Having morning coffee with locals in Kesan, Turkey
On 15 June 2018, Day 76 of my pilgrimage, I walked into Turkey from Greece on the Via Egnatia – now a motorway, but originally a 2,000 year-old, 1,100km Roman road. I had loosely been following this ancient thoroughfare for the past month on a walking trail opened in 2014 through Albania, Macedonia and northern Greece. The second section of the Via Egnatia trail from Thessaloniki to Istanbul has yet to be signposted, so I was following my own route informed by the pilgrimages of those who had previously walked this way.
My first night in Turkey was in Ipsala, near the Greek border, where I took a room in a large hotel with few guests but a huge portrait in the lobby of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first President (1923-1938) of the Republic of Turkey. In subsequent days, I fell into a routine of walking about half a day on the motorway and the other half on farmers’ tracks and minor roads to prevent blisters. Turkish motorways must be the most pedestrian-friendly in the world as they have a wide slow lane on both sides for farm vehicles, horses and pilgrims! The local people I met were very friendly and keen to talk-fortunately, with enough English for us to have meaningful conversations.
Leaving Kesan, on my third day, I passed through a very poor area where there were ramshackle houses and few cars, but many horses and carts. It was Sunday morning and the locals were gathering in groups to enjoy their Turkish coffee. When invited to join one group, I had a delightful forty minutes chatting, which confirms the old adage that the poorer people are, the more generous and caring they are. I left with enough food in my backpack for three lunches! On several other occasions, I was invited into local homes to share their food and drinks.
Turkish electioneering with mobile truck & Erdogan supporters
The Turkish election campaign was in full swing at the time. The towns were decked with posters, flags, streamers and photographs of the Presidential candidates. In the evenings, there was usually a campaign rally addressed by one of the main candidates with much singing and flag waving—more like a Festival than an election! While the Western press was predicting that President Erdogan would be forced to a second round of voting, and his party would lose its majority, the Turkish people I talked with thought that Erdogan would win the Presidency and the government— as indeed he did.
After four days’ walking inland in Turkey, I reached the city of Tekirdag on the Sea of Marmara and then followed this coastline for another five days, before arriving in the centre of Istanbul. It was Saturday 24 June, St John the Baptist’s Day and Turkish Election Day. Istanbul is now so large with 18 million people, including 3 million refugees from Syria, that it took me two days to walk through the outskirts and suburbs. At weekends, the population of this great city—the continental boundary between Europe and Asia—often surges to 22 million as many people from outside come to share its many attractions. This was my second visit to Istanbul and I chose to take two rest days to recharge the batteries and revisit the wonderful Hagia Sophia, Church of Holy Wisdom, built in 532-537AD by the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I. Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest building for centuries, the largest Christian cathedral for almost 1,000 years and an engineering masterpiece of its time. In 1453 AD, after many attempts, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople bringing an end to the Christian Byzantine Empire. Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque and remained one until 1931, when under Atatürk’s new secular Republic it was closed, refurbished and reopened as a museum in 1935. The brilliant Byzantine marble floors and some of the original Christian wall mosaics were revealed again for the first time in five centuries.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
Jesus Christ Pantocrator (detail from the dress mosaic in Hagia Sophia)
After three nights, I flew to Israel and caught a mini-bus to the northern port of Haifa. Before starting the final leg of my walk to Jerusalem, I was keen to visit the old Crusader city of Acre (Akko in Hebrew) so I caught a train there. Acre is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, extending back 4,000 years. It played a major role in the Crusades being the main port of entry for the Crusaders coming into Palestine. After centuries of conflict between Muslims and Crusaders, Acre became the defacto capital of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem and headquarters for the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller. These Knights built massive underground halls, refectories, court yards, dungeons and tunnels which I visited following recent restoration works. Today Acre’s old city is predominantly Arabic with many mosques and an impressive souk (market). A plaque in Arabic, Hebrew and English tells of St Francis of Assisi, a great pilgrim, who visited Acre in 1219 on his way to Jerusalem.
