National Geographic


Lot's Cave Monastery, Ghor al Safi, Jordan, 31°2'49" N, 35°30'10" E

We walk to the lowest point in the world: 1,378 feet below sea level.

The site is occupied by a museum. Outside the museum, near the top of a cliff, slump the ruins of an ancient Christian monastery. Inside the museum, behind a large pane of glass, work three or four mosaic conservators. They are Greeks. One Australian. They peer intently at a table littered with countless bits of stone. They labor over a vast puzzle. A chaotic rubble. A colorful mess.

“I can look at this for 10 hours and find no connections,” says Stefania Chlouveraki, the senior archaeologist working at the museum. “Then, I’ll come in one morning and find three links between pieces. It is the images of all the pieces that are stuck in my mind. They come together subconsciously.”

A researcher and a Byzantine puzzle: fragments of a monastery floor at Ghor al Safi, Jordan. Photograph by Kim Hubbard

A researcher and a Byzantine puzzle: fragments of a monastery floor. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Chlouveraki and her team are busy rebuilding the dazzling mosaic floor of the nearby Byzantine monastery, erected at the alleged site of Lot’s Cave. What is Lot’s Cave? It is where Lot and his family—the only righteous citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah—took refuge after God destroyed the twin Biblical cities because of their incorrigible wickedness. (Lot’s two daughters gave the Old Testament patriarch wine in the cave, then committed incest with him. Why? It is a question that remains the topic of obscure theological debate.)

Saint Lot’s monastery was built in the fifth-century A.D. The flooring that preoccupies Chlouveraki is 44 yards square and comprised of 900 large chunks of tesserae. There are thousands of smaller pieces. Tesserae: a word as beautiful as the objects it describes. It refers to the tiny stone cubes—mined from as far away as the Black Sea—that form the colors of a mosaic.

Lot's cave monastery, Jordan: My first shards of green in 3,000 kilometers. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Lot’s cave monastery, Jordan: My first shards of green in nearly 2,000 miles. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Byzantine master artisans used these fragments to “paint” lions, pomegranates, grape vines, inscriptions, ornate vases. The monastery floor contains 360,000 such tesserae in hues of red, brown, yellow, olive green, and white. Chlouveraki has been piecing it together since 2003. Assembling it completely will take many more years.

This is what Chlouveraki has to say about her lonesome, painstaking, patient task:

“Some guy in London has tried to create a computer program to help archaeologists rebuild mosaics. But it can’t replace people. You need a human eye to do this well. You need a sense of color, design, and space. You are looking at wear patterns, scratches on the surface. Your eyes and hands work together to make ‘families’ of fragments that no computers can match. Besides, there is just so much data to input into a computer, so you may as well just do it all by hand. When you succeed, there is nothing that can compare to the satisfaction of a hand-fit—two unexpected pieces that couple together. They go click.”

This description could serve as general advice for rebuilding so many things in life.

Like the maddening peace process in the Middle East. Or fading memory. (It is how our brains, by strengthening the links between neurons, consolidate our remembrances.) Or the construction of a good poem or sentence. Or the reassembly of a broken heart.

By feel.

One shard at a time.

Listening for a soft click.

There are 59 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Frank Mansfield
    March 14, 2014

    You have cautioned us not to make pets of our camels (I should have such an opportunity) yet I detect a genuine affection for these beasts who have served you so well. I hope they are well fed and happy in their retirement.

    • Paul Salopek
      March 22, 2014

      I miss my camels more than ever, Frank, especially since I’ve been carrying a 50-pound pack.

  2. Jim G
    March 14, 2014

    Greetings again, Mr. Salopek. Very good to see that you are “back at it”. The world could learn a lot from Ms. Chlouveraki’s perserverence and attention to detail! Please stay safe. Namaste.

  3. Arni Mahant
    March 14, 2014

    Hi Paul, can you give us a reason why you are spending so much time in a small country like Jordan? Is it because of its ancient and turbulent history?

    • Paul Salopek
      March 22, 2014

      My pace is largely determined by storytelling. In that sense, geographic area means little. Countries are like bodies of water—big ones can be shallow, and little ones deep. It’s difficult to predict until I start diving down into the narratives. (I think China is going to be oceanic, in every sense of the word.)

  4. Sonia King
    March 14, 2014

    Lovely article, thank you so much. As a contemporary mosaic artist, I remain fascinated by ancient mosaics. The process of creating mosaic hasn’t changed all that much: cut a tessera, place it and then choose the one that will go next to it. One tessera at a time. My compliments to Ms. Chlouveraki for her dedication and tenacity. I’ve shared the article to about 8,000 on my Facebook mosaic page (Sonia King Mosaics) and hope it brings you many new readers. I certainly will be following you. Kind regards, Sonia

    • Paul Salopek
      March 22, 2014

      Glad to have you and tour students along, Jill.

