National Geographic

Brow of Syria

North of Humayma, Jordan, 30°18'7" N, 35°23'18" E

“The Haj government established here in late years a station of horse troopers and Ageyl riders, which should keep the pilgrim highway, and tame the insolence of the Beduw.”
Travels in Arabia Deserta, by Charles Montagu Doughty (1888)

The trail grooved its way up a high, wrinkled scarp the color of chalk, the color of rust. Up from the Hīsma. Up from the brilliant, white, waterless flats that Nabatean kings had tried to tame more than 2,000 years ago—building forts, founding oasis towns, erecting watchtowers. All to guard the fabulous incense roads from Yemen. Centuries later other empires would attempt to control the same trade routes. Frankincense was Arabia’s most coveted export—the petroleum of classical times.

We trudged in silence past the rubble of Hawarah, driving our two cargo mules.

Legionnaires once risked their wages on tossed dice in Hawarah, a desert city perched on the edge of the Roman Empire. The soldiers of Emperor Trajan had lounged in public gardens, taken nomad wives. There had been lemon orchards—and grain fields and olive groves. Columned temples dedicated to Greco-Roman gods later became Byzantine churches and then mosques, and the Abbasid palaces of the 8th century featured mosaics and furniture of carved ivory. Red clay roofing tiles of Mediterranean civilization once shined here: a beacon of urban power meant to cow and settle the wandering Bedouin. All of this was gone. But an old water canal still ribboned 15 miles down from the barren mountains. The joints between its stones didn’t admit a sheet of my notebook paper.

“They knew how to build things,” my guide and muleteer Hamoudi Alweijah al Bedul said, waving his hand at the ruins. “Pah! Not like today. Five years—the house falls down!”

We walked north. We climbed the great rift that Muslim geographers call the Brow of Syria. We were leaving Arabia behind. I looked back a last time.

The Bedouin were still there. A family’s black tent rippled and belled in a cold desert breeze atop the ruin of Hawarah. The sharp little hooves of nomad sheep were grinding the pottery shards of four civilizations to dust.

There are 56 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. George
    January 17, 2014

    You are traveling in a world that measures time by centuries and have left you clues to interpret in an age that is impatient and changing by the seconds.

  2. Jim Grubba
    January 17, 2014

    Mr. Salopek, Hello again. It is so nice to have a “penpal” who shares his journey with all of us. Thanks again. I did get a chuckle from Hamoudi’s comment about 21st century construction methods. In a “left handed compliment” kind of way, it is comforting to know that our lousy infrastructure is shared throughout the world. Hamoudi sounds like a very wise man! Take care.

  3. Sonja Kodric
    January 17, 2014

    Hello Paul,
    Another great post with a fascinating, evocative sound clip to listen to. Wind, hooves, talking/breathing/walking – fantastic.
    Hearing names and histories of mysterious places stirs the imagination – going back to earliest childhood memories reading place names like Timbuktu, Himalaya, Jerusalem. (And probably a lot of it from NatGeo). It makes me think that excited feeling must be primal-human. I feel sure that people still carry some kind of trace of ancestral migrations.
    As they said – your adventure shows us the long, long, slow story that until just recently, human migration was all on foot.
    Hope you are OK – can’t help being concerned about over-exhaustion and danger on such an epic undertaking. Take care.

  4. Sonja Kodric
    January 17, 2014

    Yes, indeed – Paul is a “penpal” to all of us. Writing an epic, by installments.

  5. AAAndrew
    January 17, 2014

    Looking at your location in map view, you are in the blank areas of the map. But look at Satellite view and you see the natural contours of the land that created the ancient highway. We write out paths today with roads and highways, but the more ancient writing has sometimes been written over, and sometimes has just faded into the dim scratchings of footpaths, trails and forgotten journeys.

    All the best. There are many of us out there silently reading, thinking and wishing along with you. You are never totally alone, even should you be without guide and donkeys in the lonely places of the earth. We will walk alongside you the whole way.

    Thank you.

  6. Pam Robinson
    January 17, 2014

    Paul – I am enjoying your journey with great interest. As an American I feel so far removed from the history you are sharing with us as you travel along such an historic trail. Tears flow at the saddness of those left homeless by war. Thank you. Pam

  7. no1special
    January 17, 2014

    I know you will miss the desert when you are walking through Central Asia and Siberia in the winter. You probably miss it already. No wonder that some bedouins don’t want to move to the cities.

    • Paul Salopek
      January 26, 2014

      I was born in a desert and carry their spaces with me. Fortunately, at least for my selfish aesthetics, there are more unparsed horizons in Central Asia. In terms of iffy food security and forced migrations, though, millions of people are less enthusiastic about arid lands. Deserts are spreading.

  8. Mary R.
    January 17, 2014

    Thanks, Paul,for taking me along to look back one last time at Arabia. This beautifully written post closed the door with such descriptive words to paint lovely pictures to remember that land and its various splendid cultures. Syria seems about the most tumultuous trek you could be taking now. I am looking forward to your new postings from that new place especially in this time of history there.
    Best to you on this journey. be safe.

