National Geographic

Pilgrim Road

Al-Jar, Saudi Arabia, 23°41'14" N, 38°32'13'' E

They traveled sometimes with a signaling cannon. This was how they communicated. Their columns were a football field wide and miles long. Closely packed. Dusty. Creaking. Tinkling. Moaning. Sighing. A stream of people and animals: rivers of life that trickled in slow motion across one of the most forbidding landscapes of the Levant, the austere deserts and lunar mountains of the Hejaz. The rich pilgrims rode camels (the women sequestered in boxy coaches). The poor, as always, walked. They traveled en masse for protection from marauding Bedouin bands. Fifty days from Damascus. Twenty-four days from Sanaa. Two months from Cairo. All were performing the sacred Hajj duty—every Muslim’s dream of visiting Islam’s holy city of Mecca once in their lifetime.

“It was near ten o’clock when we heard the signal gun fired, and then, without any disorder, litters were suddenly heaved and braced upon the bearing beasts, and the thousands of riders mounted in silence. The length of the slow-footed multitude was near two miles, and the width some hundred yards in the open plains. We marched in an empty waste, a plain of gravel, where nothing appeared and never a road before us.”
— Charles M. Doughty, British explorer, who joined a Hajj caravan of 6,000 people and 10,000 cargo animals in 1876.

Old Hajj trails still stripe the deserts of Saudi Arabia.

We follow them.

The three elements of Wadi al Safra: sand, stone, sky. Photograph by Paul Salopek

The three elements of Wadi al Safra: sand, stone, sky. Photograph by Paul Salopek

We walk between the two lines of stone denoting the curbs of these ancient foot-roads—forgotten byways that unspool like pale ribbons across the dark lumpy hills of the Hejaz mountains. We plod between abstract works of art that are beautiful wells of hand-chiseled stone. We slog past the battlements of crumbled citadels erected by the Ottoman pashas of Constantinople, the last builders of these old caravan routes. We walk on dust compressed to concrete hardness by centuries of ghostly camel pads, sandaled feet, donkeys’ hooves. Ibn Battuta, the Muslim Marco Polo (he wandered more than 70,000 miles in the 14th century) walked such roads. So did merchants in gold and frankincense. So did kings from Mali. And poets from Yemen: Ahmad Ibn ‘Isa al Rada’ I composed a detailed ode to the route north to Mecca from his homeland. Camel drivers learned the stanzas by heart, thus memorizing a map in verse.

Artifacts from early pilgrimages. tarik al hajj, Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Artifacts from early pilgrimages.  Photograph by Paul Salopek

“A traveler is a person worthiest of receiving protection,” the Caliph ‘Umar declared in 638 A.D. after ordering the first watering stations to be built between Mecca and Medina in 638 A.D. Unwittingly, he inaugurated a program of Islamic public road works that would span more than 1,200 years: forts, cisterns, rest houses, date groves, canals, even road signs made of granite. Sometimes these services were not enough.

“Something appeared to the pilgrims as they came to the salty seaside,” a 15th-century traveler in the Hejaz, Al Mokhaerzi, wrote poetically of the killing desert sun. “It was a planet that rises and gets bigger and bigger. Out of it comes a great evil. The pilgrims gathered and the sun struck them hard. Many walkers died. And then many riders died. And their camels and donkeys died. Their losses were great.”

This fading road system across the Arabian Peninsula, traveled across time by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, is a civilizational artifact that deserves far greater awareness than it currently enjoys. It is a global heritage site bleaching away in the Hejaz. It was one of the world’s original information superhighways—an arterial network of language, ethnicity, trade, ideas—linking Arabia and North Africa, the Mediterranean and the East. The Saudi government’s Commission on Tourism and Antiquities has begun to highlight this treasure in a traveling exhibition, “The Roads of Arabia.” Today such roads could be a unifying symbol for the Muslim world: not simply a relict of past greatness but lines of cohesion that tether the wider Middle East to Mecca.

The last official caravan on our walking route—the Egyptian Road—was inked by an Ottoman clerk into a ledger book in 1883. But people still wandered these roads into the 1940s.

Remote oasis on the pilgrims' road, Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Remote oasis on the pilgrim road. Photograph by Paul Salopek

“That’s when cars came in to Saudi Arabia and modern roads replaced them,” the historian Sami al Nawar says. “In fact one of the first Saudi traffic laws was, ‘No honking at camel caravans.'”

