Structures built by the Nabateans more than two millennia ago, like this remnant at Mada’in Salih, Saudi Arabia, rival those of ancient Rome and Greece.

Out of Eden Walk: Walking to the Holy Land

National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek has been recreating the journey, on foot, of the first humans. He tells host Marco Werman about his walk, in 2013, through Jordan into the Israeli occupied West Bank, lands that are both ancient and now part of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The World

It was in the ancient city of Petra, in 2013, when National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek said he came upon a crossroad filled with antiquity, fabulous monuments, palaces and grand avenues chiseled into a sandstone canyon far above the rift valley of Jordan. 

After walking for the better part of a year through the desolate deserts of the Horn of Africa and then into the almost equally desert and empty landscape of Saudi Arabia, Salopek said he was welcomed into  Jordan by a Bedouin musician named Qasim Ali.

Man playing an instrument similar to the guitar
Qasim Ali sings the blues, Bedouin style, at Petra, the ancient heart of the Nabatean empire. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk

Ali sang the blues while playing the Rababa, an ancient stringed instrument. Salopek described it as a dramatic setting.

“It kind of became the backdrop music for stepping from nomadism into millennia of settlement, into this highly contested, many-chambered heart that we call the Levant,” he said.

The World’s Marco Werman talked more with Salopek about his journey through Jordan and into the Israeli-occupied West Bank, following in the footsteps of the first humans out of Africa. 

Marco Werman: Your walk through Jordan was a kind of transition from the world of Bedouin herders and nomadic life to a world of farms and villages where early people first put down roots. How did walking it on foot help you appreciate human history?
Paul Salopek: Well, it was kind of almost a schizophrenic reality, Marco. There was kind of walking through every day at three miles an hour out of the empty desert, and suddenly tomato farms started to appear. Irrigation canals … the whole infrastructure of modern-day farming. But at the same time, my project is about deep, deep history and the people I’m following, when they walked through, none of that was there. But something happened when we first migrated out of Africa, through this part of the world. As one archeologist told me, we finally sat down. We stopped moving so much. We settled. We invented agriculture. We started piling rocks on top of each other. We smelted metal. And this era, called the Neolithic, is the one, essentially, that we’re still inhabiting today. A city-based, urban, settled lifestyle. This was one of the corners of the world where it began.
Ghawarna women dye wool using oxide-rich mud. Modaita, the yawning camel is unimpressed.
Ghawarna women dye wool using oxide-rich mud. Modaita, the yawning camel is unimpressed. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org. Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
 
You crossed a border in May of 2014, the Jordan River, and you walked into the West Bank through Israeli army checkpoints. Give us a sense of life in the Palestinian West Bank in 2014.
Back at that time, it was a time of, relatively speaking, calm, right? I mean, there’s always tension in this corner of the world, but there was no open warfare that I saw. But this, this was a foretaste, again, of this extraordinary maze of the Middle East, of the West Bank, which is partitioned, as you probably know, into three different administrative sectors: Israeli, Palestinian, and then mixed administrative control. There were checkpoints everywhere. There were barriers everywhere. For somebody coming from almost a year on foot, out of kind of relatively open horizons, it was dizzying. It was just a bit surreal. I was walking at the time with my Palestinian walking partner Bassam Almohor, and he said, “Paul, this is my life. I have to kind of change personality every time I cross one of these checkpoints.” And he was a walker, Marco. He was one of the founders of a walking club based in Ramallah. His philosophy was “My piece of Earth. This place I call home is so small that walking makes it big. This is how I keep my sanity.”
Bullet on the road to Bethlehem. 
Bullet on the road to Bethlehem. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org. Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
 
Wow. Well, we know that things had been tense and violent in the West Bank before 2014 when you were there. Your journey also took you into the ancient city of Jerusalem. You walk the same paths as the ancient Egyptians, Jews, Greeks, Romans, early Christians and Muslims. How much did that sense of history color your view of the modern state of Israel?
It was inescapable. I mean, there are just so many layers. Again, I deal with historians and archeologists. These are the people that I talk to to advise me on what compass bearing to move on as I pass along these ancient pathways of dispersal out of Africa. Another archeologist based in Jerusalem said, “Paul, Jerusalem was a village, a settlement that was prehistoric.” You know, it started to kind of appear in the consciousness of that inhabited landscape around the Bronze Age. I measured history, recorded history, from the time of that settlement to today, there had been 700 or more wars. But everybody that I met in that highly conflicted, highly contested, very small corner of the world has their own ways of trying to keep life good. And he said, “Paul, I focused not on those 700 wars but on the spaces of peace in between.”
In Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity. 
In Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org. Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
 
So, as you follow the news from the Middle East today, what jogs your memories of walking the Holy Land on foot?
This part of the world was new to me. I never covered it as a journalist, and I’d covered some pretty big episodes of mass violence among humans in Africa. I covered, for example, the Congo Civil War, which was one of the bloodiest and most devastating at the time in the early 2000s. The numbers there are staggering. In Central Africa, almost 5 million people died in that conflict. And so here I am, coming from out of Africa into the Middle East, where it’s tiny, by African standards. And I was astonished at the amount of attention that was focused on it. It was like there was this global stadium built around this quadrant of the world, where the whole world was looking down on these conflicts among villages, among cities, among invisible lines. To be perfectly candid, I was kind of scratching my head. I said, “Why is this corner of the world getting so much attention when the rest of the world has far larger, gaping wounds, in terms of just bloodshed?” If you want to use a metric of human blood. But now, looking back from 13 years later, seeing what’s happening now, I think that was a measure, sort of my naivete, of the fact that I was comparing human suffering to human suffering … which is always a dangerous thing to do. And what we’re seeing now is just how incredibly deep — it may be small, Marco — but how incredibly deep these fissures run.
Yuval Ben-Ami at the Separation Barrier in East Jerusalem. Erected by the Israeli government to thwart terror attacks, it cleaves some Palestinian neighborhoods in half. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.o
Yuval Ben-Ami at the Separation Barrier in East Jerusalem. Erected by the Israeli government to thwart terror attacks, it cleaves some Palestinian neighborhoods in half. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org. Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
 
It struck me when you said you’d been in Africa for that long. You actually started in the Out of Eden Walk. You’ve kind of followed, in a way, the Levantine Corridor that humans left many thousands of years ago into the Middle East. I wonder how, on foot, that changed how you see this tense modern world.
When you walk for very long periods – and I’m talking months and years – across horizons … you kind of enter a mental state where you look at the surface tensions of the world. You look at the cities, the conflicts, the way we’ve treated the planet, the way we’ve subjugated and, in many ways, destroyed nature. And I’m not saying that it makes you fatalistic, but there’s a sense of equanimity that comes with it. A sense of, “God, this is all going to be scraped away.” Everything we say is going to be scraped away during the next glaciation. And all of our monuments, all of our heroes, all of our statues are going to be kind of in the moraines of these glaciers, 12,000 years from now. That doesn’t make me feel fatalistic. It doesn’t make me shrug. It gives me a sense of, sort of, I don’t know, of … patience, if you will, with this troublesome species that we are — both so very good and very bad.

Parts of this interview have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Writer and National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek has embarked on a 24,000-mile storytelling trek across the world called the “Out of Eden Walk.” The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Salopek and the project since 2013. Explore the project here. Follow the journey on X at @PaulSalopek, @outofedenwalk and also at @InsideNatGeo.

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