National Geographic

Bones atop Bones: Walking through a Colossal Graveyard

The Afar Triangle, Ethiopia, 10°7'39'' N, 40°30'59'' E

The Afar pastoralists of Ethiopia live and move comfortably among their uncounted dead.

Afar graveyards usually mark the sites of seasonal encampments. Photograph by Paul Salopek

They wake to them. They walk past them. They play, argue, and camp next to them.  They use the dead to navigate by. Tens of thousands of dusty funerary markers, some new, many very old, crowd the landscape. They are beautiful and poignant. When Afars die—the spot where the last breath, aki, is drawn is marked also with a large stone—they, too, will add to these memorials. In the operatic spaces of the open desert, there can be no other way. The dead cannot be concealed, as they sometimes are elsewhere, behind walls, fences, hedges, windbreaks.  The Afar live out their days wandering their own necropolis.

Click below to hear Paul talk about Afar graveyards.

Guide Ahmed Alema Hessan walks past an old Afar grave. Photograph by Paul Salopek

There is a precise taxonomy of graves in Afar land.

The clan dead inhabit small villages of piled stone—they are called qabri—huddled together, perhaps, on a hill or barren plain. Larger plinths, one or two yards high, commemorate men fallen in endless wars with neighboring pastoralists. These are the wadils or das that so scandalized European explorers, because until very recently, they included rows of stones denoting how many kills each warrior had taken with him into death. (Some of these monuments notched up dozens.)

An Afar grave in the old style, with rows of stones denoting enemies killed in battle. From Hell-Hole of Creation: The Exploration of Abyssinian Danakil, by L.M. Nesbitt, Alfred A. Knopf, 1935. Photograph by Paul Salopek

We walk through this gigantic ossuary like everyone else. It is odd at first. But soon it becomes natural. If one believes the research, more than 93 percent of all the people who ever existed—some 100 billion individuals—are now dead. They must rest somewhere, of course. In the Rift Valley, they lie scattered everywhere underfoot. We take our bearings off them. Off their wind-smoothed stones. They still point the way ahead.

There are 18 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Yvette Serrano
    January 29, 2013

    I can only imagine the beauty and the energy surrounding your walk. The cultures you come in contact with and those whom you yet to meet. My mind is with you and your travels I wish I was there it would be an honor I look forward to your next check in

  2. Gail Ward
    January 29, 2013

    I lived in Djibouti in 2008 and am excited to read about your trek through the country. I have a lot of good memories from there.

  3. MB Usman
    January 29, 2013

    I think ‘qabri’ is from the Arabic word for ‘grave’.

  4. ernst
    January 29, 2013

    this is exciting news.i look forward to your stories in the next few years.

  5. Em
    January 29, 2013

    In between my own travels a few times per year (just a meager 2 weeks at a time), I now have your journey to reinvigorate me for the next seven years. I will be 45 when you see Tierra del Fuego. May God be with you every step of the way! Oh what I would give to do what you are doing! Unrealistic, but thank you for letting me follow along…

  6. Antonio
    January 30, 2013

    The topic of the dead will always demand attention. In my case, the remains of a few of my loved ones, including those of my father, lie across the ocean, tucked away in neat cement boxes. Unseen years but insistent across the distances.

  7. Matt
    January 30, 2013

    Such an elegant solution to death, simply becoming part of the landscape where you lived.
    But oh, the arrogance of the European colonial mind – to be scandalized by the “wadils” while brutalizing a continent.

  8. Maaike
    January 30, 2013

    I find your writing amazing, such descriptive words. It tells me exactly how you feel and what you are looking at. Your trip is telling me that the world is more than people think it is. The world is a whole new place to explore and learn more about. Your story is inspiring me to learn more.

  9. Mary
    January 31, 2013

    Your journey is a gift. To you, to me, to the world. From my perch on the 22nd floor of a condo building in Toronto, I am with you every step of the way. Keep painting the pictures for me and I will see the world in a different way. Thank You, Paul.

  10. marnie
    January 31, 2013

    Thank you for doing this and sharing it. It makes me feel like I am taking a few steps with you each time I read.

  11. Brianda
    February 2, 2013

    Thank you so much for taking this walk. It is inspiring. I have longed to walk, to do the Camino perhaps, but my ankle (malformed at birth) will not permit. I will walk with you. Thank you, Brianda

  12. Rebecca Schreiber
    February 5, 2013

    What a beautiful tribute to those who have come before us.

  13. william Abetkoff
    February 10, 2013

    -How Wonderful In Peace Brothers And Sisters………

  14. mohamed
    February 11, 2013

    thank you, paul. the qabri word for the grave is also somali and arabic. Am originally from the region but I know very little of it. I’ll take the journey with you from here.

  15. werner pfeifer
    February 20, 2013

    fantastic, you follow your dream and enjoy all you see along this great journey

  16. Ingeborg
    September 6, 2013

    This is a really interesting read, just to read about other cultures and their view on things. I am especially facinated by this view of the dead, and how practical it is. Anyways, keep up the good work, and I look forward to reading more of your posts. Greetings from Norway.

  17. roman
    December 4, 2013

    I will walk with you – Paul

  18. Jim Kasper
    December 30, 2013


    What a lovely gift, your words.


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