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.

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."

A test-run meets enthusiastic response

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.

Taking on obstacles slowly

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.

"On the trip, from the point of view of religious, social, and economic relations, we found that the idea had a lot of resonance and despite the difficulties and issues, and we got a green light to really proceed. Now what we're faced with is how to assist, how to inspire the actual building of the path."

In this, the spotlight falls on Jordan. Already a tourist destination, it has long been keen to promote itself to visitors. A majority of those, however, come for just a few days and miss a plethora of sites of Judeo-Christian and Muslim interest – often located at the same site.

Here, for example, people can look out from Mt. Nebo, where the Torah describes Moses as viewing the holy land. Nearby is a pilgrimage site that Muslims have dedicated to the legendary figure Al Khadir and that local Christians revere as a shrine to St. George.

On this drizzling winter's day near the medieval Ajlun Castle, visibility is low. But despite that, the two researchers load up their equipment and hop into the jeep, visiting religious sites that will be included in a guide about the Abraham Path through Jordan. They hope to have the path open to visitors by the spring of 2008, the first leg of a path that will open gradually.

Many of the sites, while holding various levels of importance in the religious narrative of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, are not directly related to the exact places Abraham is believed to have walked. Rather, they touch on the descendants of Abraham and the revered religious figures who are seen as having continued on the path he started.

"We don't feel confined by scripture alone," Adamson says. "Three billion people in the world belong to the family of Abraham, and we're thinking of it like a moving celebration of him."

The project does more than bring people of different faiths together to talk, emphasizes Adamson.

"We're not talking at each other across a table, we're walking together side-by-side."

Host families and a tourism boost

Among the goals of the path is that it will lead visitors through rural areas where they can interact with average people. One facet of the route will be a network of families willing to host visitors in their homes. And with an eye towards housing larger groups of visitors, there are several projects under consideration to build travelers hostels and other lodgings ready to receive guests during the journey.

Indeed, for the path to truly take route, the local initiative needs to be as strong as the international. As such, the drive to open the Abraham Path in Jordan has been winning over many important advocates. One of them is Ammar Khammash, one of Jordan's foremost architects and and ecologists. Khammash says that too much of Jordanian life is focused on crowded urban spaces, and the path will help people reconnect with their roots.

"The Abraham Initiative might be a way to put the landscape back together and to expose people to being landscape literate," he says. "We can be one of the first initiatives to tap into the spirituality of the landscape."

One of the most appealing by-products of the path is that it would encourage tourism to an area of the world with at least 4,000 years of history to offer – experts indicate that Abraham would have lived somewhere in the time of the Middle Bronze Age – but which also suffer from lagging economic growth.

"One thing we like about building this trail is that we're talking about more interaction with the local people," says Ahmad el-Bashiti, the executive director of the Jordan Inbound Tour Operators Association. "This will help us offer more so that visitors will stay for longer periods of time. And for this project to be successful, our members will have to help build some kind of way stations and lodging options along the trail."

Hands-on interfaith initiative

To be sure, the concept of the path does not win everyone over immediately. When the group finished their 12-day study tour in Jerusalem with a presentation for a variety of Israel and Palestinian religious and social leaders, many expressed concern that the path would seek to sweep the area's very real, unsolved problems under the proverbial carpet.

But Dr. Hamid Murad, an Islamic leader in Jordan, he sees it more as a way to approach Middle East reconciliation in a very different light – one that all three faiths find illuminating.

"We go to conferences all the time with Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and then we agree on all kinds of things, but we never feel the results on the ground," says Murad, who's been involved in numerous interfaith efforts.

"It's as if I'm running my car engine, but I never take it out of the garage," he says. "So maybe it's better if I walk with my own feet."

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