PARADISE is not what it used to be. Dozens of dead fish float by in a river that reeks of sewage. Dirty sheep chew at the few tufts of grass that survive in the baking earth. Litter swirls around in the dust. The graffiti screams in Arabic: “Down with America! Down with Israel!” Welcome to the Garden of Eden. Or, as the locals call it, Janat Adan.
In its center, the showpiece: the Adam tree, no longer bearing apples, now just a dead, gnarled trunk that rises out of cracked concrete. There is no serpent hanging from its branches, but children, who use it as a climbing frame.
The Adam Tree before the war.
Southern Iraq has turned to cliché as the cradle of civilization, where man invented agriculture, cities, writing, the wheel and double-entry bookkeeping. The ancient land of Mesopotamia is home to the biblical cities of Ur, Babylon and Ninevah, with wonders of the world, such as the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens.
The dusty, impoverished town of Qurna, where the Tigris and Euphrates meet, is what the locals claim is the Garden of Eden, where God put Adam and gave him Eve, or How’a, as the Koran refers to her.
Many biblical scholars believe that the garden was in the comparatively fertile plains of southern Iraq, but local lore gives it a far more precise location.
Reyahd al-Moussawi, a resident of Qurna who claims to be descended from Muhammad, said under the Adam tree: “This is a rudimentary part of the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden is a paradise in heaven, but this is a part of paradise that came down to earth.”
The countless depictions of the Garden of Eden in Christian art portray it as a land of plenty, a cornucopia of fruit and animals. But the reality is rather drearier. After Saddam Hussein’s attempts to control the Shias who live here by depriving them of water, its sparse date palms now seem like paradise only if you have spent too long in the deserts that comprise much of the rest of southern Iraq.
The garden is enclosed by concrete walls, with cracked tile flooring and a decrepit fountain. It has been rebuilt four times since the 1950s, the last time just after Saddam came to power. It is trapped between the banks of the Tigris and a row of collapsing mud-brick houses.
The Adam tree was planted decades ago to replace an earlier one that died. Now, it, too, is dead. Not even the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil can survive in modern-day paradise.
Qurna has attempted to cash in on being the birthplace of mankind, but has been frustrated by war. “Before the Iran-Iraq War, there were many tourists. But no one has come since. The last time I saw a tourist was 1980,” Mr al-Moussawi said.
Saddam tried to help out after the war ended by building the Qurna Tourist Hotel next door to the garden, but still no one came.
Part of the problem is that although the Garden of Eden is recognized by Islam, it does not have quite the same resonance as in Christianity. The Islamic world views the Garden of Eden as more of a symbol of the birth of man than a physical location.
However, the prophet Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, who lived in nearby Ur, is said to have come to visit the garden to pray 4,000 years ago.
Mr al-Moussawi added: “It is commonly called the Adam tree, but that is wrong. It should be called the Abraham tree, to remember the time Abraham came here.”
The existence of a site that has an ancient claim to be the most famous garden in the world shows the extraordinary tourist potential that Iraq has, when it is not at war or ruled by a genocidal dictator. It has arguably a greater wealth of truly significant ancient sites than any other country, and economic forecasters say that mass tourism could help the economy to grow out of its dependence on oil.
But the locals seem unimpressed. The Qurna Tourist Hotel, also known as the Garden of Eden Hotel, was abandoned until a few weeks ago, when it was taken over by the supporters of the Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Asked whether Ayatollah al-Hakim liked working in an office overlooking the Garden of Eden, one of his officials said disdainfully: “It’s not holy to Islam. It’s only history you know.”
Copyright 2003 Times Newspapers Ltd