  9. Adam
    January 17, 2014

    Hello Paul,
    Your journey is taking you closer and closer to nations in conflict. Does your historic, retracing of humans journey out of Africa take you into any of the areas in conflict?
    As always, your postings bring history to life and the photography brings your reader an amazing view of what you see and experience.
    Stay safe!

  10. Tina Moore
    January 18, 2014

    Thank you once again Paul. I look forward to each of your posts. I am re-reading books that have a taste of the area you are leaving. I have continued to gather some of the oral histories of the elderly folks I know. You are such a wonderful painter with words. Please, stay safe as you enter areas of greater conflict. I will continue to send you positive “vibes” and hope you continue your journey in peace.

  11. Azucena
    January 18, 2014

    Hi Paul, Peregrino del Mundo
    I wish you well,
    strength for your feet and soul,
    innocence to rediscover the world,
    a pinch of luck (is always useful),
    but above all…inspiration to keep sharing your journey with the world.
    Here following you closely at thousands of miles away.

  12. Geoff Raison
    January 18, 2014

    I found it enspiring to read about your plans for such an epic adventure.I look forward to reading about your progress as you continue along your journey.This venture sounds like something I would like to do .All the best in dealing with the trials that such an undertaking will undoubtedly throw at you and safe travel.

  13. Gary Boivin
    January 18, 2014

    Sacred Petra, blessed Jordan. This entire region gives the world continuous spiritual energy. In return, its people are challenged all the more, to raise themselves up, past the most ungainly of circumstances, from Cyprus, clear to the Plains of the Ganges.

  14. Jeanine kromer
    January 18, 2014

    I have just learned of your journey. I am fascinated and excited for you! I am going to go back and read all your comments. Thank you for doing this! Prayers for your safety and health.

  15. Larry DeClerck
    January 18, 2014

    Paul you have an almost poetic way of describing areas you are passing through. Know it is appreciated as we follow your trek, and marvel at the wonderous world you’re showing us.

  16. Jan Dear
    January 18, 2014

    Hi Paul,
    Such a pleasure to follow your long, and sometimes/often, arduous journey. I found it necessary to read 3 or 4 today, and your writings took me in so many directions – to google maps, to google and back to maps, etc., etc…..the ribbon of highway we call the internet, does help those of us who need extra assistance.
    I must say, though, that I wept when I read Seema and Fares had to be left behind…
    Your audio today, reminded me of the stirring interview that you obliged us here in Canada on the CBC a few weeks back; your voice today was as though you were in the same room with us once again.
    Safe journey……..

  17. Christy Costigan
    January 19, 2014

    Hello again Paul,
    Thanks for the History Lesson on this your amazing journey.

    May your God look after you on your journey.

  18. Candida Gomes
    January 20, 2014

    Hello again Paul,
    For me your journey is courageous, epic, i like very much your posts, my problem is understand everything because i´m Portuguese, and my English is not good.
    Be safe, and God protect and bless you. I´m very attentive about your journey!!

    • Paul Salopek
      January 26, 2014

      Estamos tentando encontrar maneiras de traduzir as mensagens em vários idiomas. Até que isso aconteça, obrigado por estarem comigo.

  19. ijaz.jafari
    January 21, 2014

    must be indicate the details of the place and history around about the walk at that place when passing from there in a simple english so every one can understand about the place and thing

    • Paul Salopek
      January 26, 2014

      Ijaz, as I told Candida, above, we’re hoping to translate the dispatches into several languages. Bear with us while we work on that. Thanks for walking along.

  20. Ted Eames
    January 22, 2014

    Have just become aware of your journey, Paul. Will be following your progress with great interest. At some point I’d like to share a narrative poem called Siberia My Eden. I wrote this about a woman called Lillian Alling who walked from New York to the Alaskan coast in the late 1920s in an attempt to get back to her home in Siberia. I really like your words about walking being “falling forwards…iambic teetering”. All the very best, Ted Eames (

  21. ASMA
    January 22, 2014

    My car broke 10 miles in the middle of no where in a blizzard condition (-38 wind chill) and no cell phone… Got saved by a blow truck and I am fine. But of all the things I can think of, all I was thinking was your journey and how you will go to some really called places. I really hope you plan for these places very carefully. While it only took me 20 minutes in that blizzard, I saw death coming despite being on day light. Had it been night, I would not have been here to write this! Safe journey!

    • Paul Salopek
      January 26, 2014

      Glad to hear you made it through that harrowing experience, Asma. Siberia will be the most physically challenging part of the journey. Summer swarms of black flies and devastating winter cold. I will be relying on local expertise to help me slog on through.

  22. Fatimah
    January 22, 2014

    Hi Paul
    I’m enjoying traveling along with you and seeing the landscape through your poetic writing – it is extremely enriching literally, historically as well as culturally. Happy first birthday all the best for the next six years I wish you good health and a very safe journey. God speed.

    • Paul Salopek
      January 26, 2014

      Shukran, Fatimah.

  23. Fatimah
    January 22, 2014

    Meant to say happy first anniversary 😉

  24. Arni Mahant
    January 22, 2014

    Hi Paul, I have been thinking about how you are going to bypass Syria or are you? It will be such a shame with Syria being one of the cradles of civilization.

