In short, the biblical account is ambiguous and open to interpretation. As a result, both ancient and modern authors have located the Garden of Eden everywhere from Iran and Mongolia to South America and even Jackson County, Missouri.
“Reprinted with permission of the National Geographic Society from the book From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible by Eric H. Cline. Copyright ©2007 Eric H. Cline.”
By Eric H. Cline
Chair, Department of Classical and Semitic Languages and Literatures
The George Washington University
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In trying to determine where the Garden of Eden might have been located, we have an immediate problem, because while the biblical description is quite detailed, it is also fairly succinct. We are told only that:
The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. . . . A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Genesis 2:8-14)
We have little to corroborate the biblical account just presented, because there are no other independent sources of textual evidence for the Garden of Eden. Unfortunately, as we noted in the introduction, most ancient historians and archaeologists generally want several separate sources of evidence before they will believe something to be factually substantiated, and that is simply not possible in the case of the Garden of Eden.
This is not the only time we will run into this problem, especially when dealing with topics found in the first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis. These early chapters—which include accounts of the Creation, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, and the biblical Flood—are very different from those that follow, in large part because of the nature of the evidence surrounding the stories. It is always difficult to determine how much material in the Bible can be taken as true history, in our definition of the term today, and how much material is instead presented to illustrate an ethical or moral point.
Many scholars would agree that it is only when we get into periods marked by the invention of writing (that is, after 3000 b.c.) that we have any hope of corroborating the biblical accounts. This means that the stories presented in the first chapters of Genesis may be more difficult to corroborate than stories that appear later in Genesis and certainly much harder to corroborate than stories that appear in the other books of the Hebrew Bible.
Thus, we must deal with the biblical description of the Garden of Eden on its own, and make of it what we will. Fortunately, two of the four rivers mentioned in the biblical account are well known: the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). We should note that the original biblical text doesn’t actually name the third river as “Tigris”; instead the text says “Hiddekel.” However, we know from elsewhere in the Bible (for example, Daniel 10:4) that this is a reference to the Tigris River, so most modern translations of the Bible simply call it the “Tigris” to reduce potential confusion. Similarly, the Euphrates is referred to in the original biblical text as “Prat,” the Hebrew rendition of the Babylonian and Assyrian words for the river that was located next to the city of Babylon (the Euphrates). Again, most modern translations of the Bible simply say “Euphrates” without further explanation.
The other two rivers are less well known, and herein lies the problem of determining where the Garden of Eden was located. The Bible says that the Gihon River surrounded the land of Cush, while the Pishon River flowed around the land of Havilah. Some researchers identify the land of Havilah as southern Arabia, but this is merely a hypothesis. As for the land of Cush, although we know that it was really in Africa, the Bible seems to connect it with Mesopotamia (Genesis 10:8). However, as Alessandro Scafi notes in Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth: “From the time of Augustine [fifth century a.d.] to the Renaissance, the most learned scholars in all Europe, Africa and Asia, agreed that the Gihon and the Pishon were the Nile and the Ganges, an idea put forward by the firstcentury [a.d.] Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.” After the Renaissance, speculation began anew.
In short, the biblical account is ambiguous and open to interpretation. As a result, both ancient and modern authors have located the Garden of Eden everywhere from Iran and Mongolia to South America and even Jackson County, Missouri (according to Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known today as the Mormon Church).
Most scholars who have written recently about the Garden of Eden, however, usually place it in or around ancient Mesopotamia—anywhere from the Persian Gulf to southern Turkey. This makes some sense from a textual point of view, because not only does the biblical account say that the garden lay “in the east” (meaning to the east of Israel), but it also mentions the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in connection with the Garden of Eden. In fact, the Greek meaning of the very word “Mesopotamia” is “the land between the [two] rivers,” a reference to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
No earlier tales from ancient Mesopotamia can provide us with an exact parallel for the Garden of Eden story, but the Sumerians who lived in this region during the third millennium b.c. apparently did have the word “Eden” in their language. Scholars have suggested that the Sumerians adopted this word from an even earlier people—the Ubaidians, who lived in the region from approximately 5500 to 3500 b.c.—and many of them think the word should be translated as “fertile plain.” Moreover, there is one Sumerian paradise myth about a land of plenty called “Dilmun,” which scholars today suggest may well be modern- day Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. The myth, known as “Enki and Ninhursag,” describes Dilmun as being turned into a paradise when the Sumerian god Enki gave it the gift of water:
The land Dilmun is pure, the land Dilmun is clean;
The land Dilmun is clean, the land Dilmun is most bright.
