In March of this year I travelled to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast, to begin a journey that would take me on foot, across the Holy Land, to the sacred home of the Samaritans - Mount Gerizim. I made the journey as the recipient of the Neville Shulman Challenge Award from the Royal Geographical Society. Below is something of a long-read - the first instalment of my story from the journey:
The Samaritans are a distinct religious and ethnic group in the Holy Land - there are just 802 of them in existence at the time of writing. One of the primary (and earliest) schisms between Samaritanism and Judaism is that they believe it was upon Mount Gerizim, near the contemporary city of Nablus, where Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his son Issac; not, as Jewish and Christian belief holds, in Jerusalem (in Islam it’s different again: Abraham, or Ibrahim, has a dream in which he decides to sacrifice Issac, and it is God/Allah that stops him just before he commits the act. This takes place in Mecca, not Jerusalem nor Gerizim.)
Briefly, some background: it is generally agreed upon (in Judaism and Christianity) that, when Abraham heard the call from God to go, he was in Beersheba on the northern edge of the Negev desert. From there he walked for two days and: “On the third day, he looked up, and saw the place in the distance” (Genesis 22:4) I have, in the past, walked this route from Beersheba to Jerusalem. It took me nearly 5 days, but that’s not really the point - if I’ve learned one thing from walking in ancient footsteps in the Middle East it is this: if Abraham existed, he was a total beast. Had thru-hiking been a thing 4000 years ago, he’d have been a champ.
In one of my previous visits to the Samaritans, Abraham’s walking speed had also come up in conversation. I take full blame - there’s only so much theology I can handle before we have to get back to walking. “He would not have made it!” Benny, my septuagenarian Samaritan guru and friend told me in his home in Holon, near Tel Aviv. “It’s too far, and anyway, he wasn’t even in Beersheba.” Benny’s reading of the text was that Abraham was instead somewhere in the Philistines pentapolis of the time; of those five cities, it was most likely he would have been in Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast and from there, walked to Gerizim.
Does any of this matter? Probably not, really - at least, not to most of us. Whether or not Abraham even existed is up for debate, so perhaps his travel itinerary is a little academic. It did, however, seem worth my while exploring on this journey for two reasons. First, I was there to learn from and understand the Samaritans, and the story of Abraham is a big deal, so why not see what it feels like to follow in footsteps according to that narrative; it seemed like it might set me up well for the month ahead. Second, I love to walk, and I’d already tried the other way. I’ll take any excuse.
Ashkelon is now mostly forgotten outside of the region. It sits just a few kilometres north of the Gaza strip and I found it to be a quiet, windswept and characterless city, with lots of new-build apartment blocks aimed to cater for Israeli tourists that come to enjoy the vast expanse of beach that reaches out like a yellow ribbon between conurbation and Mediterranean. Historically, however, this was a major seaport, as far back as 3500BC. A walk out to the site of ancient Ashkelon, now a national park, proved to be a walk back through time, with the layers of each era peeling away to reveal the last. From the modern state of Israel I walked past remnants of the Mandate era and the Ottomans, then back to the Islamic period and, before that, the Crusaders, who’s ramparts can still be found beneath overgrown marram grass on the headlands. Finally I found what I was looking for - the remains of the Canaanite city. Around 2000BC - at the time of Abraham - this was a thriving city of 15,000 people, built strategically on a high outcropping that protected it from both sea and land. Now, there’s not much there. In fact, there’s really only one thing - a small gate, complete with an ever-so-slightly reconstructed arch. The faded information board beside me told me it was the oldest arched gateway in the world. Across the brown earth beneath my feet, a beautiful cobbled mosaic from a later era spread out, protected by the elements by only a narrow wooden sloping roof. There was no-one around, save two elderly Russian tourists who told me they were Christians. They rolled their eyes at the gateway. I took this to mean it had failed to impress them. “We preferred Jerusalem,” one confided, leaning in close.
Later I went to the museum to ask about the Samaritan Abraham narrative. The gateway showed that the timelines matched up, so it wasn’t beyond belief that he could have been there. The clerk at the museum, however, was not up for a discussion. “Abraham was in Beersheva,” he told me, patiently at first.
“Yes, but I’ve heard another story, which I wanted to investigate. Have you ever heard any version that places Abraham here?”
“He then went to Jerusalem,” the clerk continued, ignoring my interjection. Then slowly” “From Beersheva, to Jerusalem. You see?”
I tried again, and he looked at me for a long time. He was in his late 50’s with sad, wide eyes, and the apparent stupidity of my question seemed to bring even more sorrow. “From Beersheva,” he started again. “To Jerusalem.” We looked at each other. The, brightly: “Perhaps you’d like to watch this film about the creation of the state of Israel?” he offered. We would not solve the question of Abraham that day, I discovered.
It was with this inauspicious blessing that I began my journey, following Benny’s Samaritan Abraham narrative, heading roughly in the direction of Mount Gerizim. The beauty of my quest was that there would be no certainties, so even if this was a wild goose chase - what a place for it.
A week of walking lay ahead; I had made my peace with not keeping up with Abraham’s pace; it wasn’t a competition, I told myself. The next morning I left my guesthouse, bid Shalom to my hosts, and set out east along National Highway 3. The sky was a perfect basalt blue, pierced only by the angry golden orb of early summer sunlight; even the concrete underfoot seems to soften in the heat, and I wondered what it might be doing to my brain. It suddenly seemed like a long way to the Holy Mountain.
If you'd like to read more about my journeys in the Holy Land, then check out 'The Land Beyond: A Thousand Miles on Foot through the Heart of the Middle East.'