A trip to Palestine

By Erika & Roger Salmon

Erika Salmon
Erika Salmon

It was just days after the cease fire between Israel and Gaza war last November that we flew into Ben Gurion. Jerusalem and Bethlehem, normally crowded at this time of year, were empty.  Since we had last visited Palestine in 2008 on a politically focused bus tour, Erika had been eager to get her “feet on the ground” and get some feel for the reality of life in this conflict ridden country. We were a little group of four with a great guide, Daniel.

The countryside is beautiful and when walking through the wadis (giant rocky red desert valleys that have occasional flash floods), one is continually aware of the history of this land: ruins here and abandoned buildings there, ancient terraces for agriculture (often abandoned or under-used), ancient beautiful olive trees, place names familiar from bible studies.  Walking along, it was easy to imagine how over many centuries herders have driven their goats and sheep just as they are still doing now.

Daniel (a British historian currently living in Bethlehem and former employee of the Abraham Path Initiative) who would describe with great enthusiasm how this village or that mosque had been under the control of successive rulers from Rome and Greece through Ottomans and Islam (and had been successively a church, a mosque, a synagogue and then a church again).

Political realities

We were inevitably faced with the political reality of the occupation and of suppression.  The Wall can be seen from almost everywhere, dividing the land.  The Wall and the associated travel restrictions on Palestinians isolate them from Israelis except for their one-sided contact with the army and the settlers.  They also isolate the Israelis.  There is minimal personal contact, no getting to know each other. Each community demonises the other. At turn-offs from the main roads, which go past Palestinian villages, you see government signs warning Israelis that it is dangerous to enter.   Where Palestinians are allowed to drive on these main roads (often they are restricted to old country roads and farm tracks), you see them having to show papers at the frequent check points. Palestinians need permission to travel outside the West Bank and (except for the few who live there) are not allowed to visit Jerusalem. Palestinian land is regularly taken for settler use.  The Israelis control all water supplies, drill wells for the settler farms, prohibit drilling by the Palestinians and, as we learned whilst we were there, often do not allow the Palestinians even to repair their old water pipes and aqueducts. The situation is not helped by statements from Hamas that their aim remains to drive Israel from the land, “inch by inch”, thus encouraging Israeli illegal annexations.

Hospitality abounds

If only more people would walk and meet each other walking!  When walking in Palestine you frequently meet an individual or a small group of Bedouin or Palestinian farmers. You are invariably invited to share a cup of tea and often freshly baked bread: hospitality and smiles and common humanity. We ate most evenings with local families and thus not only got a gourmet trip but also a real experience of how Palestinians live and raise their children in difficult circumstances.

The food was superb!  Of all the wonderful meals we want to mention one in a Bedouin community.  After an idyllic walk through a wadi ending by a beautiful spring, we got to the village where the mother of our local guide had prepared a huge meal for us.  It was chicken on unleavened bread, the bread had been baked freshly on stones in the outdoor oven and had soaked up the juices of the meat and with them the glorious seasoning. Erika’s mouth still waters thinking about it.  With it were local fresh vegetables (this was in the fertile Jordan Valley).  Much later we learned that the guide had forgotten to tell his mother about our arrival until the afternoon!  All the women of the community must have helped with the baking of bread and the cutting of vegetables.

We ate this meal sitting outside, with relations coming and going and joining in the conversation.  Many men speak enough English to converse.  We saw the women working away in the background and only the oldest generation joined us by sitting down with us.

Family life

Happy children were everywhere. Everywhere we went, the children were loved, played with, danced with and had a lot of adult interaction (as well as a developed system of slightly older children caring for slightly younger ones).  However, we saw no toys. By contrast TV was everywhere, even in a very basic Bedouin tent deep in the desert (powered by solar panels) where water had to be brought in by small tankers.

In the villages most Muslim families have arranged marriages, intermarry and live together in wider-family communities.  You can easily imagine both the positive cooperation and the deep stresses and strains this creates.  Erika cannot imagine living this way as a woman.  Even in liberal families the husband dominates and has the final say over what his wife does.  In more urban environments the young girls may not want to follow these rules anymore, and we met several parents of teenagers who do not expect to dictate their children’s marriage partners.  We were impressed by the sophistication, the good English and the high aims of many young women and teenagers with whom we spoke.  Palestinians value education above everything.  It is a way “out” for their children and many have sons and daughters who, awarded scholarships, now study abroad.

We were also with Christian families who are now very much in the minority (they have smaller families and more of them emigrate) and struggle to continue their way of life.  Another day, in a refugee camp, we sat with an 81-year-old man who had left his village in 1948 with his young wife and baby and a herd of 150 goats. He then spent 7 years in a tent and is still in the camp where stone buildings now give it a feeling of permanence.