. . .
Her well of bitter water, verily it is become a well of sweet water,
Her furrowed fields and farms bore her grain,
Her city, verily it is become the bank-quay house of the land Dilmun. . . .
There are also creation stories from this area that have striking similarities to the story found in Genesis. The most famous of these is the myth called Enuma Elish (When on High), which has long been noted for its biblical parallels. It begins as follows:
When on high the heaven had not been named, Firm ground below had not been called by name, Naught but primordial Apsu, their begetter, [And] Mummu-Tiamat, she who bore them all, Their waters commingling as a single body; No reed hut had been matted, no marsh land had appeared, When no gods whatever had been brought into being, Uncalled by name, their destinies undetermined— Then it was that the gods were formed within them.
This myth is sometimes referred to as the Babylonian Genesis because of the obvious parallels to the account in the Hebrew Bible, and yet it is hundreds of years older than the Bible. Scholars generally agree that the Hebrew Bible as we have it today was compiled from various sources, which were written down as early as the tenth or ninth century b.c. and late as the sixth or fifth century b.c. Even the earliest parts of the Bible, such as the source called J by biblical scholars, do not date earlier than the tenth or ninth century b.c., hundreds of years after Enuma Elish was written.
In fact, surprising as it may seem to some, it is Mesopotamia that had a tremendous impact on later biblical Israel—for this area, during the course of more than 9,000 years, from 10,000 b.c. to 1500 b.c., gave rise to inventions, techniques, ideas, stories, and even laws that were still in use centuries later in Israel and Judah. It is in Mesopotamia, for instance, that we find Hammurabi’s Law Code, which gave us “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” hundreds of years before the Bible. It is in Mesopotamia that Abraham and the Patriarchs had their origins. And it is in Mesopotamia that we find earlier accounts—Sumerian, Babylonian, and Akkadian—of the Flood and of Noah’s ark. In these accounts, Noah is instead named Ziusudra, Atrahasis, and Utnapishtim, and the Flood is sent not because humankind is evil and has sinned but because humankind is too noisy and is keeping the gods awake.
Enuma Elish in particular is a good example of what I would call a transmitted narrative: a story that was handed down from generation to generation and culture to culture in the ancient Near East. One of the best ways to explain both the similarities and the differences between the details in this myth and the biblical story found in Genesis is to suggest that the original Mesopotamian story (or the concepts contained within it) may have been passed down from the Sumerians in the third millennium b.c. to the Babylonians, Assyrians, and the peoples of Ugarit and Canaan in the second millennium b.c. and then to the Israelites, eventually making its way into the Hebrew Bible in the first millennium b.c. Additional examples of such transmitted narratives include portions of the Epic of Gilgamesh and Hammurabi’s Law Code, both of which, as we shall see, are probably reflected in the Hebrew Bible.
In trying to locate the Garden of Eden by using archaeological evidence, of principal interest to us is the fact that the first plants and animals were domesticated some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago in a wide swath of land stretching across what is now modern Iraq, northern Syria, and southern Turkey. This took place during the so-called neolithic revolution (a reference to the revolutionary ideas that resulted in the origins of agriculture).
This general region—encompassing Mesopotamia and beyond—has been dubbed the Fertile Crescent by archaeologists. It was here that sheep, goats, cattle, and even dogs were first domesticated, and it was here that the idea of actually growing wheat, barley, einkorn, and other grains was first put into practice, as opposed to just picking the wild varieties at random each year.