  25. Geraldine Valiakas
    January 23, 2014

    What would the first humans who walked out of Africa say on this walk so far? The beauty of the landscape remains eternal but civilizations now crumble what we had gained. You vividly make not of this leaving Jordan. Courage and safe travels Paul.

  26. Cynthia E.
    January 23, 2014

    Absolutely LOVE the last paragraph, so poetic!

  27. Valerie
    January 23, 2014

    Your words are like music!

  28. Doug Clark
    January 24, 2014

    Hi Paul, great work. I’m in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. It looks like you will be passing through here, would like to meet you and walk a short way with you. Being a long time subscriber to National Geographic, it would a way to connect directly with your journey.
    Doug Clark

    • Paul Salopek
      January 26, 2014

      Thanks, Doug. You are lucky to live in such a beautiful place. I passed through a couple times, riding a motorcycle north to work at the salmon processing plants in Valdez, Alaska. The city was a northern oasis.

  29. Lee
    January 24, 2014

    My apologies to you Paul, but not only do you have the onus of keeping yourself alive, but me as well. I am recovering from brain surgery (not one, but TWO tumors), and nearly gave up. However, I am now following your trek and have been inspired and am committed to complete this journey with you. See you in South America in approximately six years!

    • Paul Salopek
      January 26, 2014

      Lee, posts like yours propel my step. Thanks for joining the journey, and take good care of yourself. Sending healing thoughts your way.

  30. Erwin
    January 25, 2014

    I was wondering how will you pass Syria since it is caught in a civil war , can I say you are one brave individual

  31. Jan Dear
    January 26, 2014

    Hello Paul, I cannot remember now how I myself started this journey with you, but I have been reading and listening to your audios since the very outset……. this morning, I re-read this last segment and listened once again, to your voice……for some reason I thought of how your wife and family must miss you, and how your audio would bring you closer to them.. be safe as your journey takes you thru Syria.

    • Paul Salopek
      January 26, 2014

      Thanks, Jan, for the kind words.

  32. 5aveyniac
    January 27, 2014

    That sounds cool!

  33. Elderswag
    January 27, 2014

    That is really cool.

    January 27, 2014

    Good morning. I hope you are well. Your journey is incredible, fantastic. I feel very fast forward for those trails are a window to our past. Our ancestors advancing few miles every year.Greetings.

  35. Isabella Hrga
    January 28, 2014

    I am amazed that you are tracking 60,000 years of human migration. Good luck.

  36. Donna
    January 28, 2014

    My granddaughter and I are taking this journey world on with you. We have a map of the world on the wall, and we are tracing your migration with a pen. Take good care of yourself. You are very special.

  37. Linda Hoernke
    January 28, 2014

    Thank you for taking us through the deserts of Arabia. Travel safe..looking forward to your next post~~

  38. Richard King
    January 29, 2014

    Hi Paul, Your northern oasis of Valdez is currently cut off from the rest of Alaska by avalanches on the only road in. Won’t be cleared for a week!
    Fortunately barge deliveries by sea make life there less precarious than in the run-of-the-mill oases..
    As usual, following your progress with my achy feet..Stay safe and have fun, Richard King

  39. Sakhi Rasheed Awan
    January 29, 2014

    I am thankful to Mr. Paul and also the National Geographic that they arranged so big travel expedition.

  40. Jennifer Millican
    February 2, 2014

    I grew up an army brat and lived all over the world. I am about to go to Cuba to install water purification systems and was actually a little anxious. Reading what you are doing makes my trip seem pretty simple. Thanks for inspiring others that “we can.”
    I sure hope you have great shoes. Our ancestors may have travelled barefoot and sandled, but as a runner I am spoiled by modern foot wear. I try to leave my shoes for runners whenever I travel

    • Paul Salopek
      February 6, 2014

      Thanks, Jennifer. Some experts, such as Dan Leiberman, think running barefoot is healthier. I buy footwear at local souks. Visiting friends bring me shoes on occasion.

  41. cindy estes
    February 2, 2014

    I am following your every footstep. As a senior I can only dream of what you are undertaking. God be with you.

  42. Kaleyesus Bekele
    February 14, 2014

    Hi Paul
    I am happy to learn the good progress you are making on your seven year walk. Do you remember Noah was born when you started your journey in the Afar region. Now Noah is one year old. By the time you reach the finish line he would be seven, enshi Alah. God be with you!

    • Paul Salopek
      April 6, 2014

      Then you’ll have to bring him to Tierra del Fuego for the finish-line party, Kaleyesus. Every guide—yourself included—is invited.

  43. Win
    April 19, 2014

    Such a beautiful photo of the brow of Syria! Thanks for the sound as well. You do sound chilly and tired. Were you not feeling well then?

  44. Tevan
    March 6, 2015

    Dear Paul, I have not heard from you for some time…please include me in your postings. Stay safe….

  45. Hari S Nair
    December 6, 2015

    I wished if i could walk with you, you You guys walk through such beautiful places but I’m just 21

  46. Jose Alberto
    April 24, 2016

    I find very interesting the story about the natives in there

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