  5. Jill
    March 14, 2014

    Have been sharing your journey with my elementary students. They will be thrilled to hear you have continued on to Jordan. Stefania’s patience and rigor goes hand in hand with a word we discuss often at school: perseverance. You and she are perfect examples of this word. Thank you for teaching us.

  6. Betty Murphy
    March 14, 2014

    Maybe the reconstruction of the mosaics could benefit from some sort of crowdsourcing, as is being attempted in trying to find the missing airplane in the Indian Ocean. If Ms. Chlouveraki could post photos of groups of terrserae, she could enlist thousands of pairs of eyes to look for links…something like having a group of people work on a jig-saw puzzle at the same time.

  7. Linda Timmins
    March 14, 2014

    Patience and perseverance…if only there was more of both in the world!

  8. Tevan
    March 14, 2014

    Dear Paul, glad you are back and healthy. Thanks for your another history lesson, beautifully described. Stay safe…waiting to hear from next destination.

  9. Adam Jasmick Jr.
    March 14, 2014

    It is good to find that you have recovered from your recent illness. What an amazing example of perseverance and commitment on the part of the team working on the mosaic.
    We have so much to learn from our ancestors.
    Stay safe as your journey onward.

  10. Paul
    March 14, 2014

    Paul, as I have attempted to catch up with your quest, you were ill. I am so relieved that you are better so I might enjoy your wisdom and insight for as long as you can travel. Be well my friend and thank you for the joy you spread.

  11. Jan Dear
    March 14, 2014

    Hello Paul,
    The words you plant on these pages continue to entertain and educate…..such rich, descriptive phrases……….”or the reassembly of a broken heart” particularly struct home with me……..
    I was very happy to see that you are well once again and hope that your journey continues to be rewarding.

    • Paul Salopek
      March 22, 2014

      Very kind, Jan.

  12. Geraldine Valiakas
    March 15, 2014

    Paul, it’s good to hear you’ve recovered and continuing to bring to life the sights, sounds, and stones – tesserae, of this infinite ancient region. We are enriched by your dispatches and continue to be enlightened on this walk of humanity. Safe travels Paul.

  13. Azucena
    March 15, 2014

    Dear Paul,

    It’s great to have you back in cyberspace. All my admiration to people like those archaeologists and like yourself, who with infinite patience try to bring past to life.

    I was listening to this Joan Manuel Serrat’s song “Cantares” this morning and it reminded me of you. Here’s the lyrics:

    Everything passes and everything stays,
    but our thing is passing,
    passing making paths,
    paths over the sea.

    I never pursued glory,
    nor leaving in the memory
    of men my song;
    I love subtle worlds,
    gravityless and gentile
    like soap bubbles.
    I like to watch them paint themselves
    of sun and garnet, fly
    under the blue sky, tremble
    all of a sudden and crumble.

    Walker, your footprints are
    the path, and nothing more;
    walker, there is no path,
    the path is made while walking.
    By walking a path is made,
    And by returning your sight back
    you see the path that is never
    to be stepped on again.
    Walker, there is no path,
    but trails on the sea.

    Some time ago, in that place
    where today the forests dress themselves of Pine,
    the voice of a poet shouting was heard:
    Walker, there is no path,
    the path is made while walking,
    stroke by stroke , verse by verse.

    The poet died far from his home,
    The dust of a neighboring country covers him.
    While distancing himself they saw him crying,
    walker, there is no path,
    the path is made while walking,
    stroke by stroke , verse by verse.

    When the goldfinch cannot sing,
    when the poet is a pilgrim,
    when praying gives us no use,
    walker, there is no path,
    the path is made by walking,
    stroke by stroke , verse by verse.

    • Paul Salopek
      March 22, 2014

      Thanks for this, Azucena. Anything based on the great Antonio Machado’s poetry can’t help being beautiful. Such great nomad music in Spanish—I have calipered deserts singing, “a caballo vamos pa’l monte.”

      • Azucena
        March 22, 2014

        Buena vista social club, such a great band, they cheer me up so much.
        Y a “camello” vamos pal monte!

  14. Michael Reid
    March 15, 2014

    Your work there is so delightfully surprising in what you find.

    At street level you seem to be more in touch with the wider timescale and the larger picture.

    The almost throw-away comparrison between the peace process and the piecing together of a mosaic is so perfect.

