Glance Back: The Hejaz

Al Wajh, Saudi Arabia, 26°14'2" N, 36°27'45" E

The July issue of National Geographic features a story about the Out of Eden Walk journey through the Hejaz of Saudi Arabia. The article, illustrated by John Stanmeyer, describes the power of memory—and forgetting—in one of the most fabled landscapes in the world. I invite you to re-walk the old hajj trails with me, seeking out hand-dug wells that once sustained caravans, pilgrims and empires gone to dust.

Next week, we resume the foot traverse of the West Bank and Israel.

There are thousands of wells
in the old Hejaz.

We walk to them.

Sometimes their water is sweet. More often it is salt. ...

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Photograph by Paul Salopek

The Judge

Beit Hanina, East Jerusalem, 31°49'55" N, 35°13'44" E

The tribal judge sits in the shade of a shop verandah. The shop is closed. It is a Saturday—a weekend. The judge plays a table game in black and white: Mahbusa the Arabs call it.

“I resolve problems between families,” Fuad Zaghayer explains, sliding a checker forward. “Murders are the worst.”

He is a welcoming man, Zaghayer. Sober, thickset, stately in his gestures. A man used to the theatrics of power. He goes on:

“When someone is murdered, I first go to the victim’s family. I ask them for a three-and-a-half day truce. This is to allow them a period to mourn. It is traditional. After that, I go to them ...

Salopek-WJ1

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.

Such is our plan to cross Jerusalem on foot. The goal: ...

Photograph by Bassam Almohor

Jerusalem

Bethlehem Checkpoint, Israel, 31°46'03" N, 35°13'39" E

The structure can be seen by satellite. It rises 26 feet into the air.

It is made of concrete. Its surface is crusted with graffiti—with signs and curses, with poems and taunts, with cries—with portents. To see its top, while you stand at its foot, you must crane your neck and squint up at the sky. It runs crookedly through the city—perhaps it rolls on forever.

“They put up the wall here in one single day in 2003,” Claire Anastas tells me. She is a lifelong resident of Bethlehem. “The children went to school in the morning, and when they came back they found the house surrounded.”

Anastas refers to the ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

West Bank Hopscotch

Near Jericho, West Bank, 31°51'06" N, 35°26'12" E

Bassam Almohor leads the way into the West Bank.

What is the West Bank?

The West Bank is a shard of a future homeland—the core a possible nation—for the world’s Palestinians. It slopes under the sun, in chalky ridges and tan valleys, like the pleats of a rumpled skirt, down to the muddy currents of the biblical Jordan River. (Hence: the west bank.) It is a small enclave of dusty olive groves and minarets that could fit twice inside the area of the Hawaiian Islands. It is an island itself—walled off, fenced, an Arab atoll occupied since 1967 by the Israeli army. Yet more than 2.5 million people live there. ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

The River Door

King Hussein-Allenby Border Crossing, Jordan, 31°52'43" N 35°32'33" E

I forget the names of towns without rivers.
A town needs a river to forgive the town.
Whatever river, whatever town—it is much the same.
The cruel things I did I took to the river.
I begged the current: make me better.

—“The Towns We Know and Leave Behind, The Rivers We Carry With Us,” by Richard Hugo

Hamoudi holds court with a circle of border taxi drivers. We have reached the last mile of Jordan.

“Forty-five kilometers,” he informs them coolly, holding up an imperial finger. “Forty-five kilometers in a single day.”

We gulp cups of water at a roadside kiosk. We chivvy the pack mules Selwa and Mana’ into the bed of a waiting ...

Screenshot from video of a drone scanning a site in Jordan called Fifa.

Drones: Archaeology’s Newest Tool to Combat Looting

Fifa, Jordan, 31°00'58" N, 35°28'31" E

The scenes are haunting. A video camera strapped to the nose of a drone aircraft first shows only a spinning, sunlit horizon in the barrens of southern Jordan.

Then the camera swoops, low and slow, over a hilltop whose surface recalls photographs of the lunar battlefields of World War I Europe. Crater after crater gouge the hill's stony surface. It looks like the aftermath of a murderous artillery barrage.

But the holes aren't the result of explosions. Each has been dug, laboriously, one spadeful at a time, by an army of looters. The casualty: a historic site called Fifa, containing more than 10,000 Bronze Age tombs stuffed with pottery, carnelian ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Asphalt Prison

Near Swemieh, Dead Sea coast, Jordan 31°41'23" N, 035°34'48" E

“We can’t walk that way.”

“No? What about over there?”

“No.”

“Over there?”

“No. Mushkela”—problem.

My guide Hamoudi Enwaje' al Bedul is offering a lesson in freedom of movement.

We slog north in the vast, dry, white Dead Sea Valley. We walk the shoulder of a busy highway: a road beaded with enormous cargo trucks that tilt under tons of harvested tomatoes. The road: a conveyor belt of tar, built for machines, inhumanly straight, strewn with small, dead birds hit by onrushing windshields.

The bronze dunes of Wadi Araba lie far behind us—their soft sands replaced by hot gravel. Behind us lie the old camel trails that wend through the Transjordan Range, a wall of ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

The Eddy

Ghor al Safi, Jordan, 31°02'22" N, 35°29'16" E

A sodden dusk.

We walk into the small market town soaked, muddied, dizzied by an astonishment: the first rains in a year of trekking. Rain varnishes the town’s cratered pavements. Electric shop signs glint and glitter in the rain. Car taillights spill their cherry hues into puddles. In the drizzle, the street lamps burn like fireballs. A carnival of reflected light. Yet the rain deters no one! The streets are filled with splashing people. We tug our two weary pack mules through damp crowds at intersections. We are seeking lodging—a roof, a room, anything. But what are these townsmen doing outside? Are they celebrating the precipitation? It seems plausible, ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Shards

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 ...