Leon McCarron - The Land Beyond

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Posted 8th August 2019

The Land Beyond : A Thousand Miles on Foot through the Heart of the Middle East

By Leon McCarron

Leon will be with us for a talk based on his fascintating journey on Wednesday 4 September.

There are many reasons why it might seem dangerous to walk, mostly alone, through the heart of the Middle East, that, in part, is exactly why I did it.

In 2012 I walked across the largest sand desert on Earth – the Empty Quarter on the Arabian Peninsula - and in 2014 I explored some of the Persian world, following Iran's longest river from source to sea. Both were very different experiences, but the region as a whole – let's call it the Middle East - was captivating: it was chaotic and frenzied in the cities, and wild and rugged in the countryside. Above all, I found it to be safe and friendly; a far-cry from the dangerous place that I'd read about in the tabloids. This disparity encouraged me to see more, so I set off to walk 1000 miles from Jerusalem to Mount Sinai with the intention of next exploring the 'Holy Land', immersively, and with the intention of focusing on people rather than politics.

I left Jerusalem on a dull, grey December day. My first few steps took me through the Old City – an area of less than one square mile that plays host to the some of the holiest sites in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Within a few hours, however, the narrow cobbled streets and the history, complexity and contemporary political tensions of this religious hub were left behind as the desert hills of the West Bank took over. With me was Dave Cornthwaite, a friend from England, and together, step by step, we felt the landscape morph and change beneath our feet – first a sea of rolling brown crests and valleys followed by a slow and organic transition to a blanket of crumpled green, and finally an artist's array of pastel colours as we reached the fertile sloping banks of the Jordan valley. We edged along the side of Wadi Qelt; a narrow canyon from Jerusalem to Jericho, and could feel the palpable layers of history, culture and faith that fall upon the land here. This gorge is rumoured to be the 'Valley of the Shadow of Death' referenced in the Bible (and Pulp Fiction) and at its far end Jericho, which claims to be the oldest city in the world at 10,000 years, is home to the Mount of Temptation where Jesus is said to have resisted the devil.

While the names were familiar, everything else was a pleasantly surprise. Hours of each day would be spent with local Palestinians in the towns and villages along our way. They'd shout greetings out the window of passing cars, or invite us in to their homes and work. Matriarchs in colourful headscarves would feed us big plates of makluba – a deliciously-flavoured mix of rice and chicken, cooked in a pot and served by upending it like a sandcastle – and as we ate they'd instruct us: “Eat more, this is the best food in the world. Have another bit of chicken – what would your mothers say if they knew you were so skinny?" Hospitality is an innate part of the culture all across the Middle East, and a common manifestation of this is the sharing of sweet, sugary black tea, usually cooked over a fire on a hillside by a Bedouin resting on his haunches stoking the ashes; ritual tea drinking became as much a part of our route as sleeping and walking.

We crossed the controversial Separation Barrier out of the West Bank into Israel, and suddenly were surrounded by the chatter of Hebrew rather than Arabic; synagogues instead of mosques. The Israeli/Palestinian is one of the greatest struggles of our time; both in a geopolitical sense, but also in a humanitarian one. It felt important that, even if it were relatively brief, the journey that Dave and I made should take in some of life on both sides of the barrier, so to speak.

Unfortunately for Dave much of his time in Israel - and as we subsequently crossed the border into Jordan - was spent nursing a sharp pain in his left foot. I used all of my medical nous to diagnose him as a wimp. Sadly, however, I have no medical nous, and Dave (after receiving a real diagnosis from a qualified doctor) was suffering from a stress fracture. His journey was over, and I would continue along for the remaining 800 miles.

Nervous of what lay ahead, I plodded tentatively out of the Jordanian town of Um Qais. The town is a remarkable reminder of the eastern frontier of the Roman empire, where ancient beige columns combine with the black-rock ruins of an Ottoman village and the nearby international borders – Israel, the Golan Heights and Syria -to provide poignant insight into the strata of a land that has seen so many cultures and rulers rise and fall over the epochs. Despite the complex circumstances of many of its neighbours, Jordan is a safe haven in the Middle East, and it was with this comforting thought that I walked south: straight into a tremendous rainstorm which flooded much of the northern mountains.
It might be strange to think of rain and greenery here, but much of northern Jordan looks more like Mediterranean Italy than the deserts one might imagine. I stayed in the hills as much as I could, and slowly the world around me changed from green into brown. There were three great gorges (or wadis, as they're called here) to cross in the central region, each of which required descending 800 metres to the valley floor before climbing straight back up again. By the time I reached the Ottoman-era village of Dana, clinging precariously to a cliff-side, the landscape was positively epic. All around great mountains reached for the sky, and I wandered on trails through narrow slot canyons in-between. One of these paths led me to Petra, the ancient capital of the Nabataean kingdom, and one of the most famous sites in the Middle East (perhaps as much because it was featured in an Indiana Jones film as anything else.) It is characterized by geometrically perfect rock-cut architecture, with great facades carved out of stone; an entire city created by burrowing into the mountains.

Beyond that lay Wadi Rum, where a shepherd told me: “Here there is simply sand, God and the Bedouin." One hundred years ago T.E Lawrence – better known as Lawrence of Arabia – based himself here as he tried to co-ordinate an Arab revolt, and he called it 'vast, echoing and Godlike.' It is no surprise that most descriptions of it reference a deity – it is at once beautiful and intimidating, and radiates an ethereal quality unlike anywhere else that I've been.

By the time I reached the Gulf of Aqaba I was beginning to feel the strain of three months of walking. I chose to walk not just because I love walking, but because it is the best way to truly experience a place; to move slowly and thoroughly, and to give the greatest opportunity for human encounters. It does require, however, energy and enthusiasm. The last part of my journey – across Sinai - was made in the company of Musallem, a local and expert navigator, and Suleiman, a quiet but wise camel-wrangler. Harboush the camel rounded out the team, and Musallem's infectious joy for everything lifted any greyness in my mood. “Life is good!" he'd shout to the wind first thing in the morning. In more hushed tones he'd confide that he thought, “it's not difficult to be happy. We just need to be good to each other, and take care of the place where we live. If we do that, everything is nice and lovely."

The landscapes in Sinai were rugged and wild beyond anything I'd ever seen; vast swathes of barren, sandy desert, punctuated abruptly by sharp and vicious black rock that grew into huge, gothic-shaped mountains. There is a strangely magnetic beauty to such harsh environments.
We finished together on top of Mount Sinai – the supposed site of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. 1000 miles had passed beneath my feet and with them I had seen the land grow, shrink and change colour and consistency; I had been part of hundreds of conversations, and shaken thousands of hands. Near the city of Kerak in Jordan, a man invited me to spend the night in his house. When I accepted he said, “Great! Now, you must be tired from so much walking. Please allow us to wash your feet." I was fed and looked after by strangers rich and poor; Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Samaritan (perhaps the smallest and oldest ethno-religious group in the world); Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian. A better way to think about it, of course, is to remove the complicated titles – I found the kindness of those that I met was not impacted upon by their nationalities or religions. People are people, and I returned home humbled and overwhelmed by the genuine generosity and care that I found.

These are special lands. They are a great place to hike – I can happily report that I found them to be safe as well as beautiful – and the combination of this and the exceptional people makes it a wonderful, life-affirming place to travel. I may not have had a spiritual epiphany atop Mount Sinai, but this revelation was more than enough.