    Wishing you good health and firm resolve.

  15. Clara Kelly
    March 15, 2014

    Thanks for this lovely description of the mosaic rebuilding. What an amazing capacity for patience! Love the image of her working through this in her sleep. So not only does it seem a task not fit for a computer, indeed not fit for the waking mind. The crowd-sourcing idea seems like a very good one. I wonder if it is possible for the mosaic to come together and if you were able to see sections of it.

  16. W Brian Duncan
    March 15, 2014

    Paul I have been loving following your travels, but this one really hit me. Thanks for the constant reminders of the importance of the journey.


  17. ASMA
    March 15, 2014

    We are so happy to see you back on the road. Stay well and safe. Loved the closing lines of your post.

  18. yumma
    March 15, 2014

    Assalamualaykum Paul,

    I hope you’re having a great time in Jordan!
    Don’t forget to visit the ancient city of Petra, for it is a truly wonderful experience.

  19. Christine Mellroth
    March 15, 2014

    Whew!!!! Was so worried…missed hearing your posts…..all is well….Welcome back Paul!

  20. Philip Harder
    March 15, 2014

    I logged in last week for the 1st time, only to find you were laid low by the bug. So happy to hear you are back on the trail and hopefully recovered. I am now 83 and hope to be with you all the way to Tierra del Fuego. Stay well.

    • Paul Salopek
      March 22, 2014

      Thanks, Philip. We’ll get there together. Keep your boots laced.

  21. krish
    March 16, 2014

    Nice to find you in health sir.
    This aricle is the door to the truth for the ingredients of life!
    Patience and perseverance are the key to any hurdle of life!!
    Stay healthy .

  22. krish
    March 16, 2014

    Nice to find you in health sir.
    Good to have you back on the trail.

  23. Pat
    March 16, 2014

    For a beautiful reading of restoring such a floor, read Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone.

    • Paul Salopek
      March 22, 2014

      Anthony was the real thing. Committed, smart, compassionate, generous—one of the few among us who truly understood, and plumbed, the cross-eddies of Iraq and the wider Middle East. His death was a huge loss to the public. His book deserves wide readership.

  24. Linda Hoernke
    March 17, 2014

    Welcome back!! And may your health stay good. Loved this segment. As a volunteer at a Dinosaur Museum in Utah, I have spent many hours trying to connect pieces of a fossil together. I can relate to your descriptions. Thank you again Paul and thank you for your perserverance through your illness. You have so much to add to this world~~

  25. Christy Costigan
    March 17, 2014

    Hi Paul,great to hear from you again and glad your feeling better.
    will be watching my email inbox for your updates.Keep well,
    Kind Regards,
    Christy Costigan
    Dublin Ireland

  26. Nita Karandikar
    March 18, 2014

    Glad to know that you are off on your trail again. So right about the feel, the knowing, the wish to see it through. Amazing what they accomplished then. Take care. Look forward to a new word from you.

  27. Shelley Steingraeber
    March 18, 2014

    Lovely post, Paul. You paint pictures with your words. Be well!

  28. Barbara Quinn
    March 20, 2014

    Glad you are well and traveling again. Our family is on the way home to NY from Fl. Wondering if eons from now, at archaeologists will be piecing together pieces of Mickey and Minnie Mouse with as much patience. Safe travels.

    • Paul Salopek
      March 22, 2014

      The way attention spans are headed, I’d wager not, Barbara.

  29. Felipe
    March 20, 2014

    Paul,I like very much all the that you are doing, is great.
    This world needs more PAUL SALOPEK.

  30. Onni Milne
    March 21, 2014

    The best thing about being ill is how good it feels to be healthy again, eh! Welcome back to the world of health. Your closing words in this writing are precious and meaningful.

  31. Trina Lemberger
    March 24, 2014

    I have spent an entire afternoon and evening reading all of your posts to get caught up with your travels. You have the mind, heart and words of a true peace maker. Poetry for my heart and mind. May you and companions travel in safety and peace.

    • Paul Salopek
      March 27, 2014

      Glad to have your support, Trina.

  32. Souvik Chatterjee
    March 24, 2014

    Hi Paul

    Greetings from India! What you are doing by walking down the paths taken by our ancestors is beyond words, giving us glimpses of the past and the present.

    I just wish there were few more people like you who would have taken the Europe and the Australia route as well.

    The map which tracks your path amazing. Is it possible that your colleagues upload an ancient map of the earth for these places to give us an idea of how these places looked like back then?

    Thanks and best wishes!