We see no caravans as we thread the fading tarik al hajj north toward Bilad al-Sham—toward Jordan.

Ali in repose. Trees like liferafts on the tarik al hajj, Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Ali in repose. Trees like life rafts. Photograph by Paul Salopek

We see an occasional Toyota Hilux pickup truck steered by Bedouins searching for their animals.

They always make a beeline to us. They squint, open mouthed, out their truck windows. They say they have never seen walkers this way before. On this road that is kadim—old. A road their fathers knew stories about. But that today they do not follow.

There are 55 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Kimberly Richardson
    October 5, 2013

    I stopped my busy Saturday to take the time to read the latest post. Glad I did. The first photo immediately made me think of my favourite movie – Lawrence of Arabia. Keep walking, Paul. Keep walking.

  2. Adam
    October 5, 2013

    It appears you longer have a support vehicle (in the event of an emergency or to carry the equipment you are using ). The photos always are outstanding and help your readers to see what you see on your journey.
    Curious. Are any ancient watering sites still in existence or do you have to resupply and carry all water?
    Stay safe!

    • Paul Salopek
      October 6, 2013

      The pilgrims’ routes are pocked with historic wells, often spaced about 20 miles apart—a day’s march. We walk well to well. We draw their often salty water for the camels and occasionally for ourselves. On the waterless stretches, Saeed al Faidi resupplies us by 4X4.

  3. Margaret Mazzaferro
    October 5, 2013

    Thanks for another wonderful post, Paul. On a grey rainy day in Minnesota your writing has the ability to transport me to the desert heat.

    I’m wondering about the photo of the artifacts. One appears to be an ancient class ring! I’m wondering what the rectangular item is? An amulet of some sort, perhaps?

    Continued safe journey. Looking forward to your next post.

    • Paul Salopek
      October 6, 2013

      The ring held a piece of glass incised with the crossed swords of the Saudi flag, so it may date from unification in the late 1920s or 1930s. The coin appears to be Turkish, from 1907. The curved tool is an old sickle. And the angular item may be part of the hilt from a sword. Do any readers have more informed guesses? All of these items were shown to us by an old man at a well. We left them with him.

  4. P maley
    October 6, 2013

    The walk itself is a fantastic idea and Paul’s writing brings it to life.

    I am posting this from pretty much the western edge of Europe and , in some ways, the edge of western technology – using an IPad and using Paul’s coordinates to see , pretty much instantly, where he’s posting from on Google Earth. That seems so removed form the lives of many of those Paul has met so far but the reality , as Paul’s dispatches eloquently demonstrate , is that what we have in common , irrespective of where we are and , to some degree, how live , inescapably binds us all.
    There are reminders everywhere that our shared history , genes and , inevitably , future on this tiny blue orb which will , one day, be consumed by the star which formed it do genuinely makes us all siblings.

    While we cannot and should not deny other cultures those technological advances which make our daily lives in the West comparatively comfortable it seems to me that we have a duty to ensure that those who do not wish to live our way have the choice to live however they choose.

    Failure to do so will homogenise our species to blandness.

    Thanks Paul for your work so far. I’m looking forward to another seven years of insight and reflection.

    May the sun always been on your back.

  5. Linda Hoernke
    October 6, 2013

    Thank you again for a wonderful insight into the history of the caravan roads and the link to “The Roads of Arabia.” I find myself reading and researching the places, people & cultures you write about. Safe travels~~

  6. HikerBob
    October 8, 2013

    Really excellent, informative post. After many of your posts, I enjoy hours of research, such as Marco Polo’s biography today of his 70,000 miles venturing. Your ventures will continue to illuminate history for us these coming years. Thank you.

  7. Christiane Oudet
    October 9, 2013

    Just read about your walk in the Harvard ED. magazine, much interested, started reading your posts. Great project.

    • Paul Salopek
      October 17, 2013

      Welcome, Christiane, and many thanks.

  8. Shirley
    October 15, 2013

    Your story, connecting history AND your journey, is eye-opening. We are so lucky to “follow” in your footsteps…many thanks. Shirley

  9. Ramze Elzahrany
    October 17, 2013

    I would like to add to the excellent post of Paul the following link, if I may?

    An excellent post creates excellent discussions and participations.

    Thank you Paul.