One woman’s day

Finally we spent three days with our dear young friend in her community (many of them family, including the local mayor) who could not have received us with greater welcome.  Living with her in her village amongst her large and nuclear family (she now has five children), was a powerful experience.  She works so hard.  Up during the night with the baby.  Up at 5:30 to prepare the main meal and breakfast.  The children up and off to school at 7:30, she and her husband off to work at the same time, having dropped off the baby plus food etc with a local widow who cares for him.

Back from school, the family eats the main meal about 2:00 and then they might have a brief nap. Chores and work take up the afternoon and in the evening there is likely to be a large gathering in the big sitting room with the men playing cards (a form of rummy which Roger was delighted to be invited to join in) and the women chatting.  Our friend will continue to be busy preparing tea and coffee and offering sweets whilst encouraging the children to do homework and running the household.  And she is only 32 years old!

Our friend and her husband took time off work whilst we visited and a highlight was a trip into Hebron to visit the Mosque at the tomb of Abraham.  It was a treat for them as well, as they would normally not expose themselves to harassment from settlers and soldiers; however they felt safe in the company of foreigners.  To think about this situation makes us both angry and sad.

We will not attempt describe the spectacular monuments and souks we saw. You can get that better in guide books. But there was much to digest, much to think about.

We are grateful and happy that we were able to go, that the weather held and that Daniel was such a great guide who had tailor-made the trip with care and led us with expertise.

Our wish is that more people go and walk in Palestine, meet the people and let them know that they have not been forgotten.

From Harran to Urfa

By Jeanne Coker

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Our journey on Abraham’s Path (AP) took us to the very start of the four thousand year old story of the prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) – to his (contested) birth place in Sanliurfa, Turkey, and to Harran, where he is recorded as receiving the call from God to set out on his wanderings Our journey took us through remote rural villages some of which were opening their doors for the first time to international travellers.


Our starting point was the Kurdish village of Yuvacali where Alison Tanik (originally from Burton -on-Trent and now an Abraham’s Path representative) lives with her husband and two young children. Here she has set up a local tourism business to encourage visitors to her adopted homeland and supported the establishment by the local community of a 105-mile (170km) walking route in South Eastern Anatolia.

The village has been settled since the dawn of civilization. Sumerian cuneiform tablets have been found in the mound, created by humans and dominating the village. Its more recent settlement is by Jews, Armenians and Kurds. Remains from 9 000 BC have been uncovered in the neighbouring village of Nevali Cori. The fields are literally littered with materials from earlier civilisations – outlines of the buildings, pieces of pottery, Roman roof tiles, very early cutting implements, etc. A piece of a (small) Roman column is used to roll the earth on a flat roof.

The once-abundant river water supply has shrunk due to the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates and the implementation of the South-Eastern Anatolian Project known as GAP, a multi billion dollar project of Turkey. Instead, households have piped water but water for irrigation is some 100m below the surface.The Turkish government has made recent improvements in the area so we found piped water and sewage systems, although toilet and washing facilities are still simple. Sleeping on the floor on mattresses was very comfortable. We sat on the carpeted floor for our meals.

School starts aged seven, but if you have not registered the birth until your child is two years old then your child starts school at nine! There is a primary school in the village – one class where younger children are taught in the morning and older ones in the afternoon. All education is in Turkish so these Kurdish speakers start with a disadvantage. There is no concession to dual language teaching. Adult literacy and Turkish speakers are both about 50%. Kurdish speakers are disadvantaged as, for example, they cannot speak to a doctor or the police. The pre-school from the age of four was opened in 2009 and equipped by visitors on Nomad tours and now supported by travellers on Abraham’s path.

Average life expectancy is 70 in Istanbul but here it is 58. The last generation had up to twenty children. This generation is now seven. Infant mortality runs at 20% – 30%. The village is home to four extended families and 80% marry cousins. One of the prevalent outcomes is gestational diabetes (large babies).

Most people are self-sufficient in many foodstuffs but average income is less than a dollar a day which is well below the poverty line. Home-stays, which are well established here, make a huge difference to the participating families – eight households are involved in the project. Due to the income from travellers home-stays now have immersion boilers which was a pleasant surprise!

Typical jobs created are:

  • Drivers – pick up from the airport, luggage carrying service
  • Providers of breakfast, dinner and packed lunches
  • Households for home stay – 2 involved for a maximum of 12 guests.
  • Escorts – a local person walks with the group each day but is not, by Turkish law, a guide as such. Our escort, Orhan, accompanied us and was invaluable – talking to local people en route who allowed us to use their toilet and offered us the invariable glass of tea.