    • Paul Salopek
      March 27, 2014

      Good notion, Souvik. We already have a map in our Map Room that illustrates the very different shape of coastlines during our ancestors’ journey out of Africa. We’ll try to think of other ways to illustrate the Pleistocene world.

  33. Zach W
    March 25, 2014

    I was just wondering if they let you try putting the mosaic together?

  34. Jack
    March 25, 2014

    Paul, when you were inside the museum did you ever help the archaeologists or give a suggestion when they were trying to rebuild the broken mosaic floor, and what would be the most beautiful, most exotic place you visited on your walk around the world.

    Sincerely Jack Case

  35. Zach W
    March 25, 2014

    I was also wondering how cool was it to see the mosaic? I think you are an amazing person!

  36. Ezra
    March 25, 2014


    I think your an amazing person to go on this 7 year walk around the world!!!!! I have a few questions for you, most of the people putting the Mosaic together were Greek, is there a reason for this? About how long wold it take someone to paint all those images on the Monastery floor? Finally I was wondering how long you think it will take until they finish piecing together the Mosaic.

    Good luck on the rest of your journey,

    Sincerely, Ezra

  37. Matteo F
    March 25, 2014

    Hi Paul

    It is amazing that you are walking for seven years. I am going to follow you for your whole walk. In your story shards you say that you were 1,378 feet below sea level, did it get harder to breath? Also when this woman was putting the pieces together in one of the first pictures, did you see any signs that depict religious symbols?

    Sincerely Matteo

  38. Matteo F
    March 25, 2014

    Hello Paul

    It is amazing that you are walking for seven years. I am going to follow you for your whole walk. In your story shards you say that you were 1,378 feet below sea level, did it get harder to breath? Also when this woman was putting the pieces together in one of the first pictures, did you see any signs that depict religious symbols?

    Sincerely Matteo

  39. Nicholas
    March 26, 2014

    Hi Paul! My name is Nicholas and I think it is awesome that you are going on this adventure.I have 1 questions for you. Where do you get your food and water? Do the air drop it on you? I hope you respond and good luck on your amazing walk!

  40. Ronin
    March 26, 2014

    Hi Paul!! My class is following you on you walk and I think it’s so cool to walk all the way around the world. About how long would it take to build the floor in the first place?

    Good luck,

  41. Paul Wanabe
    March 26, 2014

    Hi Paul.

    I think that it is very cool that you are walking aroun the world! How is it, do you feel lonely, do you miss your family, is the wheather hard on you. You must be very physically and mentally strong. When I grow up I want to go to Harvard just like you! do you think I can make It?

    Sincerely Wil (with one L)

    • Paul Salopek
      March 27, 2014

      Jack, Zach, Ezra, Matteo, Nicholas, Ronin, and Wil:

      Thanks for your questions. It’s hard to do justice to all of you, so I suggest you ask your teachers to contact my education partners at Project Zero and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Through them, I can even Skype into your classrooms. Puzzling together a few of your queries: The researchers let me touch the pieces of the mosaic but not fiddle too much with them; the team was mainly Greek because the chief researcher happened to come from that country; walking at 1,378 feet below sea was no problem on the lungs (carrying a 50-pound pack made me pant, regardless); I get my food and water from desert wells and in markets in towns; rebuilding the monastery floor probably will take years of work; and yes, I miss my family, so I am constructing a new one along the way, through my walking partners.

  42. Sally
    April 6, 2014

    So true and totally agree with Chlouveraki – computer can’t replace handwork. Human’s creativity is never pre-programed, which keeps life interesting and evolving.

  43. Estela
    April 7, 2014

    Caminante, so happy you are back in your path! Should you divert and pass by the city and port of Buenos Aires, I will wait for you with a good glass of Malbec wine and say good bye to you leaving for Patagonia. Looks like you never met a stranger in your path. That speaks a lot about yourself. .

  44. Stefania Chlouveraki
    April 9, 2014

    Dear Paul,
    Thank you so much for this post! it is quite rewarding and a real honour to see our work posted in your dispatch. We all have a deep respect and admiration for you and your work and it is very encouraging for us to have gained the interest of someone that has traveled so far and has seen so much!!
    best greetings from all the team.. we keep following you!

    • Paul Salopek
      April 15, 2014

      The honor was mine. It was a treat to observe your work at close quarters, Stefania.

  45. Doodle
    April 28, 2014

    Dear Paul, you inspire me how much you are able to write so beautifully if you are on a journey of your life. I would have thought that you don’t have time to write when you are walking your way around the globe!!

  46. shianna
    May 9, 2014

    is that hard?

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