Follow in the Footsteps of Abraham

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Gail Simmons

The heavenly way Spectacular vistas are found en route

Hiking on Abraham's path in the West Bank, a landscape virtually unchanged for 2,000 years, it's easy to forget that this is a region in conflict. The track leads through orchards and olive groves, deep into the deserts of the Jordan Valley, a dusty panorama of bare hills and ruins grazed by camels and goats.

The path (known in Arabic as Masar Ibrahim al-Khalil) is still in development, but when complete will re-create the epic journey of Abraham (Ibrahim) through the Middle East, stretching some 1,200 km from the Mesopotamian city of Harran in southern Turkey to Abraham's tomb in Hebron (al-Khalil). En route it will link such famed sites as the Citadel of Aleppo, the Great Mosque of Damascus, Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Abraham Path Initiative, the organization that facilitates travel along the trail, was founded at Harvard University as a nonpolitical and nonreligious body looking to give visitors to the region a deeper cultural experience.

Only a very few walkers will attempt the path in its entirety; most will tackle one country at a time, aided by maps, waymarks and local guides, with tour operators offering backup services. Managed by local teams, the route now has some sections open in Turkey, Jordan and Israel. But the most developed segment is in Palestine, where it runs from Nablus to Hebron, taking in Jericho, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as well as lesser-known sites such as the Christian town of Taybeh (home to Palestine's only brewery) and the evocative Abrahamic sanctuary of Bani Naim. It's easy to imagine portions of this ancient settlement looking almost the same as they did centuries ago.

Travelers can stay in hotels where available, but a highlight of the trail is lodging in family homes, where food supplied from village gardens brings in valuable additional income to those communities bypassed by mass tourism. In wilderness areas, walkers can stay as guests of Bedouin like 75-year-old Sheik Ali al-Rashaydeh, who enjoys hosting foreigners in his tent in the Jerusalem Desert near the Dead Sea.

In allowing people to experience the West Bank for themselves, the trail imparts insights that go beyond the usual headlines. For al-Rashaydeh, visitors have also brought rejuvenation. "When you are old and living alone, there is no life," he says. "But when you meet people and talk to them, life has meaning again."

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