“I started walking these hills when I was seven, collecting wild honey with my father,” says Habib, our guide. We’re in the northern West Bank, sitting on high ground. From east to west he points out the outcrops of Jordan, the banks of the Dead Sea, an Israeli settlement, two Palestinian villages, ranks of pale hills, the city of Ramallah and, hazed to nothing in the distance, Jerusalem. On various levels, it’s a lot to take in. “I still love to walk. It’s in my head, in my heart. If I have a problem, a big thing to think about, I come here and walk.”
In the Middle East, there’s a ready provision of big things to think about. It’s one of the reasons why the Abraham Path – a long-distance hiking trail which, once complete, will stitch a route across almost the entire region, through Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel – is such a singular project. It currently comprises more than 280 miles of mapped hiking trails, with more stretches continuing to be added each year.
The route is based on the “cultural memory” of Abraham himself – a significant figure in each of Islam, Judaism and Christianity – and loosely traces the on-foot journey he made some 4,000 years ago. The overarching idea is for the path to build a connection between Middle East communities and visitors from across the world.
Key to the whole initiative is the regional gift for hospitality, which sees travellers being accosted by sweet mint tea one hour and waylaid by syrup-thick cardamom coffee the next. Combined with the area’s onerous political algebra and the hushed, physical pull of the landscape, it makes it far more than just another trail.
In the village of Al-Mughayir, there’s a disturbance going on. Our group is walking a three-day, 32-mile section of the path through the West Bank, winding along stony hillside tracks and wheatfields from the northern city of Nablus down to the outskirts of Jericho. It’s our second day, and after a morning spent climbing through sheep-roamed olive groves we reach the village as the day’s heat takes hold. But we haven’t banked on coinciding with school breaktime.
Spying the walkers, children begin charging at the playground fence, bawling at us. Ten of them, twenty of them – suddenly more than a hundred. Their faces are urgent, their voices a frenzy of hoots. Through it all, it’s possible to pick out the individual shouts. “How are you? Hellooo!” “What’s your name?” “Welcome to Palestine!”
Travel in the West Bank dismantles some lazy preconceptions. In the cities, the souks are astir and a-chatter with barrows and shisha cafes. On the street and on the trail, people approach regularly, eager to make a connection, curious, amused. But a trip here hammers home some complex, uneasy truths too – the reality of the political situation hardly makes for a side-detail.
So it’s all the more significant that hiking this stretch of the path doesn’t feel unnatural, or indeed unsafe. The landscape has a tough, stirring hardiness that conceals up-close gifts: mistletoe, wagtails, gauzy green dragonflies and tiny pink cyclamen. And the walking is often dramatic, particularly in the plummeting canyons of Wadi Auja, where the only sounds are of birdsong and the rattle of footstep on loose rock.
We sleep in homestays, busy family houses in which both the food and the welcome are unswervingly generous. I learn that lamb-filled flatbreads and pomegranate juice make for good hiking fuel, and that the valleys glow like gold at first light. There are surprises too, not least in the Christian town of Taybeh – pre-trip, I hadn’t envisaged myself ordering locally brewed beer from a nun. Different walks can be memorable for different reasons: here in the West Bank, rarely have I felt treated so much like a guest.
It’s an unforgettable hike, by turns spirit-lifting and sobering. Habib provides an all-seeing eye throughout. Here the smoke from a Bedouin camp, there an Israeli military base. Here a porcupine print in the earth, there a sacred mountain. And this sense of immersion is what makes the Abraham Path project so utterly extraordinary – it gives travellers here the chance to shape their own perspective.