  10. yasnamacDonald
    October 22, 2013

    bravo Paul….love to read your thoughts and follow your travels..
    please don’t stop before the end that you planned so long ago… that part of the world and you do a splendid job describing it..schools in US should include your posts and teach it to the students…..american schools are not giving geography the proper due….kids no so little about our big world….again, bravo….

  11. Blanca Pinon
    October 22, 2013

    Thank you for sharing with us. Thoroughly uplifting for me and I can see, feel your walk through your caring words. Bravo!

  12. Aziz Karim
    October 22, 2013

    Paul – you are taking us literally to a place where no man has gone in almost a 100 years. This is an especially touching experience for me, because my great grand father had gone to Mecca for a pligrimage on three different occasions from India in a Camel Caravan. This now gives me a sense of what he went through. Thank you very much.

  13. Julia Moulden
    October 22, 2013

    It is not only the Bedouin who stare with mouths open. What a thrill to read about your journey through a place (and another time) that brings school studies roaring back to me. I’ve often wanted to meet the six others who pick up a book… Now I want to get to know the people following your journey with as much interest and joy. Thank you for walking and for inviting us to join you.

  14. Kari
    October 22, 2013

    Beautiful. I am so touched by your journey. It is a true pleasure to follow along.

  15. Heller Levinson
    October 22, 2013

    Paul, what is the temperature, approximately, in Fahrenheit, please, when those pictures were taken, for instance when Ali is in repose?
    Great Work! Thank you.

    • Paul Salopek
      November 7, 2013

      Heller—I’m not sure because I didn’t want to know. Maybe 115 Fahrenheit? It was hot.

  16. Kelly Jacobson
    October 22, 2013

    Midnight at the Oasis…

  17. Elfidio Cano del Cid
    October 22, 2013

    Back into history, understanding the present.

  18. BebeW
    October 23, 2013

    I am in such awe of your journey and your ability to relate to us your experiences. Thank you for introducing me to a world I would never be able to experience. Blessings to you and your team.

  19. Rick Knight
    October 23, 2013

    Paul, what about your earlier long trip–along Mexico’s Sierra Madre? Is your book Mule Dairies soon to be published? We all love your comments on this trip-travel well! Rick

  20. Robert Salopek
    October 24, 2013

    What a commentary !! Someone has told us, Paul, and also as world travellers, that we are related — as cousins we can only presume.

    Enjoying your history lessons, one after another … safe journey.

    Bob & Oran Salopek of Corrales, NM

  21. Sarah Pollock
    October 24, 2013

    Paul, your journey and your posts are inspiring. I’m glad you decided to share this journey, the people, places and history with so many people.

  22. Ilene Guckeen
    October 24, 2013

    Reading Paul’s postings is so very interesting, thank you for letting us go along with you.

  23. Bob Rowley
    October 24, 2013

    Paul, I loved the image of the ancient, enduring info-superhighway across the desert sands. I can see it in my imagination. Godspeed and beautiful posts, Habibi.

  24. Paul Sutton
    October 27, 2013

    The walk to Mecca in the middle east has been known to me for a long time. the concept of travel in the desert and discovery of oases has seemed so foreign to a person from humid New England USA. The photo graph of the oasis in this post is remarkable. It sent me looking for data on the hydrology of an oasis. The expression of groundwater at ground surface. The life giving water in the killer heat of the middle eastern desert. Water that is 5 to 15 years old as measured in mountain oases in Oman ( Thank you so much for your efforts and insights. Public works began in 638 AD another fantastic fact.

  25. Xinkai Joe
    November 4, 2013

    Traditional cultures are always being replaced by new things.We should appreciate those people who inherit the tradition.They are the factors what make me moved.

  26. Bobby
    November 5, 2013

    I lived in the GCC from 2002-2011, and during that time I lived in the KSA from 2007-2011; the curved piece appears to be a scabbard or sheath for a knife.Is that a coin or a small trinket with a Quran verse imprinted?

  27. Bobby
    November 5, 2013

    Paul, the coin has the number 1327 on it, could that be the year or the number of a Quran verse?

    • Paul Salopek
      November 7, 2013

      I think that’s the year after Hijiri. (See Ramze’s note below.) I believe the other artifact is indeed a scabbard. Thanks for helping out.

  28. Ramze Elzahrany
    November 6, 2013

    To the best of my knowledge, the translation of the scripts on the coin read “For victory, struck in Constantinople, 1327”. Constantinople is the former name of the city of Istanbul, which used to be the Ottoman capital during the Ottoman period. 1327 is the Islamic year of “Hijiri”, it corresponds to the year 1909.
    Best regards.

