Whether you believe in the biblical story or not, it seems clear that the ancient writers of the bible had some location in mind when they were describing the Garden of Eden. Many scholars and interested amateur theologians have given their opinions on the location, from the scriptures, and I thought I’d give it a try myself.
To begin with, most people seem to focus on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as being key, likely because they are the only remaining landmarks with similar names (well, the Euphrates has. The Tigris is taken to be the Hiddekel). The other rivers listed: Gihon and Pison are sometimes take to be the Nile and the Ganges. Thus, a common conclusion is that the Garden of Eden is somewhere in Iraq.
But lets look at what scripture actually says.
To begin with, the relevant passages describing the location are in Genesis 2. Although I may consider slightly more scripture than usual, here are the passages as written in the King James version.
(8) And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.
This is often overlooked as part of the description but, to me, it’s important because it indicates that Eden itself is much larger than the garden. The Garden was planted only on the East side. I think it’s also worth noting that Eden seems to be a mythical land that humans can no longer get to. Originally intended to be a paradise or a piece of heaven on Earth, perhaps.
(10) And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.
I want to pause here, briefly, to note that this passage says a single river came out of Eden. That river then split into four heads. Thus, if we find a single body of water that approximately (or reasonably, considering the global awareness of ancient shepherds) meets four major rivers, it could be an good place to start looking.
(11) The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; (12) And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone. (13) And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia. (14) And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.
Versus 11-18 describe the four rivers, that come from the river of Eden. This does not necessarily suggest that Eden was bounded by any of the rivers. Consider Figure 1, above. Regardless of whether the rivers radiate from a common point, or are tributaries along another river, they can be vastly separate with virtually nothing in common except their source river. It is crucially important to realize that they may be no where near Eden! All this passage suggests is that the river flowing from Eden is the common source for the main water supplies of the lands in which the biblical stories are set.
As a starting point, we already know that the biblical stories are set in the Middle East, so we can figure that the rivers are probably in the middle east. I see little reason to question that the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers correspond to three of those described (Pison, Hiddekel, and Euphrates). To suggest the Ganges is the Gihon, while very loosely possible from the logic I’ve described earlier, seems rather ludicrous as the ancient Israelites would have little knowledge of that part of the world. In addition, the river of Eden is described as being the source for all four. There is no common body of water that could even come close to source all four, especially considering the direction they drain.
Instead, I favour the idea that the red sea or a now dried up river leading to the red sea was Gihon. If this is the case, then we can trace the four rivers back to a source at, or close to… the Mediterranean Sea! While, strickly speaking, the modern Tigris/Euphrates don’t originate at the Mediterranean, they are close enough that we could envision a basin there in ancient times.
So this could suggest that the ancient bible authors looked at the Meditteranean sea as an immense river coming from Eden. Thus, to them, Eden would have been separated by a vast, unpassable stretch of water (perhaps a flood-like scenario as God closed off Eden). It’s possible they could even have seen, on a clear day, a distant land on the horizon across the water (Cyprus, or the now sunken island south of it — Socrates’ Atlantis?).
However, given that the bible is all about Israel and the promised land, and that Isreal would be on the east of this version of Eden, it seems likely that the Garden of Eden was the fertile coastal area that’s now Israel/Lebanon/Syria. It’s well known that, historically, this area was very fertile and looked a lot different than the modern version, which is the result of vast deforestation from many wars and foreign occupations. Even so, we can see from Google maps that it remains fertile by comparison to the surrounding region (albeit often with the help of modern techniques and technology). With vegetation shown from the satellite view, we can almost picture where the Garden of Eden might have been thought to be.
This interpretation is also somewhat reasonable when considering the mythology that states humans were cut off from the Garden of Eden and that God placed a guard at the east side only (Genesis 3:24).
(24) So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
If Eden was even remotely land-locked, such as Iraq, why would God only need to post guards on one side? Instead, if Eden is located as in Figure 2, above, the ancient Israelites would believe guards to only be needed on one side, as there would be no access from the others.
I realize, of course, that if the Garden of Eden is actually the fertile coastal area in Figure 1, then so few guards would still be relatively useless, and the continued existence of people there is unexplained. However, there is very little speculation on the meaning or metaphors behind the guards (the Cherubims and flaming sword) so, at this time, I can offer no suggestion on a solution for this question.
In conclusion, I believe that my interpretation of the biblical passages and determination of a possible location for Eden has many positive attributes, derived from a careful reading and interpretion of biblical scripture, that other versions do not. Furthermore, it’s interesting to speculate why multiple stories (biblical and Socratious, for example) of a land in the middle Mediterranean, may have arisen. Are the stories relating to early Cyprus, or some other island culture that has long since disappeared beneath the waves? Or are they cases of convergent mythology? It’s interesting to speculate.
Insight and longevity,