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Walking The Bible: A Journey Through Israel, Egypt, and the Land of the Old Testament | Frommer's Amy Nelson, Flickr

Walking The Bible: A Journey Through Israel, Egypt, and the Land of the Old Testament

Arthur and Pauline Frommer sit down with Bruce Feiler, Author of the new book Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses.

Pauline: We have a genuine celebrity in the studio today: Bruce Feiler. You might have seen him on PBS on his show Sacred Journeys. We're going to be talking to him today about his book, Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses, which is a New York Times bestseller.

: Where is the celebrity? I'm looking around it must be you two, but yes thank you it's great to be with you today. 

Pauline: We should start at the beginning just as the Bible did. God created man and the Earth, you created this book.  Why did you decided to try to walk in the paths of great Biblical figures?

Bruce: I grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and I spent most of my formative years traveling, luckily I grew up in the age of discount airfare. I went to Japan, I went to England, I spent a year performing a clown in a traveling circus. When I was in my late twenties I lived in Nashville across from three churches, and I thought, well I'm a writer I should be more knowledgable of the Bible. I hadn't read it since I was a kid which means I hadn't really read it, so I took the Bible off my shelf and put it by my bed and it sat there untouched for two years making me feel guilty. Then I went to visit an old friend in Jerusalem and my friend took me to this promenade and pointed to the south to this golden dome and said, "That's the rock where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac." I thought, "Wow these are real places that you could touch and feel."

It never had occurred to me that these were places you could visit. I'd lived my life as a traveler, as someone who went around the world and immersed himself in different cultures, I thought what if I do this with the Bible and treat it like a map, enter its world, go to its places and see what I can learn? I decided to do it and people spent a year trying to talk me out of it, but I have a stubborn streak. I eventually found this archeologist and we made the journey. It was three continents, five countries, four war zones. We climbed Mount Ararat trying to find Noah's Ark, we crossed the Red Sea, we tasted Mana. The idea was to go to the places and then read the stores in the places where they may have taken place.

Arthur: Bruce when you refer to the Bible do you refer primarily to the Old Testament?

Bruce: Well when I first had the idea I thought, I'll do from Genesis to Jesus but I realized that's 2000 years of history and a lot of ground to cover.  Walking the Bible is the first five books, it begins in Eastern Turkey with Mount Ararat and the Garden of Eden. Then we went down the Spine of Israel into the Palestinian Territories. We spent a lot of time in Egypt and spent weeks in the Sinai Peninsula. We trekked up the East Bank of the Jordan and we ended on Mount Nebo where Moses dies overlooking the Promised Land. I've since done a sequel called Where God was Born which looked at the second half of the Hebrew Biible focusing on the Kings and the Prophets. The sequel takes place in Israel but I also went to Iraq during the war to see Biblical sites and then took my wife on a trip to Iran. I've completed the entire Hebrew Bible and have yet to do the New Testament.

Pauline: What's so fascinating about the book is that you make it sound right now like you had a definitive path to follow but the truth is, nobody really knows where exactly Abraham was when he met Sarah, or where Noah's Ark landed, so tell us what happened when you went looking for Noah's Ark?

(Mount Ararat at Sunset)

: When I had this idea I didn't realize that there were all of these problems. Where did any event take place? What are you going see when you get there because there aren't a lot of remains? The place of where Noah's Ark is thought to have landed, Mt. Ararat, is not the greatest challenge actually. In fact, in Eastern Turkey, there are two mountains called Ararat, a big and little mountain, on the border between Turkey and Armenia. The bigger Mount Ararat is the tallest mountain in the region, and the text says that this is the first piece of land that would have emerged after the flood. Getting up the mountain itself was challenging. I ended up with this Kurdish gentleman who apparently has control over the mountain. He claims to have found it, and when I asked him show it to me, he said no. I asked if he could just point me in the right direction, he said no. I even told him that my mother is dying which, is a total lie, and she would die in peace if she knew the mountain is real, and he said still said no. Eventually I made it up to the mountain, but what was powerful about this experience is we're not going to know if it's the actual mountain. Even if we found a piece of wood that said Noah built me, that doesn't mean we're going to be able to prove it. These are stories of faith, stories of meaning, stories of the formation of a people, and while we can learn a lot from the land it's too much of burden to think that if we can prove that one piece of the puzzle existed we can prove the whole thing.

Pauline: What's fascinating to me is that when you were talking to people in these areas you found in one area there is a cave where people say Abraham is still alive inside and talking to people. Their faith is so great that they still believe he's there, and this informs the way people live in these areas. 

Bruce: Everywhere I went if you kick off a few layers of topsoil there are these stories and these stories are still living in this land, and that's what's so deeply powerful. The land is this universal language that unites travelers, believers, non-believers, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. These stores have an incredible legacy in this place, we've sort of forgotten that it is land that makes them so impactful. To me the Bible is not a book, to me it is a map, it is the story of a great journey and it is the story of the relationship between people, the land, and God. If you take out the land, you can't understand the story. What I've learned is that understanding the geography is central to understanding the story. 

Pauline: You tried to visit all of the touchstones of the Bible, and you visited the place where the actual burning bush is thought to be. Whoever would have thought that an actual bush would still be in the place where the burning bush is supposed to be. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Bruce: In the deep south of Sinai Penisula is this Monastery built 1,500 years ago by Greek orthodox monks because they believe that one bush at the base of one mountain was the actual burning burning bush where Moses heard the voice of God. On the surface all of this seems magical and made up but actually the bush at this monastery is a very rare bush: a raspberry bramble. The monastery still has services five times a day in Byzantine Greek. There's actually a room where they keep the skulls of all the monks who have ever lived in the monastery. I've stayed there several times and I've visited the bush. So I'm sitting by this bush—the monks will say it's the actual burning bush—but they moved it around 800 years because they had to expand the church.

Pauline: So they replanted it?

Bruce: They did, can you imagine being in the committee that has to vote whether or not to move the burning bush?

Pauline: I love that you also mentioned that there is a fire extinguisher near the burning bush nowadays.

Bruce: Yes, as I'm sitting there I realize there is a fire extinguisher! If the burning bush catches on fire do I put it out? Do I look into the face of God? I decided to just run back to my room and study my Byzantine Greek for the morning.

Pauline: Well, it's an absolutely delightful book whatever your religious beliefs are or aren't. 

Click here to learn more about Walking the Bible, and click here for more information on Bruce Feiler's Sacred Journeys. 

This interview is from The Travel Show national radio show with Arthur and Pauline Frommer

Photo: Mount Ararat Photo Credit: Amy Nelson, Flickr