    • Paul Salopek
      November 7, 2013

      Thanks for coming to the rescue again, Ramze.

  29. Tevan
    November 7, 2013

    Fascinating and incredible journey. Amazing photos…thanks so much for sharing; it makes my day when I read your travel log. God be with you.

  30. jose pacheco lopez
    November 9, 2013

    lo mas hermoso de la naturalez

  31. jose pacheco lopez
    November 9, 2013

    lo mas hermosa de la naturalez

  32. zeineb messaoudi
    November 10, 2013

    c’est vrai que ça n’a rien à voir avec un pélérinage par avion, c’était si long avant les pèlerins partaient prés d’un an pour le pèlerinage, ils emportaient avec eux des vivres et tous ce qu’ils possédaient pour subvenir à leur besoins , quelques uns décédaient en chemin, d’autres sur les lieues, mais l’important c’était de faire le voyage . de nos jours et par avion le pèlerin s’y rend en quelques heures, il lui suffit juste d’être là deux ou trois jours avant arafat est le tour est joué .

  33. Ramze Elzahrany
    November 14, 2013

    For those who are interested in “Pilgrimage Roads to Makkah”, they should check the book entitled “One Thousand Roads to Mecca: Ten Centuries of Travelers Writing about the Muslim pilgrimage”, edited and introduced by Michael Wolfe, New York:Grove Press, 1997. I highly recommend the book.

    Best wishes and regards.

  34. saad
    November 14, 2013

    im going to the Hajj soon, your post has satisified my spirtual hunger in this holy lands. Im from a desert background and your pictures brought fond memories of my homelands, i honestly thank you for an excellent report.

    • Paul Salopek
      November 16, 2013

      Shukran, Saad.

  35. Aijaz
    November 19, 2013

    Paul, you are great…I have seen these deserts as I lived in KSA for 14 years…did you make videos, if yes please share…could you get older photos of “Baitullah” means “Ka’aba”

  36. cathy
    November 21, 2013

    You are walking through history, backwards and forwards at the same time. I am so sorry I am only now discovering your journey. Heard your bit on NPR this AM. I understand your feeling of the “rightness” of the walking – it does feel like the way we were intended to move and the speed at which we should experience the world. Wish more people could slow down and walk 20 miles a day. May the road rise to meet you.

    • Paul Salopek
      November 23, 2013

      You can catch up with the dispatches on this site. Glad you are walking along.

  37. Bob Rowley
    November 21, 2013

    Heard you on NPR this morning and you sounded great. Your family may think you are crazy, but the rest of us admire your vision and what you are doing for the honor of journalism, historical context and even foreign correspondents. Keep well the road and be very careful covering the next patch of sand. Salaam Habibi

    • Paul Salopek
      November 23, 2013

      You’re walking along with me in spirit, Bob. Great to hear from you.

  38. Tim Brazell
    November 23, 2013

    Paul, your writing in NG peice and the posts is exquisite. I have been transported from WA DC work world to a real world of our ancestors. Thanks for taking on this important work and thanks to the NG and other supporting groups.

  39. Mike Loomis
    November 25, 2013

    Reading about your journey on a cold Monday morning in Pennsylvania. Wish I were there!

  40. Larry DeClerck
    November 27, 2013

    So looking forward to your book account of this amazing trek.

  41. Anarcissie
    November 27, 2013

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      Yes. The great Laurie Anderson. Thank you.

  42. Joe Heitzenrater
    November 28, 2013

    I loved this post! Look forward to reading more!!

  43. yumma
    November 30, 2013

    I love middle eastern culture and am a muslim myself

  44. Carole Allison
    December 19, 2014

    Paul, I’m a late comer to your posts but am thrilled by your venture and what you’re adding to global understanding. By chance the owner of a wonderful local children’s bookstore introduced me to the author/illustrator James Rumford. One of his books is “Traveling Man: the Journey of Ibn Battuta, 1325-1354” One of life’s lovely coincidences. Thank you!

  45. Marian Delmore
    December 20, 2014

    Paul — your website is a wonderful gift to all of us. I’m making a packet of some of your posts to give to three special persons for Christmas — it’s a gift of adventure that they can follow each day in 2015 and forward. Thank you and have a special and peaceful Christmas and a great 2015!

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