Mule-ology

Near Siverek, Turkey, 37°46'32" N, 39°16'22" E

First things first: A mule is not a donkey.

A donkey is a member of the equine family burdened by low self-esteem: a small, modest, long-eared creature from which mules are bred when mated with a horse. In other words, a donkey is the crude base metal from which a superior alloy—the mule—is forged. To call a mule a donkey, then, is at best a beginner’s mistake that will earn the squinting contempt of veteran muleskinners. At worst, they are fighting words.

There are jack mules (male) and jenny or molly mules (female). There are blue mules, cotton mules, sugar mules, and mining mules. There is a mammoth mule ...

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Photograph by Paul Salopek

1 Bucket of Wheat = 1 Candy Bar

Yelkovan Koyü, Turkey, 37°48'16" N, 38°32'28" E

The scene is a rock-walled bakkal.

What is a bakkal?

It is a mom-and-pop shop. Only more.

In Turkey, it is the cheap, multi-hued soccer balls that hang in bulging net bags outside the doorway that readily identify a bakkal. We have been walking hundreds of miles across Anatolia using these bright navigational beacons. Why? Because a bakkal is an oasis. It offers cherry juice and bottles of potable water. A bakkal promises a spot of shade under the burning sun. The man or woman behind the counter dispenses travel directions—both physical and spiritual. Often, a glass of tea is offered. At minimum, there is a stool to sit on, to ...

PHOTOGRAPH BY Murat Yazar

Mother Rivers

Near Hasankeyf, Turkey, 37°42'40" N, 41°24'39" E

Çoban Ali Ayhan sings like a human being in pain—like a man pouring salt into the open wound of his heart.

He bounces a wounded cry down into the canyons of the Tigris River: a blade of rusty water that saws its way through the bedrock of time. Ali’s song is a hymn to true love, which is to say, to love unrequited. It is the tale of a beautiful woman who remains blind to the longings of the singer. It is a lyric of loneliness. Of waiting. Of resignation—a form of acceptance. It is the perfect ballad for this antique river and this doomed, haunted town. ...

Photograph by John Stanmeyer

Glance Back: The Levant

The December issue of National Geographic features a story about the Out of Eden Walk journey. 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, "A place of exile and sacrifice. Of jealous gods.”

Next week, we resume the foot journey through Anatolia.

******

Jerusalem is not a city of war. Avner Goren is stubborn on this point. We are on foot, walking under a ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Loose Thread on the Silk Road

Sanliurfa, Turkey, 37°08'54"N, 38°47'24"E

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 ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Pistachio Mafia

Near Nizip, Turkey, 36°59'12" N, 37°42'59" E

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 ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

The Wars of Autumn

Southeastern Turkey

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 ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

“This Is Not a Life”

Refugee camp, Kilis, Turkey, 36°38'50" N, 37°05'03" E

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 ...

PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN STANMEYER/VII/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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Near Mürşitpınar, Turkey, 36°53'41" N, 38°25'21" E

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. ...

PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL SALOPEK

I Walk All Day, I Walk All Night

Near Osmaniye, Turkey, 37°05'01" N, 36°17'16" E

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.