Where, or what, was Eden? The Garden of Eden—generally equated with Paradise—is the setting for one of the best known Biblical stories, that of the serpent who convinced the first woman, Eve, to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve in turn fed the forbidden fruit to her husband Adam. As a result, Adam and Eve understood their own mortality. God feared that the man and woman, utilizing their newly found knowledge, might eat of the tree of life and live forever, becoming godlike. Thus as punishment for their disobedience, God drove them from the garden and placed a cherubim with a flaming sword “to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24; New Standard Revised Version, Oxford Annotated Bible, 2001)
The Hebrew Bible gives us but a sparse description of the location of Eden and its garden. “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 if 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 2:10–14)
The Tigris and Euphrates headwaters originate in northern Mesopotamia. In my assessment, the Biblical description thus places Eden and its garden somewhere north of modern Syria, in modern Turkey. To narrow the location, consider the other two rivers, the Pishon and the Gihon. Unfortunately they do not easily correspond to any modern rivers in northern Mesopotamia. While Genesis was by tradition written by Moses (circa thirteenth century BCE, although this dating in controversial), many modern scholars believe it dates to the late seventh century BCE of Jerusalem (I. Finkelstein and N. A. Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, 2001). To understand the geography of Eden, one must know how the ancient Hebrews conceived the world. Given the lack of direct ancient Hebrew maps, we can turn to Greek sources that reflect the geographical knowledge of the ancients, such as a map based on the writings of Herodotus (fifth century BCE).
Near the center of Herodotus’s map is the Pontus Euxinus (Pontos, the Black Sea). Greeks often placed the Pontos at the center of the world as the source of most rivers and springs, which ultimately flowed into an ocean surrounding the known landmasses and from thence the waters flowed back into the Pontos through a deep abyss, the pit of Tartarus/Tartaros (S. G. Schoppe and C. M. Schoppe, International Atlantis Conference, Milos, Greece, 2005). This would reinforce the notion, based on the locations of the Euphrates and Tigris, that Eden is to be found in Turkey between the southern border of the Black Sea and the northern borders of Syria and Iraq. But what modern rivers might correspond to the elusive Pishon and Gihon of the Bible?
The Gihon Spring in Jerusalem was a major source of water in ancient times, but the Bible states that the river Gihon “flows around the whole land of Cush,” so another Gihon may be referred to in the description of Eden. Cush is often considered to be a location in Ethiopia or Arabia (Oxford Annotated Bible, 2001), and the first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus identified the Gihon with the Nile (S. R. Driver, The Book of Genesis, 1948). In the late nineteenth century the Assyriologist Paul Haupt suggested that the Gihon was a river well east of the Euphrates and Tigris that flowed southwards into the Persian Gulf, and was envisioned by the ancients as then flowing west around Ethiopia and thence turning north to become the Nile which flows from south to north, emptying into the Mediterranean (Driver, 1948).
The Pishon flowed through a land named Havilah containing gold, bdellium, and onyx. Havilah is often considered to be in Arabia (Driver, 1948; Oxford Annotated Bible, 2001), but this is not certain; the name as used in different portions of the Bible may refer to different places. Gold and onyx are found in many regions, including Western Anatolia. Possibly the Pishon corresponds to the Büyük Menderes River of Western Anatolia (Schoppe and Schoppe, 2005). In contrast Paul Haupt suggested that the Pishon was another river east of the Euphrates and Tigris that also flowed into the Persian Gulf, and from there it was viewed by the ancients as circling Arabia (Havilah) and flowing into the Red Sea (Sinus Arabicus). Or one might suggest that the Pishon or Gihon is located even further east and today is represented by the Indus River in modern Pakistan which empties into the Arabian Sea, but this is very far indeed from the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates. There is also the mystery of the bdellium associated with Havilah and the Pishon. Bdellium (“bedolah” or “bedolach”) may have been a precious stone, pearls, a resinous substance (gum) from a tree, or a type of amber. Until the identity of bdellium is known, it is of limited use in helping us locate Eden.
