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How Rival Gardens of Eden in Iraq Survived ISIS, Dwindling Tourists, And Each Other

Jennifer Percy | Longreads | May 10, 2016 | 4,132 words

Against all odds, Iraq’s religious tourism infrastructure has endured.

Posted inFeatured, Nonfiction, Story

How Rival Gardens of Eden in Iraq Survived ISIS, Dwindling Tourists, And Each Other

Against all odds, Iraq’s religious tourism infrastructure has endured.
A bird flies out of Lalish temple which features a stone black snake on its wall. Photo by: Erin Trieb

Jennifer Percy | Atlas Obscura | May 2016 | 17 minutes (4,132 words)

Our latest Exclusive is a new story by Jennifer Percy, author of the book Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, co-funded by Longreads Members and published by Atlas Obscura.

Thirty-five miles north of Mosul, Iraq, about an hour’s drive from Islamic State territory, was the Garden of Eden. I stood with my interpreter, Salar, a local Iraqi journalist. “See that smoke between the mountains,” Salar said, pointing in the distance. “It’s an oil fire.” The thick plume of smoke marked the entrance to the site. Flames burst from a pipe stuck deep in the earth beneath which lay 25 billion barrels of crude oil worth more than $1 trillion. “These oil explorers think about holy places,” he said. “The more oil, the holier the land.”

But this isn’t the only Garden of Eden. It’s not even the only Garden of Eden in Iraq’s Nineveh plains, the war-torn province through which I was traveling. According to coordinates rather confusingly supplied by the Book of Genesis, the garden was at the spot where one river split into four. Here’s Genesis 2.8-2.14:

Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed…A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

The thinking was, if you can pinpoint the four rivers—Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates—you can pinpoint paradise. The Tigris and Euphrates run from northern Iraq the length of the country before meeting in the south. No one knows for sure the location of the Pishon or Gihon rivers, except that they are in Havilah, and no one knows where Havilah is either. These are the two unknown rivers of paradise. Genesis refers to the land of Cush, thought to be Ethiopia, but the known rivers are not near Ethiopia. Others believe the rivers are in Azerbaijan, or point out that Jerusalem is home to the ancient Gihon Spring.

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