This area may have also become somewhat of an agricultural paradise for the local residents following the invention of irrigation during the fourth millennium b.c. Archaeologists have long understood that sometime during the period of 4000 to 3000 b.c., the various towns and villages in this region gradually turned to irrigation agriculture. From this, it is thought, first city-states, then kingdoms, and eventually even empires emerged as a result of the need to work together to create such large-scale projects. Whether or not this hypothesis is correct, it is clear that the region was literally made to bloom in the centuries before the Sumerian civilization arose near the end of the fourth millennium b.c.
Since both the invention of agriculture and the invention of irrigation occurred in the region of Mesopotamia, we should not be surprised that some scholars have suggested the original Garden of Eden might have been located in or near this area.
Persian Gulf Region—For instance, based on a variety of environmental, geological, and archaeological data, Juris Zarins, professor of anthropology at Southwest Missouri State University, has suggested that the original location of the Garden of Eden is now underwater, at the head of the Persian Gulf, near Bahrain. It was into this gulf that the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers spilled their water in antiquity. Nearby, the Karun River—which bears a similar name to the Bible’s Gihon River—flows southwest through Iran toward the Persian Gulf. Landsat images suggest that other rivers, now long dried up, flowed through the region as well.
According to Zarins, geological and archaeological evidence suggest that this area was subjected to changes in water level, resulting in the expansion and contraction of the Persian Gulf coastline over time. The southernmost part of Mesopotamia was finally flooded for good sometime between 5000 and 4000 b.c. as part of a worldwide event scientists call the Flandrian Transgression. This transgression caused gulf waters to rise and cover large sections of what had once been dry land in Mesopotamia. It is this region that formed the southeastern portion of the Fertile Crescent, and it is in this region that we find the Sumerians in the fourth and third millennia b.c.
Several decades before Zarins, the esteemed archaeologist and biblical scholar Ephraim A. Speiser, who was a professor and chairman of the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, made a similar suggestion. In a brief article entitled “The Rivers of Paradise,” Speiser hypothesizes that the Garden of Eden lay near the head of the Persian Gulf, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers came together, although he did not suggest that the garden was presently underwater. After examining the biblical text in detail, as well as additional factors such as the local geography in Mesopotamia, Speiser states that “the biblical text, the traditions of ancient Mesopotamia, the geographic history of the land at the head of the Persian Gulf, and the surviving building practices in that marshy country point jointly to an older garden land, richly watered, and favored by religion and literature alike—the kind of Paradise, in short, that local tradition still locates at the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris.”
Arabian Peninsula—A second possibility for the location of the Garden of Eden, which has been suggested on the basis of scientific data, is the nearby Arabian Peninsula. The late James Sauer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University, wrote, “With the use of remote sensing technology, Boston University geologist Farouk El-Baz has traced a major, partially underground, sand river channel from the mountains of Hijaz to Kuwait, which he has named the Kuwait River.” Sauer cautiously suggests that this river, which dried up sometime between 3500 and 2000 b.c., might be linked with the biblical Pishon River, since the account also mentions bdellium (an aromatic resin) and onyx (a semiprecious stone), both of which are found in Yemen, on the Arabian Peninsula.
For Sauer, however, the key lies in the biblical phrase “the gold of that land is good,” for the only large deposit of gold in the area is found at the site of Mahd edh-Dhahab (“cradle of gold”) near the headwaters of this Kuwait river. He concludes, “No other river would seem to fit the Biblical description” and that “the Kuwait river could well be the Pishon of the Bible.” We should note, however, that it seems to be this same “fossil river” that Zarins also suggests could be the Pishon River, but he uses it to place the Garden of Eden underwater in the Persian Gulf, rather than on the Arabian Peninsula.
