Abraham Path, whose offices are located in the United States. The money comes from donations from people all over the world who support the idea and believe it has cultural, economic and tourism-related significance, and will improve life in the Middle East. More information about the organization’s activities and sections of the trail open to hikers may be found at www.abrahampath.org.

“It’s important to hike the sections of the trail. Otherwise, if people don’t come and hike, the whole concept doesn’t work,” says Landis, explaining the approach of the trail’s developers. This practical approach differs from the attitude they had a few years ago. At the time, Professor William Ury, who conceived the idea for the Abraham Path (as reported in an interview published in Haaretz’s arts and culture supplement two years ago), said that the time was not yet ripe for the trail’s practical aspects. Ury, an expert in conflict resolution from Harvard University, searched for ways to spread the idea and for partners who would assist in its development. This week, during a meeting in Be’er Shea and a meeting in the Bedouin village of Lakiya, Landis, Dintaman and Stefan Szepesi (the Abraham Path's director of development, who is from the Netherlands and lived in Jerusalem for a time, working as a diplomat for the European Union) demonstrated a different attitude. They place a great deal of emphasis on the practical aspects, and want people to come and hike the 400 kilometers of the path that are marked.

Dintaman explains that things are simpler in Israel because a tradition of hiking on marked trails already exists here. No such tradition exists in Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority, where there are few marked trails. The challenge in Israel is a different one − here, there is a need for lodgings and camping grounds. Most of all, it is necessary to partner with the Negev Bedouin, who, she says, can become an important part of the story of the Abraham Path. “There is not enough tourism-related infrastructure here,” she says. “If we compare it with the Camino de Santiago trail, the differences are obvious. On that trail, every 10 kilometers there are several lodging places, restaurants, bars and home hospitality. Here, there is a tradition of home hospitality going back thousands of years, since Abraham’s time, but only few people get to experience it.”

Shai Yagel, a member of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel's trails committee, is responsible for marking the section of the Abraham Path that crosses the Negev. Yagel says that while most of the route piggybacks on existing routes, the section that passes through the Bedouin community of Lakiya is a new one that links the Israel Trail route with the Round Be’er Sheva Trail. “In recent years, David Landis has had a lot of influence on trail-marking in Israel," he says. "In many ways he brought us a new attitude that I feel was eye-opening. The conventional approach, which was used for years, was that it was better to mark trails far from communities in general and far from Bedouin or Arab communities in particular. When they marked the Jesus Trail, David and Maoz Inon used a different approach that emphasizes passing through communities to meet the local populace and get to know them, shop there, lodge there, eat there and bring money in. That had a strong influence on other places in Israel too, and found expression in the passage of the Abraham Path through Lakiya. In the past we would have tried to bypass it. Today it’s clear to me that David’s approach is the right one, particularly regarding the Abraham Path, which emphasizes turning communities into partners.”

Yagel adds that the path’s route in the Negev is not based on coming into contact with amazing landscapes, but with the inhabitants. “We’ve already seen those landscapes. Here, we have unmediated contact with the population.”

When Yagel is asked about the general idea of the Abraham Path, he seems less enthusiastic. “In my opinion, that’s pretentiousness on the part of Europeans and Americans who don’t really understand what’s happening here, but they, too, have undergone changes and transformations. Unlike past activities, today they do not see themselves as a project that will bring peace to the Middle East, but rather as business development by local communities, which is more logical. They have given up the idea of an international trail and are focusing on developing tourism in the villages along the route. We should also remember that the Western idea of a long hiking trail where people hike independently is unconventional in Turkey, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, and does not receive much support there. So the people of the Abraham Path gave up the idea of a continuous trail and are focusing on developing small sections.”

To a question about the advantage of such activity, Yagel replies: “They have the ability to market the trail to a community we don’t reach. They can attract people from abroad and that’s a positive thing. It will promote the trails among Israelis as well.”

Female empowerment

We drive to Lakiya to meet Hadra El Sana, the founder of Sidreh, the local association of female carpet weavers. Landis considers her a good example of involving the local community in developing the Abraham Path.

These are not easy times for the Bedouin community. On the morning of our visit there was a discussion in Jerusalem as to whether to continue to promote the Prawer Plan for resettling the Negev Bedouin, a subject that upsets El Sana.

Several minutes after our arrival she makes the connection: “We were happy that the new trail that has been marked passes through Lakiya. This is an opportunity for people to come and get to know us. We are all the sons of one father − Abraham − but people don’t always remember that. The idea that I like is the possibility of sharing among various communities, without government interference. I’ve already given up on them. Politicians always influence us. The time has come for us to influence them. I far prefer to work with these people,” she says, pointing to Landis, Dintaman and Szepesi.

“What I think is important is the development of tourism and the economy. The Abraham Path is a way of doing that. Partnership with other countries in the region, without borders. We are seeking ways of improving our life here, of living in dignity in Lakiya, and the Abraham Path is a good way. We’re an important part of this history, of the culture, and with the help of the path people will know about us, will learn a little about Bedouin culture.”

The non-profit association headed by El Sana was established 14 years ago in order to find employment for women in Bedouin communities. “We began with a social idea of empowering women and have created something rare − an economic and social business, with quality work, successful design and a cultural story. We’re a small group of women who present the Negev properly,” she says.

There is a lot of charm in El Sana’s words. “We’ve already realized that we will achieve things only with the help of our own initiatives,” she says. “The development of tourism in the Negev has been advanced in recent years with the help of non-profit women’s organizations, for hosting and similar activities. That’s how we’re helping ourselves, and we’re willing to do anything today that will develop us economically.”

She says that Lakiya has the potential for developing tourism, with places to stay, restaurants and attractions.

As El Sana speaks quickly and enthusiastically, the faces of Szepesi, Dintaman and Landis beam with pleasure. It’s hard to find a more fluent and captivating representative to illustrate the potential of the Abraham Path. Do they have additional local partners like Al Sana? They say that they do, and that there will be many more.

It’s doubtful whether there are many people like El Sana in Israel, or in the Middle East in general. She herself says that the best examples of the activity of strong women are in the West Bank. “That’s where the strongest women in the world are. Every time I meet them I say ‘How I pity the men,’” she says.

George Rishmawi is one of the developers of the Abraham Path in the West Bank. In a phone conversation from Beit Sahour he explains that today you can walk from Nablus to Hebron along hiking trails for a distance of 182 kilometers. All these trails are marked and hikers are accompanied by local guides. Several hundred tourists from various countries hike along the Abraham Path every year, he says. Those who want to walk the entire route devote 10 to 12 days. Most come for a week, and hike several sections of the route.

Nablus, Jericho and Bethlehem now offer a number of places to stay in family homes. Rishmawi and the team of trail developers discuss the types of food to be served to guests with their hosts, “in order to strengthen the culinary experience. The beauty of walking the Abraham Path in the West Bank lies in the fact that the route contains everything − wonderful natural landscapes, a rich history and political aspects that interest many people. The main advantage is that you can meet local people without any intermediary.”

When asked how he would like to see the path in the future, Rishmawi laughs and says, “I would like to wake up in the morning and see the Middle East without borders. I don’t care whether we succeed in connecting the various parts of the Abraham Path, but it’s important to me to succeed in creating a shared experience, which yields income and profits for the local population. We in the West Bank relate to the Abraham Path with great seriousness and love, and develop it every day. Abraham is a part of who we are.”

AP