Nobody has said that the creation myth isn’t common in many cultures. For several decades, these myths can be found in other cultures. Is Garden of Eden really a myth or a fact?
Do these mysterious stones mark the site of the Garden of Eden?
For the old Kurdish shepherd, it was just another burning hot day in the rolling plains of eastern Turkey. Following his flock over the arid hillsides, he passed the single mulberry tree, which the locals regarded as ‘sacred’. The bells on his sheep tinkled in the stillness. Then he spotted something. Crouching down, he brushed away the dust, and exposed a strange, large, oblong stone.
The man looked left and right: there were similar stone rectangles, peeping from the sands. Calling his dog to heel, the shepherd resolved to inform someone of his finds when he got back to the village. Maybe the stones were important.
They certainly were important. The solitary Kurdish man, on that summer’s day in 1994, had made the greatest archaeological discovery in 50 years. Others would say he’d made the greatest archaeological discovery ever: a site that has revolutionised the way we look at human history, the origin of religion – and perhaps even the truth behind the Garden of Eden.
The site has been described as ‘extraordinary’ and ‘the most important’ site in the world
A few weeks after his discovery, news of the shepherd’s find reached museum curators in the ancient city of Sanliurfa, ten miles south-west of the stones.
They got in touch with the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul. And so, in late 1994, archaeologist Klaus Schmidt came to the site of Gobekli Tepe (pronounced Go-beckly Tepp-ay) to begin his excavations.
As he puts it: ‘As soon as I got there and saw the stones, I knew that if I didn’t walk away immediately I would be here for the rest of my life.’
Remarkable: The intricate carvings were done by humans who had not mastered language or other basic skills
Schmidt stayed. And what he has uncovered is astonishing. Archaeologists worldwide are in rare agreement on the site’s importance. ‘Gobekli Tepe changes everything,’ says Ian Hodder, at Stanford University.
David Lewis-Williams, professor of archaeology at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, says: ‘Gobekli Tepe is the most important archaeological site in the world.’
Some go even further and say the site and its implications are incredible. As Reading University professor Steve Mithen says: ‘Gobekli Tepe is too extraordinary for my mind to understand.’
So what is it that has energised and astounded the sober world of academia?
The site of Gobekli Tepe is simple enough to describe. The oblong stones, unearthed by the shepherd, turned out to be the flat tops of awesome, T-shaped megaliths. Imagine carved and slender versions of the stones of Avebury or Stonehenge.
Most of these standing stones are inscribed with bizarre and delicate images – mainly of boars and ducks, of hunting and game. Sinuous serpents are another common motif. Some of the megaliths show crayfish or lions.
The stones seem to represent human forms – some have stylised ‘arms’, which angle down the sides. Functionally, the site appears to be a temple, or ritual site, like the stone circles of Western Europe.
To date, 45 of these stones have been dug out – they are arranged in circles from five to ten yards across – but there are indications that much more is to come. Geomagnetic surveys imply that there are hundreds more standing stones, just waiting to be excavated.
So far, so remarkable. If Gobekli Tepe was simply this, it would already be a dazzling site – a Turkish Stonehenge. But several unique factors lift Gobekli Tepe into the archaeological stratosphere – and the realms of the fantastical.
The Garden of Eden come to life: Is Gobekli Tepe where the story began?
The first is its staggering age. Carbon-dating shows that the complex is at least 12,000 years old, maybe even 13,000 years old.
That means it was built around 10,000BC. By comparison, Stonehenge was built in 3,000 BC and the pyramids of Giza in 2,500 BC.
Gobekli is thus the oldest such site in the world, by a mind-numbing margin. It is so old that it predates settled human life. It is pre-pottery, pre-writing, pre-everything. Gobekli hails from a part of human history that is unimaginably distant, right back in our hunter-gatherer past.
How did cavemen build something so ambitious? Schmidt speculates that bands of hunters would have gathered sporadically at the site, through the decades of construction, living in animal-skin tents, slaughtering local game for food.
The many flint arrowheads found around Gobekli support this thesis; they also support the dating of the site.
This revelation, that Stone Age hunter-gatherers could have built something like Gobekli, is worldchanging, for it shows that the old hunter-gatherer life, in this region of Turkey, was far more advanced than we ever conceived – almost unbelievably sophisticated.
