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Because the effluent crosses over the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank, such a route would bridge the lives of Palestinians and Israelis. The purified river, by collecting in its arid watershed the sacred and profane, would build help peace between the Middle East's two archenemies.

I have no idea what this phase "The purified river, by collecting in its arid watershed the sacred and profane, would build help peace between the Middle East's two archenemies." are talking about. Especially, the sacred and profane, even though I know all the definition.

source: National Geographic- December 2014: Out Of Eden Walk, Part Three

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Short Answer

It's a metaphor for building peace in a region both "sacred and profane" by "making sacred" its "profanity," i.e., purifying the river.

Long Answer

The purified river, by collecting in its arid watershed the sacred and profane, would help build peace between the Middle East’s two archenemies.

"Blessed. Cursed. Claimed. On foot through the Holy Lands," Paul Salopek. National Geographic Magazine. December 2014.

Israel and Palestine are "the Middle East's two archenemies" in this context.

The land and the history of that land as "the birthplace of supreme deities" (ibid.), is "the sacred."

The river undergoing purification, "a river of raw sewage that foams in torrents" (ibid.), is "the profane."

And the project to "clean up the waste...and establish miles of “green” trails" (ibid.) is "the purified river."

Also, the Fertile Crescent, as a part of the Middle East, is the "arid watershed."

And the arid watershed, by its mere location, has to "collect" whatever humans leave in it, including "the sacred and profane."

Longer Answer

What gives this sentence its depth (and beauty, if I may say so), however, is the literal meaning of the words sacred and profane used within this figurative context.

The profane is that which "violate[s] the sacred or the good," ("Profane," Wikipedia).

Thus, to be sacred, one must remove the profane, through purification ("Ritual purification," Wikipedia).

Thus, in an essay about one man's endeavor "to clean up the waste...and establish miles of “green” trails along a fabled valley where 5,000 years ago[,] ['a holy city in the three major Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam' (1)] was founded" (2), it's quite apt to see the appearance of the words the sacred and the profane.

(1) "Jerusalem," Wikipedia.

(2) "Blessed. Cursed. Claimed."

Even Longer Answer

And then, of course, there is the reason that this sentence is truly profound, and that is, of course, as a metaphor for the tumultuous region known as the Middle East.

The project to "clean up the waste...and establish miles of 'green' trails" ("Blessed. Cursed. Claimed.") is used by the author as a metaphor for peace.

And because the waste, the effluent, ironically, can cross borders where people cannot ("Israeli West Bank barrier, Reduced Freedoms," Wikipedia), the project hopes to "bridge the lives of Palestinians and Israelis" (ibid.) physically where politics cannot.

Quite a beautiful piece of writing. Thanks for sharing!

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    "profane" just means "not sacred" in this context. Note it refers to the purified river as collecting the profane, so it doesn't mean (just) the effluent. This is the better Wikipedia link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred%E2%80%93profane_dichotomy
    – OrangeDog
    Feb 16 '17 at 11:47
  • @OrangeDog. Hmmm, yes, I see what you mean. Feb 16 '17 at 11:50
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    The literal definition is "not sacred". Common usage (e.g. "profanity") has more negative connotations. The literal interpretation of the phrase is that the land around the river (the arid watershed) will be occupied by both religious and secular activity. The mingling of the water in the river is a metaphor for the mingling of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, Jewish, Muslim and Atheist, in peace.
    – OrangeDog
    Feb 16 '17 at 11:56
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    @TeacherKSHuang - I think OrangeDog's point is that "sacred and profane" is kind of a stock phrase, in the context of which "the profane" means "the stuff that is not sacred" (if you look up "profane", that's one of its definitions) and as such it doesn't quite mean the same thing as obscene, dirty, violating, etc.
    – stangdon
    Feb 16 '17 at 12:56
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    "sacred and profane", "religious and secular", "spiritual and temporal" - all mean "everything"
    – OrangeDog
    Feb 16 '17 at 14:21

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