Ultimately, based on the four rivers, we are not able to pinpoint precisely the location of Eden, although in my opinion the mostly likely region is that near the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris in modern southeastern Turkey. We need to look at another line of evidence, one which may not appear to be immediately applicable as it is only circumstantial—the ancestral homeland of the patriarch Abraham.
Abraham (originally Abram) and his family came from “Ur of the Chaldeans” (Genesis 11:28). Of Abraham’s descendants God made a “great nation” (Genesis 12:2), thus the ancient Hebrews might trace their lineage back to Ur which, being Abraham’s homeland, they would equate with the primordial origin of their nation. The area of “Ur of the Chaldeans,” they could well have believed, was also the area originally known as Eden.
Where was “Ur”? The traditional answer is that it is none other than the ancient city of Ur discovered by archaeologists in southern Mesopotamia in modern Iraq near the Persian Gulf (Oxford Annotated Bible, 2001). This is far from northern Mesopotamia where the Euphrates and Tigris originate. However, there is a strong argument to be made that the Iraqi “Ur” is not the correct “Ur” at all. In part the argument for a southern Mesopotamian location for Ur is based on the phrase “of the Chaldeans.” The Chaldeans [Chaldees] are generally equated with a Babylonian kingdom and dynasty in southern Mesopotamia, but the Chaldeans in a strict sense ruled a millennium or more after the widely accepted date of circa 2000 BCE for Abraham (Driver, 1948). However, by the time the book of Genesis was formulated into its current written form, the term “Chaldean” may have been used as synonymous with “Babylonian” and “Mesopotamian”. There is another “Ur”, known as Urfa, in the northern Mesopotamian region of Turkey—a bustling city of over three-quarters of a million people today (also known as Edessa and Sanliurfa).
Urfa is about 40 kilometers north and slightly west of Harran [Haran], and Harran in turn is about 20 kilometers north of the present border between Turkey and Syria. In order to find a wife for his son Isaac, Abraham directed his servant to go to “the land of my [Abraham’s] birth” (Genesis 24:7). The servant thus proceeded to Aram-naharaim (the upper region or headwaters of the Euphrates in northern Mesopotamia; Oxford Annotated Bible, 2001) and located Rebekah who was a member of Nahor’s family (a brother of Abraham). Rebekah was from, and at the time lived in, the “city of Nahor” in Aram-naharaim (Genesis 24:10). In Genesis it is stated explicitly that the family city of Rebekah was Harran (27:43). Since Abraham was born in a city called “Ur” or some variant of this name, it may well be Urfa, which is very close geographically to Harran.
Urfa has a long tradition of being the city of Abraham. According to local legends, King Nimrod, a pagan worshipper of idols, ruled Urfa. One night Nimrod had a dream that a boy born in the city would challenge him and bring his rule to an end, so Nimrod ordered all male children born in the coming year put to death. Abraham’s mother was pregnant, but she managed to hide her condition and gave birth to Abraham in a cave near the base of the cliff upon which Nimrod’s castle was built. Abraham lived in the cave for the first seven years of his life, after which he emerged.
Periodically Nimrod held various festivals outside the city, attended by all the inhabitants of Urfa. On one occasion Abraham stayed behind in the empty city and smashed all of Nimrod’s idols except for the largest one. On returning to the city and finding his idols destroyed, the enraged Nimrod turned to Abraham for an explanation. Abraham suggested that perhaps the largest idol, out of jealousy, had destroyed the others. Nimrod quickly responded that a mere statue could not carry out such an act, to which Abraham replied along the lines of “Well if it is only a powerless statue, why do you worship it? How is it that the statue can control you?” Nimrod had had enough and decided to punish Abraham for his transgressions.
Nimrod took Abraham to his castle on top of the cliff while he had a huge fire built in the city down below. From a catapult he launched Abraham down the cliff and into the fire. But God saved the righteous Abraham. Where Abraham landed, a spring welled up from the ground, putting out the fire. Today the waters of the spring fill the sacred Pool of Abraham (Balıklıgöl). The burning wood and coal turned into fish, the sacred carp that live in the pool.
Returning to Eden, I suggest that in the minds of the ancient Hebrews the patriarch Abraham should come from the land of God, namely Eden. This reinforces the idea that Eden was in northern Mesopotamia, and it would place Eden more specifically in the region encompassing Urfa and Harran.