Iran—More recently, British archaeologist David Rohl claims to have located the Garden of Eden in Iran, near the modern city of Tabriz. Rohl has a degree in ancient history and Egyptology from University College London, and believes that scholars have wrongly dated portions of ancient history. Although his earlier work was concerned with the second and first millennia b.c., Rohl has moved backward in time and is now working on material connected with Genesis and the books of the Hebrew Bible.
Utilizing the work done by an earlier scholar named Reginald Walker, Rohl suggests that the biblical Gihon and Pishon Rivers are respectively the Aras (or Araxes) River—which reportedly was previously known as the Gaihun River—and the Uizhun River in Iran. Rohl posits that when these rivers are combined with the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, the headwaters for all four rivers are in the approximate region of the Garden of Eden. He also identifies “Noqdi,” an area east of his Eden, as the biblical land of Nod, where Cain was exiled after killing his brother, Abel. Rohl first proposed this hypothesis in his 1998 book, Legend: The Genesis of Civilisation, but his suggestions have not caught on with the scholarly establishment. His argument is not helped by the fact that it depends upon speculations regarding the transmission of place-names for both the various rivers and nearby related areas from antiquity to the present. In the end, while Rohl’s suggestion is not out of the question, it seems no more probable than any other hypothesis, and less likely than those suggested by Speiser, Zarins, and Sauer.
Egypt—Two years after Rohl’s hypothesis was first published, Gary Greenberg, a criminal defense attorney based in New York City, suggested in his book 101 Myths of the Bible that the Garden of Eden was located in Egypt. At first, this seems to make some sense, since Egypt lies in Africa, and most physical anthropologists and other scientists believe that humans originated in Africa and migrated outward from there, long before the Sumerians—or their legends—ever existed.
Greenberg believes that the Garden of Eden was actually located at Heliopolis, on the banks of the Nile River in Egypt, where Egyptian tradition places the Tree of Life. He hypothesizes that the Garden of Eden story derives from the Egyptian (Heliopolitan) Creation myths. Eden, he says, was originally the “Isle of Flames”—the first land referred to in these Egyptian Creation myths—which was situated at Heliopolis.
However, Greenberg’s hypothesis depends in large part upon his argument that the four rivers mentioned in the biblical account were all originally tributaries of the Nile and that only later, when the Judeans were carried off to Babylon in the sixth century b.c., were the names of two of the rivers changed from branches of the Nile to the two Mesopotamian rivers (the Tigris and the Euphrates). Greenberg suggests that whoever changed the names of the rivers was “someone familiar with Babylonian traditions but not knowledgeable about African geography” and that the “flames associated with the original isle were transformed into fiery swords wielded by cherubs.”
Like Rohl’s hypothesis, Greenberg’s suggestion cannot be dismissed outright, but it seems a stretch to postulate that ancient authors or editors changed the names of rivers and tributaries and moved these rivers and other details from Egypt to Mesopotamia. As a result, Greenberg’s suggestion has not received wide acceptance from the scholarly establishment. Given the rest of the textual and archaeological evidence, Mesopotamia seems a much more likely location, despite the early origins of humanity in Africa.
Turkey—In 2001, Michael S. Sanders, a self-taught “Biblical Scholar of Archaeology, Egyptology and Assyriology,” announced that he had located the Garden of Eden in Turkey. In January 2001, Sanders was quoted in the Canadian National Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Daily Mail as saying his research indicates that all of the earliest Bible stories occurred in what is now Turkey, and not in the Persian Gulf as previously believed. “The Garden of Eden, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the story of Abraham—all took place in a relatively small area between the Black Sea in the North and the Ararat Range in the East,” he stated.
Using photographs taken by NASA satellites, Sanders identified the four rivers of Eden as the Murat River, the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the north fork of the Euphrates. “It is just remarkable that there are actually four rivers in this region in Turkey,” he said, adding that this “proves the Bible’s description of the Garden of Eden is completely, and literally, accurate.” As we shall see in the following chapters, since 1998 Sanders also claims to have pinpointed the location of the Ark of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments, Solomon’s Temple, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Tower of Babel. Such additional claims may or may not affect our appreciation of his assertions regarding the Garden of Eden, as will the observation that Sanders has apparently made his identification based primarily on NASA photographs and an a priori assumption that the Bible is “completely, and literally, accurate.” Even if Sanders were correct, we would need more facts on the ground before we could decide whether he has proven his case.
