Garden of Eden

Locations for the Garden of Eden

The Garden of Eden was the paradise in which Adam and Eve – the first humans – dwelt, according to the Bible. The couple were permitted to eat from any tree in this earthly paradise except the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Of course that was way too much temptation. And inevitably, they did what God had forbidden them to do. A devilish serpent goaded Eve into tasting the fruit and she in turn compromised Adam. The sinful duo were then cast our by God. Where this garden was located is a mystery – but there’s no shortage of theories regarding locations!

The biggest clue is the mention of four rivers that watered the garden: Pishon, Gihon, Hiddekel and Phirat. The last two rivers are often assumed to be the Tigris and Euphrates placing the Garden of Eden in modern Iraq. This was the centre of the first civilisations in the Levant so not an entirely unreasonable assumption.

In 2016, UNESCO declared that the dense marshlands of southern Iraq, lying between the Tigris and Euphrates, would be a World Heritage Site. These wetlands covering a vast area have long been considered to be a prime candidate for the Garden of Eden. In the 1990s, Saddam Hussein drained a large part of them to crush the rebellious “Marsh Arabs” who resented his tyrannical rule. Since then, the water has been allowed to flood back in and a civilisation dating back thousands of years has returned from exile in neighbouring Iran.

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Prester John and the Garden of Eden

In the Middle Ages, a belief emerged in a mythical Christian king called Prester John. It was thought he commanded vast armies that if only the medieval crusaders could make contact with him, they could overwhelm the Muslim Saracens in the Holy Land. But Prester John was always rather elusive. Except for an alleged correspondence between him and the crowned heads of Europe including the Byzantine emperor, Manuel Komnenos.

In his letter to the Byzantines, Prester John declared that the Garden of Eden was just three days ride from his own territories but where exactly was that? Many believed this Christian monarch was based somewhere in Asia. Then attention shifted to Africa. But Prester John was always hidden from view and remained so forever.

Prester John’s letter didn’t give a precise location for the Garden of Eden but did include a bizarre description. The mythical king claimed that the river Indus had its source at Eden and the whole place was rich in emeralds, sapphires, topazes, onyx and other jewels. “There too grows the plant called Asbestos” (sic!). Mention of the Indus led some to speculate that Eden was somewhere on the Indian sub-continent – along with Prester John of course.

Mappa Mundi and a location for the Garden of Eden

At Hereford Cathedral in England, there is an enormous map of the world created around the year 1300. It’s known as the Mappa Mundi and not surprisingly places Jerusalem firmly at the centre of the world. At the very north is an earthly Paradise surrounded by a wall and a ring of fire. The nearest geographical locations to it are the river Indus and what is possible modern Sri Lanka. That would seem to place the Garden of Eden in India.

However, it’s also thought that the position of Eden corresponds to Japan. In the Second World War, the Mappa Mundi featured in Japanese textbooks as proof that Japan was indeed the divine, earthly Paradise.

The Garden of Eden in China

But Japan may have competition from China in claiming the true location of the Garden of Eden. In the 9th century, one European manuscript placed Eden far into the East. In the early 20th century, a Chinese political radical, Tse Tsan-tai (1872-1938) argued that Eden had been a paradise in western China. Tse was a serious journalist who co-founded the South China Morning Post – a well regarded newspaper still publishing today. Though eyebrows were raised at the time by his theory.

His argument was that far from being a western imposition on China, Christianity had its biblical origins in the East. Below is the map that Tse drafted to support this thesis.

Muslim Spain – heaven or hell for Jews and Christians?

For seven hundred years, all or part of modern day Spain and Portugal was under Muslim rule. In the year 711 CE, an Arab and Muslim led army crossed the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain and conquered a Christian kingdom advancing across Spain and up into central France before being stopped.

This was in the decades immediately after the death of the Prophet Mohammed when the new Muslim religion had conquered north Africa, Arabia, the Levant, Persia and reached China and India.

The kind of caliphate that emerged in Spain has traditionally been seen as remarkably tolerant and reaching a very high level of cultural and philosophical sophistication.

It was a place where Muslims, Jews and Christians rubbed along together in what has been termed the ‘convivencia’. Churches, synagogues and mosques existed side by side in contrast to Christian run medieval Europe where Jews in particular were brutally oppressed.

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But this view has been trashed in a new book called The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise by Dario Fernandez-Morera. He argues the following points:

  • It’s not true that Spain before the year 711 was a barbaric, underdeveloped post-Roman kingdom run by uncouth Visigoths but an emerging civilisation synthesising Roman and Goth culture with a high level of learning and architecture
  • The Arab/Muslim caliphate absorbed the civilisation of the Roman and Persian empires it conquered but independent of those influences, it was an arid desert faith with little culture
  • The conquest of Spain was a militaristic ‘jihad’ and modern scholars, embarrassed to say so, have downplayed the religious element of the invasion
  • Under Muslim rule, Jews and Christians in Spain were reduced to ‘dhimmi’ status forced to pay a special tax and often subject to pogroms and persecution – the much vaunted tolerance is mythical
  • Just because there was liberal thinking among the Muslim elite that ruled Spain doesn’t mean that applied to the general population who were subject to rigid control by Muslim clerics

I have been reading the book as a much needed corrective to some of the muddle-headed thinking about ‘convivencia’ in medieval Spain and Portugal. But I do wonder if the author has pushed his point too hard. I tend to agree with this blogger that at times, Fernandez-Morera is being as dogmatic as those he is criticising.

His targets are orientalist scholars over the last century in particular who have wanted to prove that under Muslim rule, tolerance and free thinking was not only possible – but happened in contrast to savage crusader and church run medieval Europe. Those crude stereotypes should be demolished but I was left wanting to know:

  • Where is the evidence for a great Visigothic civilisation?
  • Why did Jewish populations co-operate so readily with the Muslim invaders if Visigoth rule was so enlightened?
  • Weren’t there way more scholars coming out of Muslim ruled Spain than the Christian kingdoms in the north – Leon, Castile and Aragon?

It’s a fascinating and very topical discussion and despite my reservations, I recommend you read this book.