Is there any physical evidence to support this hypothesis? My answer is “Yes,” and I point to the site of Göbekli Tepe as a prime example. Composed of beautifully carved T-shaped stone pillars, the oldest portions of Göbekli Tepe date back to before the end of the last ice age, circa 9700 BCE (see my book, Forgotten Civilization, 2012). Göbekli Tepe is a mere 15 kilometers northeast of Urfa, and in Urfa remains from the same time period have been discovered, including the life-sized statue of a man found during the demolition of some old houses close to the Pool of Abraham (B. Çelik, in The Neolithic in Turkey, The Euphrates Basin, 2011; the statue is currently displayed in Sanliurfa’s Haleplibahçe Museum Complex). “Urfa Man” is a mysterious being. Carved from limestone with black obsidian eyes, he appears to stand naked (or could he be wearing a tight-fitting body suit?) and has an apparent V-shaped necklace, or possibly the front of a shawl or cape, below his neck. Urfa Man has ears, a nose, and eyes, but he seems to lack a mouth. His head is smooth and devoid of hair. His arms extend down along his body, and his hands are positioned against his lower torso at or below the area of the navel. He appears to be possibly holding or partially covering his genitals; under his hands may be his penis and testicles, but this is subject to interpretation. Below his hands and genital region “Urfa Man” lacks legs; instead he has a stump that may have been used to stand him upright in a slot in a stone base or support him in the ground.
Who or what is Urfa Man? Is he an idol, perhaps not unlike the idols of Nimrod? However, Urfa Man is some 8,000 years older than the traditional date for Nimrod and Abraham. Or might Urfa Man be representative of the people who lived in this region at the end of the last ice age? Might Urfa Man have been carved in the image of the builders of Göbekli Tepe? Does Urfa Man represent the primordial human, the Adam of Genesis?
Returning to Göbekli Tepe, the oldest portions predate the end of the last ice age; other portions of the site date to just after the end of the last ice age. The end of the last ice age was characterized by dramatic geological changes on Earth, including increased earthquake and volcanic activity due to the release of pressure when glaciers at high latitudes quickly melted. There were also torrential rains, causing widespread flooding, and rising sea levels. All of this was initiated, based on the evidence, by a major solar outburst circa 9700 BCE, which also set off widespread wildfires; and in selected areas, huge “lightning bolts” hit Earth and literally incinerated anything on the surface (see Forgotten Civilization). At Göbkeli Tepe there is evidence of the catastrophe that ended the last ice age. Pillars were toppled and subsequently hastily re-erected. Crude stone walls—bunker-like fortifications—were built between the pillars, perhaps as some level of protection during those tumultuous times. Finally the site was purposefully buried under a mountain of dirt and debris.
When the compilers of Genesis retold stories of Eden, might they have had a vague notion of an earlier cycle of civilization, one that existed before the end of the last ice age and we know from the remains of Göbekli Tepe and Urfa Man? I believe this is a distinct possibility. And what about the legends surrounding Abraham and Urfa? Might these too record vague memories, passed down over the generations, of what happened at the end of the last ice age? Perhaps. Consider the elements of the Abraham legend. Abraham was thrown from a high cliff, thus he appeared to fall from the sky, into a huge fire. Could this represent the “lightning” and incoming plasma (electrically charged balls of “gas”) from a solar outburst that could initiate fires on the surface of our planet? Abraham was saved when God turned the fire into water, thus creating the Pool of Abraham. Might this represent the torrential rains and flooding that occurred at the end of the last ice age? And how might people have best survived the catastrophes at the end of the last ice age? By retreating to caves, just as Abraham’s mother and the young Abraham did to escape the wrath of Nimrod.
This might all be dismissed as idle speculation, but such were my thoughts as I once again visited Urfa and Göbekli Tepe this past June 2015. Possibly, just possibly, there may be some merit to my theorizing.
Robert M. Schoch, Honorary Professor at the Nikola Vaptsarov Naval Academy and a full-time faculty member at Boston University, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University. Best known for re-dating the Great Sphinx, he is the author of Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future, and many other books. Website: http://www.RobertSchoch.com.