The December issue of National Geographic features a story about the Out of Eden Walk journey through the volatile, many-chambered heart of the Levant: Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, and Israel. The article—“Blessed, Cursed, Claimed: On foot through the Holy Lands”—traverses the deep origins of conflict in the most contested patch of real estate in the world. Illustrated by John Stanmeyer, it roams across Jordanian incense roads, concrete Israeli suburbs, and the grim checkpoints of the West Bank. It offers a boot-level view of the Fertile Crescent, "the prime incubator of human change. A cockpit of empires. A palimpsest of trade roads. A place of exile and sacrifice. Of jealous ...
We parked the mule on the Euphrates and took a hire car to Edessa:
A famous pilgrimage town in Mesopotamia. Founded by Assyrians. Traded at the point of a sword among the Greeks, Nabateans, Romans, Sassanids, Byzantines, Arabs, Armenians, Seljuks, Crusaders, and Seljuks again. About 4,000 years ago its cruel king, Nimrod, ordered Abraham burned alive for rejecting the Assyrian pantheon. Abraham’s God saved the prophet by turning the flames into water and the coals into fish. According to Muslim tradition, God then punished Nimrod by sending a mosquito up his nose to bite his brain. The deranged king ordered his men to knock his head with ...
Editor’s Note: Security concerns in southeastern Turkey temporarily disrupted the sequence of walk dispatches. Today, we resume the storytelling from the trail in chronological order.
A man drives up behind us on a bright red motor scooter.
The scooter bears a decorative sticker: Atatürk, in famous silhouette, walking on a hilltop at the battle of Dumlupinar. The man carries a shotgun strapped across his shoulder. He wears an ammo belt glinting with shotgun shells cinched about his wide belly. His name is Cebir Sercan. He tells us to stop. He says we might get shot if we continue walking.
“Farmers will think you are thieves,” Sercan says.
Sercan is a ...
The Earth rolls in its silent groove about the sun.
The planet spins. It leans 23 degrees off plumb. The northern hemisphere tilts away from the warm hearth of its star. Grass steppes begin to grow stiff, to yellow. Temperatures drop. Winter deepens the long blue shadows of the barren hills. In one corner of a continent, on an iron plain where civilization was born, a war bleeds into its fourth year. Intelligent animals kill each other en masse. With metal pellets propelled by exploding gases. With flying machines. With swords.
My new walking guide, Murat Yazar, and I retreat from it. We step briskly, aiming north, for the ...
The Syrians pass their days and nights in shipping containers arrayed in rows atop what used to be farm fields on the Turkish border.
It is a model refugee camp, Kilis.
There are schools. A modern supermarket offers government-funded debit cards to the camp residents. A refugee souk bustles with barbershops, teashops, a songbird shop. The living containers are clean and come equipped with televisions. And the pathways between them are paved. Humanitarian experts from many countries have trooped through Kilis. All are stunned, impressed—by the amenities, by the generosity of the Turks.
Yet more than three years after the first group of 252 exhausted refugees straggled across the frontier ...
Turkish soldiers cut the border wire after dark. Then refugees spilled into fallow pepper fields. There were thousands of them, on foot, raising dust. People who keep count of such things say more than 100,000 have crossed into Turkey in the past 72 hours: the largest stampede of humanity out of Syria since the war began more than three years ago. They were running for their lives. Syria was just an idea now. It didn’t exist anymore.
A group of refugee women and their children sat against a village school. They hadn’t moved from the hot concrete steps in two days. They didn’t know where to go. ...
The hotel in Yamurtalik caught fire.
A woman’s cosmetics bag, left in the hot laundry room, spontaneously ignited. Amid clanging fire alarms, amid guests standing bleary-eyed on the lawn in their pajamas, Deniz Kilic and I load the cargo mule. We walk away from the smoking building. We head east.
The Anatolian countryside is a flag that ripples in the summer heat: dusty green olive groves, soil dark red as burgundy wine, cornflower blue lakes that stare, unblinking, at seamless sky. The planet rotates slowly beneath our feet. The burning horizons creak up to meet us. We scare grasshoppers from the brittle yellow grasses. Whirlwinds of swallows swoop to feed.
We walk into Tarsus, St. Paul’s hometown. A refurbished stone church here receives pilgrims from Italy: St. Paul’s Church. There is a café that serves Turkish coffee across from a pension: St. Paul Café. There are stone foundations of an old Roman house: St. Paul’s house (maybe). And there is St. Paul’s well. The well mixes Hellenistic, Roman, and even Islamic features. Busloads of faithful come to sip its water. They say it is curative.
“The water comes from the municipal supply,” Hakan Erkul says. “Who can say what miracles faith can cause?”
Erkul is a friendly, thickset, sleepy-eyed man and an apostle himself—the lone tourism booster in Tarsus.
Aside from St. ...
“How did you find our mule?” I ask Deniz Kilic.
“You asked a taxi driver where to buy a cargo mule?”
“I have never bought a mule before. I know nothing about mules. Where do you buy a mule? Who knows? So I asked my taxi driver driving me in from the airport. I said to him, ‘Don’t laugh. This is serious. Where do I buy a mule?’”
Kilic is my walking partner in Asia Minor.
We meet in Mersin, a large industrial port in southeastern Turkey. I have just disembarked from a ferry from Cyprus. And Kilic has agreed, based on two emails and one long-distance phone call, to join ...
A fenced “Green Line” separates northern and southern Cyprus. It is a barbed-wire scar: a forgotten no-man’s-land, a fossil from an unresolved war that is out of place in today’s Europe. In 1974, Greek nationalists staged a coup in Cyprus. This provided Turkey reason to invade, to protect the ethnic Turkish population. Forty years later, the island remains partitioned. But many Cypriots—Greek and Turkish alike—dream of reunification.
“It will happen,” says Selin Ruha, a Turkish-Cypriot friend who meets me at the border. “We islanders have more in common with each other than with either Greece or Turkey.”
I cross the Green Line on foot.
The south checkpoint: a British military policewoman—yet ...