Israel National Trail, Day 1
The following day I caught a taxi south towards Haifa and picked up the Israel National Trail (INT), a walking trail established in 1995 that runs the length of the country, over 1,000 km, from Dan near the Lebanese border to Eilat in the south on the Red Sea near the border with Egypt. I planned to walk a section of this trail to Tel Aviv and then inland to Jerusalem, a distance of about 220km. My first morning on the INT was in a mountainous conservation park, in very steep rocky terrain. At times I was rock climbing almost vertically with my backpack being a dead, unbalancing weight on my back! In between the tough sections it was exhilarating walking with good views over the surrounding countryside and Mediterranean Sea. The INT definitely doesn’t go in a straight line but wanders around picking up sites of archaeological and cultural significance – for example, I walked through Nahal Me’arot Nature Reserve, one of the few sites in the world where the remains of Neanderthals and early Homo Sapiens have been found together in hillside caves. Having made such slow progress this day, I fell short of where I’d wanted to reach. Around 7pm, I had to detour off the trail to search for a bed in the nearby village of Ofer. Here the kindness of locals got me through again – despite no hotel, guesthouse or restaurant in the town, I was given a meal in a home, then driven to a B&B outside the town, had a comfortable bed and sent away next morning with lunch of farm figs, nectarines, plums, cherries and apples.
Back on the trail I was soon walking up a dry creek bed. In this very dry land water rarely flows in the creeks. Despite this, I passed many farms and crop plantations flourishing as a result of Israel’s excellent water resource management that includes desalination plants and recycling all waste water. The trail zigzagged to pass a Roman aqueduct that once took water to the coastal town of Caesarea, also past an excavated Byzantine villa. On reaching the coast, the trail took me onto the beach for a pleasant 3-hour stroll to Caesarea. I explored this ancient Roman city, built by Herod the Great between 22 and 10BC. Once the largest Roman port in the eastern Mediterranean, it has a fine Roman theatre, still used for concerts and plays, also the remains of a hippodrome, a palace with mosaic flooring, temples and storerooms. Leaving Caesarea, I walked through a kibbutz, past a large power station, through scrubby Australian-like bush areas and a number of Israeli and Arab towns. That evening, in a small hotel in Netanya, I watched Russia win its World Cup soccer match, cheered on by my hosts and many locals. (Israel has many Russian Jews with the last great immigration occurring after the dissolution of the USSR in the early 1990s.)
Day 4 on the INT, I walked into Tel Aviv, the last 3 hours continuing along the beach. Beaches in Israel are long and sandy, similar to ours in Australia. Tel Aviv’s beachfront was lively with shops, cafes, bars and hotels. I stayed in the Beachfront Hostel on the Esplanade which was comfortable, but disappointing for a pilgrim, as I was the only walker—everyone else was chasing the sun, surf and renowned Tel Aviv nightlife. During my eight days on the INT, I’d only met one other group of walkers, six men out for a day in the mountains. It was now early July and I learned that Israelis and visitors shy away from walking the INT in summer.
Next day, I chose to walk south along the coast to visit Old Jaffa (Yafo in Hebrew), the port city for Jerusalem since antiquity. I then returned through Tel Aviv-Yafo to the city centre and was impressed with its architectural variety, well-planned boulevards, parks and a noticeable vibrancy and energy. I was even more impressed with the lunch I enjoyed at the renowned restaurant, Yaffo Tel-Aviv, a birthday treat from one of our children! I then walked east through the city (population 450,000) and surrounds (population 3 million) towards the INT which bypasses Tel Aviv altogether, but I didn’t pick-up the trail again until next day.