The shepherd who discovered Gobekli Tepe has ‘changed everything’, said one academic
It’s as if the gods came down from heaven and built Gobekli for themselves.
This is where we come to the biblical connection, and my own involvement in the Gobekli Tepe story.
About three years ago, intrigued by the first scant details of the site, I flew out to Gobekli. It was a long, wearying journey, but more than worth it, not least as it would later provide the backdrop for a new novel I have written.
Back then, on the day I arrived at the dig, the archaeologists were unearthing mind-blowing artworks. As these sculptures were revealed, I realised that I was among the first people to see them since the end of the Ice Age.
And that’s when a tantalising possibility arose. Over glasses of black tea, served in tents right next to the megaliths, Klaus Schmidt told me that, as he put it: ‘Gobekli Tepe is not the Garden of Eden: it is a temple in Eden.’
To understand how a respected academic like Schmidt can make such a dizzying claim, you need to know that many scholars view the Eden story as folk-memory, or allegory.
Seen in this way, the Eden story, in Genesis, tells us of humanity’s innocent and leisured hunter-gatherer past, when we could pluck fruit from the trees, scoop fish from the rivers and spend the rest of our days in pleasure.
But then we ‘fell’ into the harsher life of farming, with its ceaseless toil and daily grind. And we know primitive farming was harsh, compared to the relative indolence of hunting, because of the archaeological evidence.
To date, archaeologists have dug 45 stones out of the ruins at Gobekli
When people make the transition from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture, their skeletons change – they temporarily grow smaller and less healthy as the human body adapts to a diet poorer in protein and a more wearisome lifestyle. Likewise, newly domesticated animals get scrawnier.
This begs the question, why adopt farming at all? Many theories have been suggested – from tribal competition, to population pressures, to the extinction of wild animal species. But Schmidt believes that the temple of Gobekli reveals another possible cause.
‘To build such a place as this, the hunters must have joined together in numbers. After they finished building, they probably congregated for worship. But then they found that they couldn’t feed so many people with regular hunting and gathering.
‘So I think they began cultivating the wild grasses on the hills. Religion motivated people to take up farming.’
The reason such theories have special weight is that the move to farming first happened in this same region. These rolling Anatolian plains were the cradle of agriculture.
The world’s first farmyard pigs were domesticated at Cayonu, just 60 miles away. Sheep, cattle and goats were also first domesticated in eastern Turkey. Worldwide wheat species descend from einkorn wheat – first cultivated on the hills near Gobekli. Other domestic cereals – such as rye and oats – also started here.
The stones unearthed by the shepherd turned out to be the flat tops of T-shaped megaliths
But there was a problem for these early farmers, and it wasn’t just that they had adopted a tougher, if ultimately more productive, lifestyle. They also experienced an ecological crisis. These days the landscape surrounding the eerie stones of Gobekli is arid and barren, but it was not always thus. As the carvings on the stones show – and as archaeological remains reveal – this was once a richly pastoral region.
There were herds of game, rivers of fish, and flocks of wildfowl; lush green meadows were ringed by woods and wild orchards. About 10,000 years ago, the Kurdish desert was a ‘paradisiacal place’, as Schmidt puts it. So what destroyed the environment? The answer is Man.
As we began farming, we changed the landscape and the climate. When the trees were chopped down, the soil leached away; all that ploughing and reaping left the land eroded and bare. What was once an agreeable oasis became a land of stress, toil and diminishing returns.
And so, paradise was lost. Adam the hunter was forced out of his glorious Eden, ‘to till the earth from whence he was taken’ – as the Bible puts it.
Of course, these theories might be dismissed as speculations. Yet there is plenty of historical evidence to show that the writers of the Bible, when talking of Eden, were, indeed, describing this corner of Kurdish Turkey.
Archaeologist Klaus Schmidt poses next to some of the carvings at Gebekli
In the Book of Genesis, it is indicated that Eden is west of Assyria. Sure enough, this is where Gobekli is sited.
Likewise, biblical Eden is by four rivers, including the Tigris and Euphrates. And Gobekli lies between both of these.
In ancient Assyrian texts, there is mention of a ‘Beth Eden’ – a house of Eden. This minor kingdom was 50 miles from Gobekli Tepe.
