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A map of Paradise

The Garden is closer to you than the strap of your sandal.


We are talking here about the Garden of Eden, often equated with paradise itself. The phrase was recorded by al-Bukhari, who died in the year 870, and shows that the Garden was not just a Christian belief. But as the author Christian Lange mentions in a footnote, the phrase he quotes goes on to say “and so is hell.” That puts a different gloss on it, but as other authors in the book emphasize, Satanic influence is intimately bound up with the Garden.


This 2016 book considers human notions of paradise over several thousand years, beginning with ancient Mesopotamia. It is edited by Alessandro Scarfi of the Warburg Institute in London, and is based on a conference held there in 2009. The book consists of 14 chapters, each written by an expert in his or her speciality.


The book’s footnotes are not to be ignored; sometimes they consume half of a page within each chapter. In a footnote by Royal Holloway University professor Veronica della Dora, for example, we get this concise overview. “A distinction needs to be made between terrestrial paradise, the Garden of Eden lost to mankind after Adam’s fall, and the Heavenly Jerusalem- a condition attained by righteous souls after death.” Several authors engage with this dual distinction.


Markham Geller, professor at UCL, finds it “useful to reach back into literary records for earliest references to the world of the dead, namely from Sumerian sources, where we find a clear distinction between ‘paradise’ and the hereafter. The Sumerian view, however, is far from what we might expect: “paradise was to be found as an island in the Persian Gulf called Dilmun, firmly identified as Bahrain... Dilmun, like Eden, was a distant ideal place located on the earth (rather than in heaven), and was originally the habitation of immortals, not dead spirits.”


The book contains many unusual and unexpected insights. For example, the imagery of a mountain occurs only in the works of Syriac-speaking authors. In the 6th century, a text known as the Cave of Treasures was written in Syria. “The Cave’s author places special emphasis on the sanctity of paradise, referring to it routinely as the ‘holy mountain.’” Author Sergey Minov at the University of Oxford writes further that the “great advantage in using this image is that it makes paradise both terrestrial and celestial, ... a convenient way of reconciling two different conceptual pictures of paradise that were current among Christians during Late Antiquity,” as I just quoted from della Dora.


Minov also discusses an even earlier Syriac text, the Transitus from the 5th century, that is most intriguing. It relates that “the Flood did not cover this ‘holy mountain’ and reached only its ‘lower grounds.’ The reason for that was that God himself was standing in his glory, ‘fixed’ on the paradise of Eden, and observing the course of the catastrophe.” Minov says this captivating imagery is unique.


But this brings us no closer to the earthly location of paradise. Lange says “Paradise was variously located above, on, or underneath the Temple Mount” in Jerusalem...some thought Wajj to be the earthly paradise.” Emilie Savage-Smith, recently retired from Oxford University, tells us “Paradise (in all its variations) in the medieval Islamic tradition is an eternal abode with physical attributes; its inhabitants are envisioned as living beings with human sensations- not souls divorced from bodies.”


She says paradise does not appear on Islamic maps, as opposed to Greek Latin, and Syriac maps.

This is attributable to the fact paradise was above earth, not on it, so there was a “literal interpretation of the fall from grace of Adam and Eve as an expulsion downward.”


Annette Reed at the Univ. of Pennsylvania delves deeply into “our oldest surviving examples of an extensive literary effort with Judaism to map the structure of the cosmos.” These two texts, from the 3rd century BCE, opened “the way for a flurry of Jewish (and, later, Christian) speculation about the topographies of realms outside the inhabited world- above, beyond, and below.” Anders Hultgard at the Univ. of Uppsala in Sweden explores the location of Valhalla in Scandinavian cosmography, and Antonio Panaino at the Univ. of Bologna looks at the Iranian paradise.


This brief survey is intended to show the richness of the traditions explored in this fascinating book, which is a major addition to the literature on concepts of Paradise.



The book contains the following minor typos: first should be First on 145; finally should be Finally on 152; that that should be that on 172.


The Cosmography of Paradise: The Other World from Ancient Mesopotamia to Medieval Europe (295 pages) is $xx by The Warburg Institute. This softcover book is the 27th in a series of Colloquia that began in 1994. Titles can be ordered at this website:


Image with this article: Jodocus Hondius, Paradisus, from Atlas Minor [Amsterdam: J. Hondius, 1607/10]. British Library, Maps C.3.a.3

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

More in this category: « Burke and Political Reason
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