The Wars of Autumn

Southeastern Turkey

The Earth rolls in its silent groove about the sun.

The planet spins. It leans 23 degrees off plumb. The northern hemisphere tilts away from the warm hearth of its star. Grass steppes begin to grow stiff, to yellow. Temperatures drop. Winter deepens the long blue shadows of the barren hills. In one corner of a continent, on an iron plain where civilization was born, a war bleeds into its fourth year. Intelligent animals kill each other en masse. With metal pellets propelled by exploding gases. With flying machines. With swords.

My new walking guide, Murat Yazar, and I retreat from it. We step briskly, aiming north, for the ...

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Photograph by Paul Salopek

“This Is Not a Life”

Refugee camp, Kilis, Turkey, 36°38'50" N, 37°05'03" E

The Syrians pass their days and nights in shipping containers arrayed in rows atop what used to be farm fields on the Turkish border.

It is a model refugee camp, Kilis.

There are schools. A modern supermarket offers government-funded debit cards to the camp residents. A refugee souk bustles with barbershops, teashops, a songbird shop. The living containers are clean and come equipped with televisions. And the pathways between them are paved. Humanitarian experts from many countries have trooped through Kilis. All are stunned, impressed—by the amenities, by the generosity of the Turks.

Yet more than three years after the first group of 252 exhausted refugees straggled across the frontier ...


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Near Mürşitpınar, Turkey, 36°53'41" N, 38°25'21" E

Turkish soldiers cut the border wire after dark. Then refugees spilled into fallow pepper fields. There were thousands of them, on foot, raising dust. People who keep count of such things say more than 100,000 have crossed into Turkey in the past 72 hours: the largest stampede of humanity out of Syria since the war began more than three years ago. They were running for their lives. Syria was just an idea now. It didn’t exist anymore.

A group of refugee women and their children sat against a village school. They hadn’t moved from the hot concrete steps in two days. They didn’t know where to go. ...


I Walk All Day, I Walk All Night

Near Osmaniye, Turkey, 37°05'01" N, 36°17'16" E

The hotel in Yamurtalik caught fire.

A woman’s cosmetics bag, left in the hot laundry room, spontaneously ignited. Amid clanging fire alarms, amid guests standing bleary-eyed on the lawn in their pajamas, Deniz Kilic and I load the cargo mule. We walk away from the smoking building. We head east.

The Anatolian countryside is a flag that ripples in the summer heat: dusty green olive groves, soil dark red as burgundy wine, cornflower blue lakes that stare, unblinking, at seamless sky. The planet rotates slowly beneath our feet. The burning horizons creak up to meet us. We scare grasshoppers from the brittle yellow grasses. Whirlwinds of swallows swoop to feed.

Photograph by Paul Salopek


Tarsus, Turkey, 36°54'59" N, 34°54'12" E

We walk into Tarsus, St. Paul’s hometown. A refurbished stone church here receives pilgrims from Italy: St. Paul’s Church. There is a café that serves Turkish coffee across from a pension: St. Paul Café. There are stone foundations of an old Roman house: St. Paul’s house (maybe). And there is St. Paul’s well. The well mixes Hellenistic, Roman, and even Islamic features. Busloads of faithful come to sip its water. They say it is curative.

“The water comes from the municipal supply,” Hakan Erkul says. “Who can say what miracles faith can cause?”

Erkul is a friendly, thickset, sleepy-eyed man and an apostle himself—the lone tourism booster in Tarsus.

Aside from St. ...


The Hinge

Kirit, Turkey, 37°04'49" N, 34°53'45" E

“How did you find our mule?” I ask Deniz Kilic.

“Taxi driver.”

“You asked a taxi driver where to buy a cargo mule?”

“I have never bought a mule before. I know nothing about mules. Where do you buy a mule? Who knows? So I asked my taxi driver driving me in from the airport. I said to him, ‘Don’t laugh. This is serious. Where do I buy a mule?’”

Kilic is my walking partner in Asia Minor.

We meet in Mersin, a large industrial port in southeastern Turkey. I have just disembarked from a ferry from Cyprus. And Kilic has agreed, based on two emails and one long-distance phone call, to join ...


Ghost City

Famagusta, northern Cyprus, 35°07'03" N, 33°57'30" E

A fenced “Green Line” separates northern and southern Cyprus. It is a barbed-wire scar: a forgotten no-man’s-land, a fossil from an unresolved war that is out of place in today’s Europe. In 1974, Greek nationalists staged a coup in Cyprus. This provided Turkey reason to invade, to protect the ethnic Turkish population. Forty years later, the island remains partitioned. But many Cypriots—Greek and Turkish alike—dream of reunification.

“It will happen,” says Selin Ruha, a Turkish-Cypriot friend who meets me at the border. “We islanders have more in common with each other than with either Greece or Turkey.”

I cross the Green Line on foot.

The south checkpoint: a British military policewoman—yet ...


Treasure Island

Near Kellia, Cyprus, 34°58'29" N, 33°36'46" E

“In the distance are always mountains. And over the whole scene hangs a peculiar light, a glaze of steel and lilac, which sharpens the contours and perspectives, and makes each vagrant goat, each isolated carob tree, stand out from the white earth as though seen through a stereoscope.”

— Robert Byron, “The Road to Oxiana”

The ship docks in Limassol. Sunlight falls like a chrome guillotine. Gleaming. Sharp. Lethal. I stagger into it, walking down the iron gangway toward beaches pink with Russians on holiday, past the frozen coffee drinks sold at every corner shop, atop smooth flat asphalt everywhere (this inescapable feature of affluent societies will raise my first ...



Aboard the MV Alios in the Mediterranean, 33°36'14" N, 34°6'43" E

We had come up over the forested ridge through the old fire burns of Mt. Carmel, over charcoal-peppered soils, thorugh the young new pines. Then down, down, down—ricocheting down ravines that guttered past Druze villages, down through a derelict army firing range, across the rumpled hinterlands where the prophet Elijah had been fed in exile by wild ravens sent by God—or by friendly Arab herders. Biblical scholars disagree.

The journey through Palestine, the Land of Israel, the Cisjordan, Jund Filastin—through Canaan—was coming to an end.

My Israeli walking partner sang.

Yuval Ben-Ami is a public intellectual, a street performer, a writer, a radio personality. He is a tireless walker. My cell ...



Nablus, West Bank, 32°13'15" N, 35°15'15" E

We're cooking: cutting up zucchinis, rolling dough, stirring pots of boiling yoghurt. We are with the women of Bait al Karama. They are teaching us about the flavors of remembrance—about its frailty, its persistence, its loss.

What is Bait al Karama?

It is a cooperative, the “House of Dignity”: dozens of women gather each month in a stone house in Nablus, a trading center founded by the Roman emperor Vespasian around the time of Christ, an ancient town bloodied by the Second Intifada, and famed outside of Arab-Israeli conflict for its olive-oil soap, its baked sweets, its still-vibrant medieval souk. The women teach cooking classes. They are writing a ...