After working as a reporter in Cairo, Theodore May wanted to know more about the history, culture, and people of the Middle East. So he decided to explore it, and use one of history’s conquerors as his guide. For the next eight months he’ll be following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, tracing the 2,000-mile path Alexander forged through the modern Middle East. Theo will be writing about his experiences for The Global Post, and you can be follow him on Twitter at @Theodore_May. He’ll be contributing glimpses from his journeys here at Intelligent Travel.
I was just a few days into my eight-month excursion when I found myself listening to goats graze on a Turkish hillside. I could hear the munching, the tearing of thousands of grass blades. And for the first time in several days, the roar of truck engines had faded into the background.
It was a journey I had been playing out in my head for years: the opportunity to walk thousands of miles through the Middle East, living with the people who drew me to the region in the first place.
Last January, as I was working as a reporter in Cairo, war broke out in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. I managed to make it into Gaza toward the end of the conflict and soon found myself sleeping on my driver’s tearoom floor in a refugee camp in south Gaza. I sat for hours each night with members of my driver’s extended family, listening to their thoughts on politics, religion, family, and more. And it taught me that you never learn more about a group of people than when you’re living with them.
It was with this idea in mind that I designed the journey. I chose to follow the route of Alexander the Great, one of history’s legendary conquerors, who stormed through the Middle East over the course of several years, beating back the Persian Empire and permanently reshaping the region. As a history buff, I reasoned that following Alexander would give me the perfect opportunity to wed past and present, exploring his historical legacy while delving into the many issues facing the region today.
I also wanted to chronicle the competition between Alexander the Great and Persian emperor Darius III, one of history’s great rivalries. So I decided to begin my trek at the site of the Battle of Issus in present-day Turkey, where the two first faced in battle. My plan is to walk through seven countries/territories, to where Alexander finally defeated Darius in the north of modern-day Iraq and marched victoriously on the city of Babylon, just south of Baghdad, where he would eventually die.
I began my walk on the banks of the Payas River near Issus. My first few days, though, reminded me that what I was walking through was no longer Alexander’s Middle East.
I was forced to follow a traffic-clogged highway to the city of Antakya (formerly known as Antioch). By my reading of the maps, this was the only way through the mountains, even though it meant coming within feet of oncoming buses, inhaling truck exhaust, and enduring the jarring honks of every eager passerby.
After several days of this, though, I had a chance to shake the yoke of the highway. Scaling the Nur Mountains, I began the winding descent into the valley below, which appeared like a stunning patchwork of farmland through a thin layer of clouds. I quickly noticed that the road was making sweeping switchbacks across the mountain face, adding needless wear to a pair of feet more comfortable in loafers than hiking boots.
And so I began to bushwhack, cutting through groves of olive trees, horse pastures, and grass meadows, the way Alexander would have done it. At points, I sank up to my ankles in loose soil. I crossed a moat, navigated fences, and gave wide berth to a foreboding farmhouse.
Toward the base of the mountain, I came across a man, probably in his 30s, watching over a flock of some 50-odd goats. Needing a break, I motioned to him, wondering if it would be all right for me to sit down. He nodded. I pulled out some bread and water–my typical trail food–and offered them to him. He shook his head in polite refusal.
As I sat there on my backpack, I made a few other stabs at conversation, but neither of us spoke the other’s language. So we just listened to goats graze, and I contemplated the many miles that lay ahead.
Photo: Theodore May