Tracing Abraham's path to Mideast peace
High-tech gadget in hand, a man trudges down from a rural hilltop with the information he was seeking about a journey that took place some 4,000 years ago.Skip to next paragraph
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The means are modern: Using a tiny global-positioning device to measure their location via satellite and a map superimposed on topographical images provided by Google Earth, Daniel Adamson and Mahmoud Twaissi are tracking the route that Abraham might have trod.
The ends, however, are as ancient as can be. The two researchers – one British, one Jordanian – are tracing the footsteps of the ancestral patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the hope that people today will rediscover the common roots of many generations past – and inspire coexistence and understanding in the present.
This is the making of the Abraham Path, a route that will start in Harran, Turkey – the place where many sources suggest Abraham heard "the call" from God – and will continue into Syria, down through Jordan, across the river into the West Bank, winding through both Israeli and Palestinian territory before ending in Hebron, or Al Khalil, described in the Book of Genesis as Abraham's burial place.
Eventually, the route would go to Egypt, where Abraham was also a sojourner. In the much longer term, the founders hope to have the path go into Iraq – Abraham's birthplace was Ur – and possibly to Mecca, the home of the kabbah, the holiest site in Islam, which Muslims believe Abraham helped to build.
To its initiators, the dream of building the path presents an endless array of possibilities: for religious pilgrimages, for developing the region's underrealized tourism potential, and, most important, for breaking down barriers of fear and misunderstanding between East and West. To skeptics, however, it sounds like an idealistic peace plan that doesn't easily fit into the landscape of a volatile Middle East, where even different sects find themselves embroiled in conflict.
But the project, conceptualized and studied for several years under the auspices of the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard University, doesn't intend to ignore or overcome the political realities of the Middle East. Rather, it seeks to increase contact between average people, on a point of reference to which followers of all three major monotheistic religions can relate.
"We're not creating this path. This path already exits. In some ways, we're just dusting off the path so you can see the footsteps," says Harvard's William Ury, a world-renowned expert on conflict negotiation and a co-author of the bestseller, "Getting to Yes." The concept of the project dawned on Professor Ury after decades of working to bring warring sides together, from the Middle East to Northern Ireland.
"I've worked in the Middle East on and off since the late 1970s, and it seemed that among those of us who were looking for political solutions tended to kind of steer away from religion," Ury says in a phone interview from his office in Boston. The feeling he says, was "Don't go to close too religious issues – because that's too regressive, it's too hot."
"The Oslo process [to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] failed in part because of that. The question came to me, 'What if you actually welcomed in the constructive role of religion, the ancient beliefs and ancient texts?'
"It occurred to me that Abraham was the single most underutilized resource in the Middle East. He represents faith, hospitality, kindness towards others. So the question was, could one somehow evoke the ancient stories to be a catalyst for coexistence, as well as understanding and even an economic source for growth."
Last November, after three years of research and gathering supporters from different faiths, Ury and people from 10 countries set out on a 12-day study tour through all of the countries through which the path would initially run. The goal was to test the feasibility of the path and to seek support from many realms: tourism ministry officials, economic and religious leaders, and nongovernmental organizations.
They found an enthusiastic response almost everywhere, even in the places where it might be a hard sell, such as in Syria and Israel.
Just in mentioning those countries, the potential obstacles in the path spring up almost immediately.
Is a Syrian government about to give out visas to Israelis? Would the average American or European feel safe traveling there? Will Israel give out visas to Muslims from around the region to walk through the part of the path that will wind into its territory?
"We have to go slowly," Ury acknowledges. Parts of the path could takes years to establish, and its founders say that they don't plan to play Pollyannas about some of the harsh realities on the ground.