It is hard to put the Garden of Eden into historical context, for it belongs to the realm of prehistory, if not myth or legend. In fact, much of the material found in the first 11 chapters of Genesis—especially the stories— seem to be more literary than historical. Even biblical scholars refer to Genesis 1-11 as the Primeval History and separate it from chapters 12-50, the Patriarchal Tales. Robert Alter, translator of The Five Books of Moses, observes: “The Primeval History, in contrast to what follows in Genesis, cultivates a kind of narrative that is fablelike or legendary, and sometimes residually mythic.” We should also note the words of renowned scholar Ephraim Speiser, who wrote in his commentary on Genesis that “it should be borne in mind that the Primeval History is but a general preface to a much larger work, a preface about a remote age which comes to life in Mesopotamia and for which that land alone furnishes the necessary historical and cultural records.”
It is conceivable, however, that there is a historical kernel of truth at the base of the Garden of Eden story, because, as Speiser notes, “To the writer of the account in Gen. 2:8 . . . the Garden of Eden was obviously a geographic reality.” If there is some historical truth to the account, it would seem to be the fact that the region of Mesopotamia was home to the Fertile Crescent, which stretched in an arc from the Persian Gulf to southern Turkey and saw the origins of agriculture and the first domestication of animals from approximately 10,000 b.c. onward. It may well be that both the various Mesopotamian myths and the stories in the Hebrew Bible have their origins in the simple fact that it was this region that first saw the flowering of agriculture, both back during the original neolithic revolution around 10,000 b.c. and then again during the introduction of irrigation during the fourth millennium b.c.
So where is, or was, the Garden of Eden? The available evidence is rather thin, and so this may be the least satisfying of our quests. However, there is—or at least there was before the beginning of the second Gulf War in 2003—a battered sign standing at the site of Querna in Iraq, where the Tigris and the Euphrates join near the modern (and ancient) cities of Basra and Ur, welcoming travelers to the “Original Garden of Eden.” Is this merely wishful thinking? Is it merely coincidence that this is the same general region where Speiser suggested that the Garden of Eden would have been?
Bearing in mind that every suggestion that has been made to date is merely a hypothesis, I think that those suggestions that take into account both the textual evidence of earlier Mesopotamian literature and the archaeological data concerning the origins of agriculture and the domestication of animals in the Fertile Crescent, as well as the introduction of irrigation, are most likely to be on the right track. Thus, I would follow Speiser and suggest that the Garden of Eden, if it existed, is most likely to have been located somewhere in the region of Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, perhaps even near the site of Querna, just as the battered sign says.
However, if Zarins is correct that portions of Mesopotamia were flooded at some point, then his proposal that the Garden of Eden lies in this general region but under the headwaters of the Persian Gulf is reasonably plausible. Sauer’s suggestion of the Arabian Peninsula as the location of the Garden of Eden is also conceivable, while Rohl’s suggestion of Iran, Sanders’s suggestion of Turkey, and Greenberg’s suggestion of Egypt follow in descending order of plausibility. Joseph Smith’s suggestion of Jackson County, Missouri, lags far behind, but is kept company by numerous other similarly implausible suggestions that we will not discuss here.
In the end, we are left with a final compelling question: How can anyone really hope to find the Garden of Eden, especially given what has been said about the Primeval History within the Book of Genesis? Even if the garden once was a real place, and even if we know the general location for where it might have been, how would we know its physical parameters, since there were no ancient signs or inscriptions at the entrance to the garden (for writing hadn’t been invented yet)?
So how will we know if we really found it? The answer is that we won’t. As Victor Hurowitz, professor of Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies at Ben-Gurion University, once said: “I doubt we’ll ever find Eden outside the pages of the Bible.”