National Geographic

Vortex: Walking Jerusalem

Abraham Hostel, Jerusalem, Israel, 31°47'06" N, 35°12'56" E

We sit at the hostel table sketching routes on old newspaper. Straight lines. Circles. Zigzags. Nothing works.

“This place is too complicated,” says Yuval Ben-Ami, my walking partner in Jerusalem. He is a big man with gentle eyes. A writer. A radio host. A street singer—a bard. He has hiked Israel’s entire perimeter along its borders. He knows its village bus stations. Its cheap Ethiopian restaurants. Its most scenic battlefields. He has been up all night thinking. “The only way we can do this—”

And with a blue pen he draws a curlicue.

It is absurd: the pathway of a snail.

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Snail’s path: a rational man’s efforts at planning a walking route through Jerusalem. Photograph by Yuval Ben-Ami

Such is our plan to cross Jerusalem on foot. The goal: produce a narrative map of one of the most important religious and cultural capitals of the world. We will snap photos of local people, record neighborhood sounds, shoot videos. The Out of Eden Walk’s first digital city map, of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was a relatively simple affair: a linear route up the beach of a desert port. Jerusalem is another matter.

“Here,” says Ben-Ami says, fueling up for the walk on breakfast cereal, “straight lines miss everything.”

Awash in history, scarred by conflicting political claims, sacred to all the Abrahamic faiths and thus revered and contested by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, Jerusalem’s 48 square miles of compacted real estate—World Heritage Sites, shrines, posh hotels, slums, hilly parks, museums, checkpoints, souks—comprise one of the most complex urban spaces on Earth.

Urban oasis. Outside a bar in West Jerusalem. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Urban oasis: outside a bar in West Jerusalem. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Today, more than 800,000 Jerusalemites inhabit two contiguous but radically different cities, each shaped by conflict, and both currently under Israeli control. West Jerusalem: newer, leafier, cosmopolitan, a Jewish-dominated mosaic of suburbs constructed mostly since Israel’s 1948 war of independence. And East Jerusalem: older, dryer, poorer, a Muslim-dominated swath of the city captured from Jordan during the Six-Day war, a place where severe growth controls have preserved the atmosphere of an overgrown village. Somehow, under a fraying peace accord, this is to be the shared capital of each people.

The 3.5 million tourists drawn annually to Jerusalem’s Old City center do not often explore this bigger, edgier, divided metropolis. Most visit epicenters of their faith. The Wailing Wall. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Al Aqsa Mosque.

Yuval Ben-Ami at the Separation Barrier in East Jerusalem.  Erected by the Israeli government to thwart terror attacks, it cleaves some Palestinian neighborhoods in half. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Yuval Ben-Ami at the Separation Barrier in East Jerusalem. Erected by the Israeli government to thwart terror attacks, it cleaves some Palestinian neighborhoods in half. Photograph by Paul Salopek

For this reason, Ben-Ami and I try something different. We start our trek at the distant western edge of the modern city—under the Bridge of Strings, a symbolic gateway facing the Mediterranean—and walk counterclockwise, at a leisurely pace, toward Damascus Gate. Libraries are stuffed with descriptions of the wonders that lie beyond that fabled entryway to the Old City. Our urban trail to reach the ancient gate, by contrast, is terra incognita to many outsiders.

We ramble for three days. We form a shambling relay. Aziz abu Sarah, a Palestinian peace activist, joins us. So do Israeli friends Noa Burshtein and Osnat Skoblinski.

Our route is spiral. Or, more precisely: a vortex.

In a 5,000-year-old city where changes in neighborhood zoning rules earn international headlines—such is the ferocity of ownership over each square inch of Jerusalem—we orbit painful questions of identity, of zealotry, of personal loss, of national survival. We trudge over a hundred lonesome boundaries—invisible and monumental—that Israeli and Palestinian Jerusalemites do not cross. We encounter desecrated cemeteries. (One Jewish, one Muslim.) A shopping mall with a hundred-foot replica of Noah’s Ark on its roof. A sleepy Palestinian pool hall.

One day, we climb the only flour-grinding windmill in the Middle East, operated by Spanish-speaking Jew from Argentina. On another, we descend into the tomb of an eighth-century Sufi poetess—or perhaps a fifth-century Christian prostitute-turned-saint. (Nobody knows.) We will be turned away by only two people, one Muslim, one Jewish. And Palestinian children will shout in Hebrew, in a rose-colored dusk over Wadi Kidron, “I love you!”

“It is the source of all my confusion,” Ben-Ami says, smiling in sad wonder at the fractured, golden city where he was born. “And it is the hometown of my heart.”

The narrative map of Paul’s route through Jerusalem was produced with the collaboration of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT, the Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard University, and National Geographic.

There are 47 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Jim G
    May 16, 2014

    Hello again, Mr. Salopek. In a one word summation – wow! I am impressed it only took you 3 days! A great post – thank you so much – Namaste.