On Day 6, I was away from the coast and the cooling sea breezes. The land was much drier and barer with more motorways to contend with. The temperature climbed to 33C in the afternoon. I had to detour to the village of Gimzo, a religious Jewish settlement, when I needed to recharge my phone, but after a short stay, I walked on to the next larger town where I hoped to find a bed. At a restaurant, I luckily met a waiter and waitress who had both walked the entire INT. They introduced me to ‘Trail Angels’, people who put up walkers in their home free for the night. They checked the website (in Hebrew), and found two ‘angels’ nearby. I called the first and was accepted! My ‘angel’ was Noa, a high school teacher and mother of four children. When I commented to them that I always felt very safe walking through Israel, they chuckled saying: “Why wouldn’t I? Israel is a safe place to live.” The crime rate in Israel is low, being on average with first world countries, and the only tensions exist at Israel’s borders with the Occupied Territories—the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights. It was interesting to hear their views on Israel’s building of the wall on the Palestinian border – they disagreed with it, but acknowledged that it has stopped the bombing of Israeli towns by non-Israeli Palestinians. There are about 10-11 million Palestinians in the West bank, Gaza Strip and neighbouring Arab nations, many living in squalid conditions. It is a tragedy that the long sought-after two-state solution of Israeli and Palestinian states coexisting alongside each other appears unattainable as both sides have steadfastly refused to compromise on their positions.
After breakfast on Day 7, Noa drove me back to where I’d left the Trail the previous night. In the afternoon I could see there was a big fire on the other side of the mountain with large plumes of smoke in the sky. Fortunately, the wind was blowing the smoke away from me, but on reaching the top, I was informed by an Emergency Services man that everyone had to be evacuated from the mountain. He drove me to the next town where I found a bed in a block of apartments. The fire was still smouldering the next day, so I found other tracks to descend and picked up the Trail in the valley.
I then walked the final 25km on dusty dirt and asphalt roads, through the hills, into Jerusalem. It was Friday 6 July, after eight days walking from Haifa and 97 days from Rome (88 walking days and 9 rest days). Having walked 2,500km through nine countries, I had finally made it! But it was an anticlimax compared to finishing in Santiago or Rome where one mingles, chats and celebrates with other pilgrims also recently arrived. Here I was anonymous, in a sea of busy locals and tourists visiting markets and shops. Being Friday, the religious Jews were well dressed and preparing for a feast before Shabbat, 24 hours of fasting, prayers and day of rest in the synagogues or at the Western Wall. Sadly, I met no other pilgrims who had started their journey outside of Israel.
The next morning, Jaffa Road was very quiet. Virtually every shop and restaurant in West Jerusalem was closed until sunset on Saturday night, though many opened again for the partying that happens after Shabbat. I walked to the Old City, entered through the famous Jaffa Gate and headed straight for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, supposedly the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. After stepping inside, I was captivated by the emotion evident on the faces of the faithful. Over the four days spent in Jerusalem, I visited this great Church three times, exploring the chapels and treasures inside, including the rock of Calvary which can be touched through a hole in the protective glass under the Greek Orthodox chapel. A large marble plaque covers what tradition says is Jesus’s tomb. The history of this church goes back to Constantine the Great in 326AD, and his mother Helena, a devout Christian, who was responsible for demolishing the Roman temple on the site, which had been built 200 years earlier. The church suffered partial destruction several times over the centuries but was always rebuilt. It was destroyed by the Egyptian Fatimid Caliph in 1009, and rebuilt in the 12thC following the conquest of Jerusalem by the First Crusade.
During my time in Jerusalem, I also walked the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows), retracing Jesus’ supposed journey as he carried his cross through the narrow alleyways to Calvary Hill. I took a walking tour of the Old City through its four Quarters – Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian – and later explored the city’s maze of shaded alleyways and streets. I visited the Western (Wailing) Wall and shared a free meal in a nearby charity café with Jews who had been praying at the Wall. I visited the Dome of the Rock, with its gold-leaf roof and ornately tiled walls (although non-Muslims can no longer go inside since an Austrian Christian man ran amok there some years ago). This site is the third most holy place of pilgrimage for Muslims after Mecca and Medina; from here they believe Muhammad made his journey to heaven upon his horse. The Dome is built on the original site of Solomon’s first temple that, according to tradition, housed the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments. I also fortunately managed to spend half a day in the fantastic Israel Museum with its amazing collection of archaeology including the Dead Sea Scrolls, Herod’s Second Temple model, restored interiors of old synagogues relocated from Europe, Asia and America… and much, much more.
While Jerusalem was an amazing destination and I wished for another week there, it was, as always, still the journey that mattered most and I left Israel feeling
a great sense of achievement at having completed my long pilgrimage.
Praying at the Stone of Anointing, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem