Can retracing the path of one of the world’s most revered prophets help sow the seeds of peace and economic prosperity for communities in the Middle East? This is the question that Harvard professor William Ury sought to answer when, in 2004, he established the Abraham Path Initiative. Abraham was the exemplar of hospitality and preached kindness to strangers. The story of Abraham, or Ibrahim, is one of the most well known and revered by followers of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Indeed, it is through Abraham that these followers trace their ancestry and from the stories of his travels through the Middle East that many continue to find inspiration today. For Ury, these stories provided a particular kind of inspiration that saw the potential for finding common ground, and common ancestry, in the face of conflicts that have sought to tear the region apart. Thus was born the Abraham Path.
This is the first in a series of brief articles exploring this long-term peace initiative.
One of the keys to understanding the mission of the Initiative is to understand its leader. As the co-founder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation and a Senior Fellow of the Harvard Negotiation Project, professor Ury (the author of “Getting to Yes”) has spent much of his life learning the keys to resolving the world’s most complex conflicts. As a consultant, he’s implemented these concepts on a number of wide-ranging issues from corporate mergers to civil wars. In confronting the conflicts of the Middle East, however, Ury chose to shun boardrooms and negotiating tables in favor of a new path.
Rather than trying, as many before him have, to minimize the role of religion in the resolution of these conflicts, Ury seeks to bring the issue to the forefront as a way to unite people under the shared story of Abraham. The Path is, at its core, an opportunity to experience this shared history. Connected by a series of local hiking trails spanning more than 2000 kilometers through Turkey, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel, the Path brings together many sites that Abraham was known to visit during his life. Eventually, it will be expanded to include 5,000 kilometers of walking trails through ten countries. In the long-term, the hope is that this trail can encourage cross-cultural understanding between tourists and the region’s population. Equally important, though, is the idea that the increased tourism from the path can energize the region’s economy. For more information about Ury’s approach to negotiation and the Abraham Path, watch his 2010 TEDx talk “The Walk from NO to YES”.
The primary responsibility of the Abraham Path Initiative, the non-profit organization that Ury leads, is to support the continued development of the path and encourage more tourists to visit it. Their website, which features guides that range from packing for the trip to cultural considerations, is an invaluable tool in one’s preparation for traveling along the path. Yet, perhaps the most critical ally to the Abraham Path and the key to sustaining it to the future is the support of the local communities it passes through.
There is no definite completion date for the Abraham Path as regional instability has made certain parts too dangerous to expand within. Despite these limitations, much progress has been made in the path’s development since its inception. Much of this development can be credited to the communities that fall along it. Regional tour operators have created trips specially designed for those seeking to walk the path, while homestay networks and other forms of accommodations have developed to respond to this new demand. In turn, these communities continue to benefit from the influx in tourism.
While this growth in tourism has ushered in a much needed economic boost for these communities, it has also presented challenges for both those within the community and those within the Abraham Path Initiative. Some of these challenges are practical concerns, such as ensuring adequate accommodations for hikers along the path. But some are more complex. How can you ensure that the tourism industry along the path is developed with environmental sustainability in mind? How do you prepare the local population for the influx of tourists to the region? In what ways have other walking paths served as inspiration for the Abraham Path? These questions and more will be examined in the upcoming series.
April 21, 2016
Jake Thornburgh will graduate from Carleton College in June 2016. He is a history major with a focus in the Middle East.