  2. Pradnya
    May 16, 2014

    “We are humans”! Why does anyone forget that about others? All atrocities committed by man against man are the result of forgeting that we are all human and alike in more ways than different.

  3. D
    May 16, 2014

    Are you ever frightened for your life? I don’t recall which is your home country. Are you an American?

    • Paul Salopek
      May 28, 2014

      D—sometimes. American by way of stardust.

  4. Patsy Jaynes
    May 16, 2014

    Thank you for the heart and soul of Jerusalem.

  5. Stella Goings
    May 16, 2014

    Thank you Paul for the gift of Jerusalem. You share with us the sights and sounds of far off places. But what I value most are your insights into the complex and often tragic circumstances of life in places where our lessons of our shared humanity seem to have been lost.

    • Paul Salopek
      May 23, 2014

      Those lessons never vanish, Stella. They just become compartmentalized. It happens in all traumatized societies. Compassion endures, yet loses its suppleness, its mutability. It stops at certain abstract margins, blocked by the membranes of nation states, ethnic groups, religions, clans. Hunt for it, though. Because it’s there.

  6. Tevan
    May 16, 2014

    Thank you Paul for your description of Jerusalem; interesting and sad. Take good care for next stops.

  7. Jerzy PL
    May 18, 2014

    Dear Paul,

    Thank you for the walking map of Jerusalem, it’s fantastic. View from the promenade is something spiritual.

    All best!

  8. Gary Boivin
    May 18, 2014

    You are perfecting the art of doing justice to a most complex environment, in only three or four days. This map will prove invaluable to those who, like me, prefer to walkabout.

  9. tamar lieberman
    May 18, 2014

    Dear Paul,
    I have been fascinated by your incredible journey and have read
    every Post
    each on with great interest and great admiration.
    Your post on Jerusalum was very interesting. I have been to Israel many times,the first time in 1949 when Jerusalem was a divided city.
    My comment is that in describing the neighborhood of the city you called West Jerusalem Jewish dominated and East Jerusalem Muslem dominated.The word dominated struck me as an odd way to refer to the peoples who live in two geographic areas of the city. Do you think another word to describe these two areas would be less “loaded” than dominated which sounds very off putting to my ear.?

    • Paul Salopek
      May 23, 2014

      I used the word “dominated” in its demographic, not political, sense Tamar. There are Arab Israelis and some Christians living in Jewish-majority West Jerusalem, just as there are Christian communities and Israeli settlers living in Muslim-majority East Jerusalem.

  10. Tamar Lieberman
    May 18, 2014

    Comments already submitted

  11. Mohammed Alagangan
    May 19, 2014

    This is an astonishing scene of a city though divided now, may one day be united!

  12. Lora Hamrock
    May 19, 2014

    If there were no religion would there still be a dividing wall?

    • Paul Salopek
      May 23, 2014

      A great question, Lora. Genetics would probably say “no.” (The average human being is 50 times more closely related to another human being than the average chimpanzee is related to another chimpanzee.) Political history would probably say “yes.” Anyone else have any thoughts?

  13. Margaret Mazzaferro
    May 19, 2014

    Thanks, Paul, for that comprehensive walking tour through Jerusalem. On one of the last slides I was hoping for a whiff of those kebabs, but alas it was only an audio clip. Nevertheless, very informative guided tour through this ancient city.

    • Paul Salopek
      May 23, 2014

      Smell—the sense that most powerfully evokes memory. May it never emanate from a computer screen, Margaret.

  14. Linda Hoernke
    May 20, 2014

    Thank for for the walking tour of Jerusalem. The photos, comments and videos are lessons in history, culture and mankind. Thank you, thank you!

  15. Gabriella Orosco
    May 22, 2014

    Good bye Paul, I hope you have a great journey the rest of the way!!! By the way thank you for letting me follow you in this important journey of yours,you have opened my mind to so many things in the world. See ya!!!!!!!!!!

    • Paul Salopek
      May 23, 2014

      To Gabriella and all the students commenting below: Have a great summer. Keep following along, if the journey moves you. And get out and walk your own.

  16. Danny Wiseman
    May 22, 2014

    Paul, good luck on the rest of your jersey, this is my last day on Out of Eden. Happy walking!

  17. Miranda
    May 22, 2014

    I wish you luck on the rest of your journey. I have been reading your posts and you have really inspired me to do something like you have. Thank you for the amazing journey! Good luck with the rest of your walk!

  18. Addie Shimpeno
    May 22, 2014

    Have a safe trip Paul! I hope you have a great rest of the trip and since this is my last day on Out of Eden I say good by and good luck 🙂

  19. Nic Ritzler
    May 22, 2014

    Have a good trip. Today is my last day. Sorry but have fun. I hope you comlete the walk.

  20. Tyler
    May 22, 2014

    Have a safe trip Paul, school is almost out so we wont be on out of eden again.

  21. Tweetybird3
    May 22, 2014

    Thank you for taking this trip. This has been a great experinece. when I graduate from high school you will finish your walk. I hope you staff safe and dont let the scorpions bite.

