Echoes of an ancient land along Turkey's Abraham Path

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Abraham Path Turkey
A modern re-creation of Prophet Abraham’s journey, the 170km trekking route across southeast Anatolia is part of an ambitious vision to unite the Middle East.

Scraps of material had been tied to the winter-bare branches of the lone mulberry tree, which sprouted antenna-like out of the hilltop. In rural Turkey people still visit “wishing trees” to tie fabric tokens onto branches, left as ziyaret (pilgrimage) offerings for the visitor's dreams to come true. Just below the tree, the excavated pits of Göbeklı Tepe sliced into the hillside revealing T-shaped pillars adorned with stylised animal and human figures. Archaeologists have dated this site back to approximately 9,000 BC. It is the oldest known place of worship in the world.

Following my small walking group, I strode across the hilltop, away from this ancient site of pilgrimage and across the stone-pitted flank of the hill. The undulating landscape of rock-flecked, stark plateau rolled out in waves to the horizon. Above, a curtain of glowering cloud was fat with the possibility of rain. We were walking on the recently created Abraham Path, Turkey's newest trekking route and the northernmost section of an ambitious vision begun in 2008 to create a long-distance trail through the Middle East based on the journey of the Prophet Abraham.

This corner of southeast Turkey is coated under matryoshka doll-like layers of history, myth and folklore. Fifteen kilometres west of Göbeklı Tepe – and a dizzying leap of several thousand years after the temple's constructors raised their mammoth pillars in worship – the Prophet Abraham is said to have begun his long journey from the Biblical town of Ur, now the modern city of Şanlıurfa. This to some believers (the title for Ur is also contended by the Tell al-Muqayyar ruins in Iraq) is the place where the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all marched their way into being

The Abraham Path may have been conceived as a modern re-creation of one prophet's journey, but it can also be seen as a pilgrimage into the earliest glimmers of civilisation. "This is the place where agriculture probably began, where all our languages probably began," said William Ury, co-founder of the Abraham Path. "So we're in a place as ancient as we know it." Southeast Turkey makes up the northwest region of ancient Mesopotamia, where some of the most intriguing evidence of mankind's earliest experiments in settlement has been discovered. The landscape here is literally alive with the handprint of humanity

Most keen trekkers would think a walking trail endeavouring to thread its way through the Middle East to be a wackily beautiful but entirely unworkable idea. Progress on the Syrian section ground to a halt in 2011 because of the continuing civil war, but in nations where there are also cultural and political sensitivities, such as the Palestinian West Bank, the path is up and running with a 182km trail between the towns of Nablus and Hebron, where believers maintain that Abraham is buried in the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Jordan has 58km of trail so far, and Turkey's 170km path has been operating since the start of 2012. By mid 2013, the organisation is hoping a 50km extension through the Negev Region in Israel and the Palestinian Territories will be ready for trekkers.

"What the path offers," Ury said, "is an opportunity for people from around the world to remember the common history of humanity." In a region that often makes headline news for all the wrong reasons, the Abraham Path reminds visitors that this was the place where people first grouped together and formed the bonds of settlement.

At the close of the day, the sky finally unloaded the promised downpour as we walked into the village of Yuvacalı, where homestay accommodation provides trekkers with a bridge between the mammoth history and modernity of southeast Anatolia. Hilal and Pero Silva swung open their front door and ushered us into their house as chickens ran helter-skelter around the yard in a protesting flurry at the rain. I sipped steaming Turkish tea from a tiny tulip-shaped glass as I dried off in front of the fire.

Later, after a feast of home cooking, Pero showed us old dog-eared photographs of the family while some of the group attempted to teach their daughter Aylın a clapping game. Despite language barriers, Aylın was soon teaching us her own game to much laughter and cries of unfair advantage. Like children everywhere, she had made the rules purposely impenetrable in order to stack the odds of winning in her favour.

That night, cocooned under a heavyweight quilt in the Silva’s living room I thought again about Göbeklı Tepe's wishing tree. How, despite the fact that the archaeological site was only discovered in 1994, local villagers had for years cast their heads upwards and hiked up there to pray for their wishes to come true. Somehow, through a game of Chinese whispers, an echo of that place's importance had been passed down unbroken across the centuries. I thought about the Abraham Path and how today's new trekking trail could also be seen as an echo.  

"This path has been here for 4,000 years," Ury said. "All we're doing is dusting off a few footprints to shine a light on it."

The Turkish Abraham Path is a 10-day, 170km route beginning in the village of Yuvacalı (a 60km drive from Şanlıurfa) and ending in the town of Harran. Shorter walking itineraries along the trail can be arranged if you are pressed for time.

Walking the path costs from 45 euros per person per day, including homestay accommodation, meals and a local walking guide. To book, visit abrahamspathturkey.org.