Another book in the Old Testament talks of ‘the children of Eden which were in Thelasar’, a town in northern Syria, near Gobekli.
The very word ‘Eden’ comes from the Sumerian for ‘plain'; Gobekli lies on the plains of Harran.
Thus, when you put it all together, the evidence is persuasive. Gobekli Tepe is, indeed, a ‘temple in Eden’, built by our leisured and fortunate ancestors – people who had time to cultivate art, architecture and complex ritual, before the traumas of agriculture ruined their lifestyle, and devastated their paradise.
It’s a stunning and seductive idea. Yet it has a sinister epilogue. Because the loss of paradise seems to have had a strange and darkening effect on the human mind.
Many of Gobekli’s standing stones are inscribed with ‘bizarre and delicate’ images, like this reptile
A few years ago, archaeologists at nearby Cayonu unearthed a hoard of human skulls. They were found under an altar-like slab, stained with human blood.
No one is sure, but this may be the earliest evidence for human sacrifice: one of the most inexplicable of human behaviours and one that could have evolved only in the face of terrible societal stress.
Experts may argue over the evidence at Cayonu. But what no one denies is that human sacrifice took place in this region, spreading to Palestine, Canaan and Israel.
Archaeological evidence suggests that victims were killed in huge death pits, children were buried alive in jars, others roasted in vast bronze bowls.
These are almost incomprehensible acts, unless you understand that the people had learned to fear their gods, having been cast out of paradise. So they sought to propitiate the angry heavens.
This savagery may, indeed, hold the key to one final, bewildering mystery. The astonishing stones and friezes of Gobekli Tepe are preserved intact for a bizarre reason.
Long ago, the site was deliberately and systematically buried in a feat of labour every bit as remarkable as the stone carvings.
Giant: The stones of Gobekli Tepe are huge and are generally thought to form part of the world’s oldest religious site
Around 8,000 BC, the creators of Gobekli turned on their achievement and entombed their glorious temple under thousands of tons of earth, creating the artificial hills on which that Kurdish shepherd walked in 1994.
No one knows why Gobekli was buried. Maybe it was interred as a kind of penance: a sacrifice to the angry gods, who had cast the hunters out of paradise. Perhaps it was for shame at the violence and bloodshed that the stone-worship had helped provoke.
Whatever the answer, the parallels with our own era are stark. As we contemplate a new age of ecological turbulence, maybe the silent, sombre, 12,000-year-old stones of Gobekli Tepe are trying to speak to us, to warn us, as they stare across the first Eden we destroyed.
The Garden of Eden was identified, correctly in my opinion back in 1887-1897 by Professor Henry A. Sayce of Oxford University: its the Sumerian city of Eridug, Babylonian Eridu, 12 miles southwest of ancient Ur where Abraham lived in the Bible. What’s the “evidence”? The Mesopotamian explanation of why man does not have immortality takes place here! Adapa is told by his god Ea “Do not eat the bread of death or you will die!” When the “bread of life” is presented Adapa in heaven by the god Anu, he refuses to eat it, obeying Ea. Ea lied, the “bread of life” was in reality the “bread of immortal life.” Man was conned by his god and deprived of immortality. The story has Ea saying “I gave him wisdom but I denied immortality.” The Hebrews objecting to this story, recast it, Ea and Anu became Yahweh and the Eden’s serpent. How so? The serpent tempter offered the “fruit of death” to Eve and thus Adam, Anu via his guards Gishzida and Dumuzi offered Adapa the “food of death” (in Adapa’s mind).
Garden of Eden originally a Pygmy myth?
In Pygmy Kitabu, Belgian anthropologist Dr. Jean-Pierre Hallet relates numerous detailed legends of the Pygmy people of the Ituri Forest in the Congo, including their origin and savior myths.
He discusses an array of intriguing facts and legends of the little-known Pygmy culture. The highlight of his many observations is the meticulously documented evidence that the African Pygmies are actually the surviving roots of man’s racial, religious and linguistic origin, that they are the direct ancestors of all the races.