In the household where we stayed both parents are illiterate. Life has been transformed for their children. Faruk is at university, Fartih is developing the tourism business and Aylin is at boarding school. The role of women has also been changed. Pero (the mother of the household) is very confident interacting with her guests. She encouraged us women to help her make the unleavened bread. We were not very good at it – it needs a lot of strength!

Our wandering starts

We were driven to Harran where Abraham lived (about 2,000 BC) before answering God’s call to go to Canaan – “When Abraham was 75 years old he set out from Harran”, Genesis 12 v.4. Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, also lived in Harran: “Jacob left Beersheba and went to Harran”, Genesis 28 v.10. Jacob’s sons (except Benjamin) were born in Harran. It was a caravan city at this time – a nomadic time. Jacob’s well is being turned into a tourist attraction. Islam’s first university was built here during the 8th Century and many important scholars of natural science, astronomy, and medicine originate from Harran; they were non-Arab and non-Islamic ethnic Assyrians.

From there, like Abraham, our walk started.

Walking to Bazda

Having sampled the sights of Harran we set off on our 20km walk to Bazda. For most of the journey we see the structure and product of the GAP project. Green fields which once were desert (the crops look very healthy to my urban eye!); water troughs alongside the road; flexible irrigation pipes with sprinklers that farmers move from field to field – and one huge artificial channel not yet filled with water.

We sit under trees in Koyunluca where local women come to “talk” to us. Sign language leads to an invitation to sit on chairs on the veranda of a local home and drink tea. The women are all wearing beautiful traditional dress. One – a newly wed – has a stunning outfit but does not want to be photographed. She has come to live with her husband’s family and is still rather shy. This is quite a prosperous home with a tiled toilet attached to the house. Nearby is some sparkling new farm machinery and I observe someone using the road grader on the back of a tractor to flatten the approach to his house. These people seem to have benefited rapidly from GAP. We are told farms are becoming larger: families are losing their smallholding and work for the larger landowners.

The desert hills appear as we approach Bazda. On arrival we are surprised to see a village shop. We sit at a table and sample the ice cream!

Here are fantastic caves where rock has been hewn for the buildings in Harran. Overnight we stay with a local Arabic family – Arab communities now dominate. We are privileged to be their first home-stay guest.

On to Suayb

Well fed and rested, we set off next day for the 18km stretch to Suayb and the shrine of Jethro (father-in-law to Moses). The scenery is rocky desert with occasional green fields, lots of sheep and occasional cows. Families club together to pay a shepherd for the year. Mid morning we pass through Goktas and the remains of Han el Ba’rur caravanserai, built in 1128 to accommodate passing traders and their animals. This is a well-marked historic site so people, used to visitors, demonstrate washing and pounding their grain. Children follow us around the site and I notice one with very blue eyes – evidence of the mix of people who have passed through this place.

Arriving in Suayb we are met by some young people who took us to our home-stay where people are also hosting visitors for the first time and make us very welcome. After resting our weary feet for a short time the children take us to explore their historic site – a hill that hides a whole underground village stretching from hillside to hillside. The children demonstrate this by disappearing underground and then popping up all over the place. One area is still used as a place of worship. We visit Jethro’s shrine where there are wall drawings.

 A night in Sogmator

Another 18km to travel to the isolated village of Sogmator, where once sun worship was the order of the day. We are now firmly in rocky desert. There are a few irrigated fields. I see where the irrigation pipes go under the road and there are women moving the flexible hoses in the field. This appears to be the furthest reach of GAP. It is a lovely day and I am intent on making the most of this wonderful scenery. There are desert flowers in abundance and I note sixteen different flowers (but cannot name any of them!). The village was important in the cult of Sin. Hilltop temples to various planets litter the landscape. A cave with moon god statues is in the centre of the village. There is script carved into some of the rocks on the top of the hillsides. Coptic? Syriac?

To rest in Sanluirfa

On our final day we make an early start to reach Gobekli Tepe by bus before the main tourists arrive. It is a temple dating from 9,500BC, discovered in 1994 and still being excavated. The discovery of this temple has altered the way archaeologists and anthropologists think of the development of civilisation. It was thought that places of worship were built after people became agriculturalists but there is no evidence of agriculture around the temple site.

And so finally we are taken into to the city centre of nearby Sanliurfa (or Urfa) to visit the birthplace of Abraham and the sacred fishponds. It is strange to be back in the traffic and in a town once again.

But for all that GAP has brought almost instant wealth to some and that Goblekli Tepe will soon have one of a worldwide chain of hotels built nearby, the area is still very conservative. Long trousers were the order of the day for walking and long skirts for the women inside the house. Women are not allowed out of the house on their own and family ties are strong.

And so, far from the Mediterranean resorts which for so many characterise a holiday in Turkey, our visit has taken us to a world apart, and a culture still embedded in a time traceable to man’s earliest settlements.