  22. Madelyn
    May 22, 2014

    This is my last last time that I’m going to be on here. I really hope that you have a safe trip and that you have fun. I know I had fun, so I just hope that you are having fun on your journey!

  23. Reid
    May 22, 2014

    Happy Trailing Paul!!!!!!!

  24. Chava Glouberman
    May 22, 2014

    Thank you Paul, the National Geographic Magazine, the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT, the Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard University and everybody involved in the project for the most amazing interactive tour of Jerusalem!!!

    • Paul Salopek
      June 5, 2014

      The extended walk family returns your shout-out, Chava, from Washington, Santa Fe, San Francisco, and Cambridge.

  25. Ricky Dewet
    May 23, 2014


  26. bebe carrico
    May 26, 2014

    enjoying your travel adventures and going along with you too, shalom!

  27. mohammad
    June 1, 2014

    “One day, we climb the only flour-grinding windmill in the Middle East”
    this is not true dear paul! when you will come to iran,in south KHORASAN province i will show you multiple wind mills ,making flour in same way of their ancestors ,like 1000 years ago!

    • Paul Salopek
      June 5, 2014

      Thanks for bringing this to our attention Mohammad. Vertical rotors—very cool. I’m looking forward to some nân made from those mills.

  28. Geraldine Valiakas
    June 1, 2014

    Wow! What amazing photos of the multiple wind mills of Khorasan. Is there an english translation to your web site, Mohammed? I can hardly wait for your walk through Iran, Paul. Safe journey and good weather.

    June 2, 2014

    Saw the perfect t-shirt for you – sums up the pace of your life….
    Everywhere is within walking distance.
    As long as you have the time….
    Happy wanderings

    • Paul Salopek
      June 5, 2014

      When I was researching the walk in Africa, Simon, I stopped to visit Meave and Richard Leakey, the famous paleoanthropologists, at their base camp in the Turkana Basin of Kenya. They suggested I visit a nearby village of pastoralists.

      “Is it walking distance?” I asked, offhandedly.

      They stared at me a long moment. Then laughed.

  30. Giacomo
    June 3, 2014

    i have no words to describe my feelings.. Only one I can explain is admiration. I have done my school work about you and your task, keep on 😉

  31. Kyle Crawford
    June 5, 2014

    As this year’s summer vacation begins for the majority, you are still walking and it is quite amazing. I find myself in Michoacán, in my last year as a medical student. Hello, Mr. Salopek, I have followed you in your career since I started college at Cal almost 8 years ago, until I was inspired to leave to learn Arabic and moved to Ramallah to study at Birzeit. I emailed you several years ago, after some tribune stories. I found it incredible to see you were answering comments on your blog. So I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you, here, on this site. Keep writing. And I will see you in Mexico? Or Colombia, it is a two year medical program with the FARC they told me last time I was there. Take care!

  32. Sabine
    June 6, 2014

    Magnificent! Thank you for this experience.

  33. RA
    June 29, 2014

    We should remember that there were many times in history when Jerusalem, and Palestine in general, was at peace. This was especially true during the Islamic empire when Jews, Christians and Muslims thrived together. What has caused strife in the region is not the religion, rather the politicization of it. The dehumanization of one segment of the population created the hate. My father is a Jerusalamite and described several stories of how each culture and religion was respected and celebrated; families visiting another family during their special occasions – before 1948. The Israeli government is practicing a racist politic, not judaism.

  34. Antonio Juarez
    July 3, 2014

    Dear Paul. If you ever come to Mexico you already will have friends here. I have read your words avidly, and saw far away places ( and yet familiar) through your words. My ancestors arrived here 10,000 years ago and we are still trailing on. My little son Joaquin knows about your camels, your guides and your mishaps as I read to him your wanderings. I find it amaizingly poetic, as they resemble the steps that brought us here, to the center of American Continent on the first place. By way of stardust I am Mexican, but the Human Journey has make me aware that we part of this long path, from Ethiopia to Tehuacán, my hometown and farther south. May your steps be guarded by all the good wishes and care that people whom reads you and follow your path (like myself and my son)and whom see through your words. We care about your steps as if we were already old friends. Buen camino de parte mía y del pequeño Joaquin ( 5 years old, but already acquainted with your writing and words). See you around, when you walk past my hometown a few years from now.

  35. Martin Perlmutter
    July 3, 2014

    I love your voice, your openness. Thank you for being our eyes and heart as you walk the talk and talk the walk. Awesome journey, and you are not alone. Go well

  36. Olga Ruiz Mingo
    September 7, 2014


    I Am a girl of Madrid that I read the National Geographic and I remained amazed with your trip of seven years for the land.

    I like to travel very much, and though just now it could not do it, adore any type of traveler determined to live out of the small carton of the system that we all are.

    The photos of the trip are very good, and I suppose that the experience of the persons that one is finding they extract you still mas of the carton.

    I am glad much that someone dares, to going out, though only some are few ones, two or three, I believe that this saves to the rest, or at least to me.

    GOOD TRIP. Olga.

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