Remarkable parallels exist between the Pygmy legends and the legends of many world cultures-especially the Egyptians and Judeo-Christian. Today the Pygmies still tell the original myths of Osiris, Isis and Horus-the murdered father, immaculate mother, and avenging son, whose story is regarded by most Egyptologists as an older version of the Christ story. The Pygmies also recount the original Adam and Eve legend, the giving of commandments, and the second coming of the Pygmy messiah. Since before the rather recent invasion by the Negro tribes, the Ituri Pygmies were isolated from the rest of the world for some 4,000 years, they could not have been “indoctrinated” by any other cultures or missionaries.
The Pygmy first man, paradise and forbidden tree legend
Remarkably, the Pygmy origin story largely revolves around a monotheistic God the Father who resides in heaven, as was related to Hallet by Efé elders of the Erengeti region:
One fine day in heaven, God told his chief helper to make the first man. The angel of the moon descended. He modeled the first man from earth, wrapped a skin around the earth, poured blood into the skin, and punched holes for the nostrils, eyes, ears and mouth. He made another hole in the first man’s bottom, and put all the organs in his insides. Then he breathed his own vital force into the little earthen statue. He entered into the body. It moved… It sat up… It stood up… It walked. It wasEfé, the first man and father of all who came after.
God said to Efé, “Beget children to people my forest. I shall give them everything they need to be happy. They will never have to work. They will be lords of the earth. They will live forever. There is only one thing I forbid them. Now–listen well–give my words to your children, and tell them to transmit this commandment to every generation. The tahu tree is absolutely forbidden to man. You must never, for any reason, violate this law.”
Efé obeyed these instructions. He, and his children, never went near the tree. Many years passed. Then God called to Efé, “Come up to heaven. I need your help!” So Efé went up to the sky. After he left, the ancestors lived in accordance with his laws and teachings for a long, long time. Then, one terrible day, a pregnant woman said to her husband, “Darling, I want to eat the fruit of the tahu tree.” He said, “You know that is wrong.” She said, “Why?” He said, “It is against the law.” She said, “That is a silly old law. Which do you care about more–me, or some silly old law?”
“There it was–the forbidden tree of God. The sinner picked a tahu fruit.”
They argued and argued. Finally, he gave in. His heart pounded with fear as he sneaked into the deep, deep forest. Closer and closer he came. There it was–the forbidden tree of God. The sinner picked a tahu fruit. He peeled the tahu fruit. He hid the peel under a pile of leaves. Then he returned to camp and gave the fruit to his wife. She tasted it. She urged her husband to taste it. He did. All of the other Pygmies had a bit. Everyone ate the forbidden fruit, and everyone thought that God would never find out.
Meanwhile, the angel of the moon watched from on high. He rushed a message to his master: “The people have eaten the fruit of the tahu tree!” God was infuriated. “You have disobeyed my orders,” he said to the ancestors. “For this you will die!” (Hallet, 144-5)
Another version has God creating the man and woman, and placing them in the forest, where they wanted for nothing. However, after the woman gets pregnant, she desperately desires the tahu fruit, and forces the man to pick it for her, much to his objection. Angered, God says:
“You broke your promise to me! And you pulled that poor man into sin! Now I’m going to punish you: both of you will find out what it is to work hard and be sick and die. But you, woman, since you made the trouble first, you will suffer the most. Your babies will hurt you when they come, and you will always have to work for the man you betrayed.” (Hallet, 119)
“There is no reason to suspect that the Pygmy ‘Garden of Eden’ story is anything but original, and there is much reason to suggest it may well be the oldest account we possess.”
In the Pygmy origins legend, we find a sky-god father-figure; a man created out of earth; a paradisaical “garden” or, appropriately,forest; a forbidden tree/fruit; and a woman blamed for the downfall of mankind, for which she is punished by pain in childbirth–motifs all found in the Bible. As noted, this story is detailed in ways absent from the biblical version, contains language and imagery appropriate for a Pygmy setting, and reveals no intrusions from external influences whatsoever. There is no reason to suspect that the Pygmy “Garden of Eden” story is anything but original, and there is much reason to suggest it may well be the oldest account we possess–and the first. What this development suggests, of course, is that the biblical account did not originate in the Middle East and was not originally handed down to Semitic “chosen people.” The same can be said for other biblical myths, such as the Exodus and Christ stories, both of which appear to have emanated from the same Pygmy source as well.
The Garden of Eden
“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.
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.
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.”
By Eric H. Cline
Chair, Department of Classical and Semitic Languages and Literatures
The George Washington University