Trailology and History
Associate Professor, Department of Judaic Studies, Binghamton University, USA
I am a historian, and I don’t know many other historians who take a special interest in trails. In fact, most academics in the social sciences and humanities seem to think it’s strange that I see trails as important. Trails are grassroots, low-level things, most people tend to think; even roads, which many people think are boring, are more important objects of study than trails.
But trails seem to me to be one of the most fundamental connection points between people and land. Long before the first walls, buildings, or even roads were built by humans, humans were making trails. They spun them out in the course of their day-to-day existence; they created them without much conscious thought. They went where they wanted and needed to go, and trails appeared behind them. Trails were what happened while humans were busy doing other things.
And as such, they became some of the first things humans ever wrote. Before people started writing on papyrus, vellum, or parchment, they inscribed the records of their travels onto the earth. Even before anyone started writing the histories of trails, footpaths on the ground constituted a kind of writing, and the earth became a kind of palimpsest, with a line lasting as long as people needed it, and then fading away later, and giving way to new lines.
In some deserts where a stone, once moved to make a path, is unlikely ever to be put back again, we can catch glimpses of old, old lines. By reading them – puzzling out their origins, their destinations, and the things they were drawn toward and the things they avoided – we can get a sense of the relationships people had with the places where they lived. Trails, then, can be a sort of primary source for historians who are interested in the connections people form with land.
For me, those connections are important because I write about history, politics, and environment in the Middle East. When I study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, and I want to know what is at stake for national movements that seek control over territory, trails offer important insights. Trails can be similar to written texts, but in their more prosaic function as lines of movement, trails have their own histories that connect with modern politics, nationalism, and war.
Years ago, I learned about the very first trail that gave rise to Israel’s enormous network of marked and mapped hiking routes. It was a lonely path near the Dead Sea that ascended a steep headland. In a country filled with places made famous by the Bible, and where dramatic landscapes are not difficult to find, this trail seemed quite lackluster. Yes, it offered views of the Dead Sea, but it was exposed, steep, waterless, and difficult to find. Other Dead Sea trails seemed more interesting.
But as I researched the trail, I found out that it formed part of the route that Jewish hikers used in the 1940s to access an important national-historical site called Masada. The secular pilgrimage to Masada was so important, in fact, that Jewish hikers marked the trail at a time when the surrounding land was slated to become part of an Arab state. To mark the path as a hiking trail at that time was to declare that this path – and the surrounding land – would not be relinquished without a fight. And there was a fight: the war of 1948 that resulted in Israeli independence on the one hand, and Palestinian displacement and dispossession on the other.
To explore and understand the genesis of that trail is to open a window into the real-life struggles that took place at a crucial moment in history, and the motivations behind similar struggles that continue today. To explore and understand the development of a whole country-wide trail network, in the case of Israel, at least, is to see how a society articulates its place in the world, and the way its members seek belonging.
Much of my research verges on environmental history, and in 2022, I set out to gain a better understanding of one of the world’s great environmental crises. I wanted to know how a lake as iconic and unique as the Dead Sea – one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water, lying at the lowest point on earth – was disappearing, and destroying surrounding communities with it. I found out about a 1934 trek that purported to be the first and only circumambulation of the Dead Sea, and decided to duplicate it, walking the whole way around, through Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank, and using that trek as the framework for a holistic history of the ancient lake and its modern destruction. I believe the resulting trailology-based book will be different from any history ever written of the Dead Sea, and hope that it will push trailology forward as a concept and a way of conducting research.
But there is nothing new under the sun. Humans have always learned by walking. Trails have always been meeting points between people and the earth. By returning to trails as a fundamental way of knowing the world, we return to our own nature, and to the ways we most easily gain understanding. Trailology is a return to old paths.