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Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth

by Alessandro Scafi
University of Chicago Press, 400 pages, $55

Looking through the many and lavish illustrations of Alessandro Scafi’s Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth, I find myself drawn again and again to a photograph reproduced near the book’s end. It appeared originally in the Times of London and was taken in 1944 in the town of Qurna in Iraq, near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. One of those rivers fills the picture’s background, and in the foreground is an octagonal wall of pale brick, perhaps three feet high, like a baptismal font. Within the wall is a dead tree, which seems to have fallen so that two bare branches sink into the dirt outside the font.

The branches angle strangely, giving the vivid appearance of an enormous insect, a praying mantis crawling out of the font and onto the surrounding bare dirt, there no doubt to perish. A carefully made sign at the top of the wall, canted awkwardly against the tree’s dead trunk, reads: “The Original GARDEN of EDEN.” Locals call the tree the Tree of Adam, that is, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Though living branches with leaves may be seen in the background of the photograph, my research suggests that it is not the Tree of Life. It’s just a tree.

Perhaps not too long after that photograph was taken, the people of Qurna planted a replacement for the Tree of Adam, but it died too: Its straighter but equally bare trunk stands there today. The ironies of the scene are journalistic and irresistible, which is why the Times sent people there in 1944, in time of war, and again in 2003, also in time of war, to meditate upon contemporary tragedies. The problem with Paradise is that it’s always Lost, of course; any meditation on it, especially in a place that claims to be its geographical location, is bound to be ironic or elegaic or both.

And yet, as Scafi’s remarkable Mapping Paradise demonstrates, there have been centuries of attempts to place paradise on maps, thereby making it somehow present to our world or at least possibly present. Paradise is always lost, but maps are for finding.

Now, finding isn’t everything: In the Inferno, Dante the pilgrim meets the shade of Ulysses, whose wanderlust led him to explore what Dante the poet believed to be the “Hemisphere of Water,” that half of the earth covered by the seas except for a single mountainous island in the midst of it called the Mount of Purgatory. (Start digging straight down at Mount Calvary and eventually you’ll make your way to it, though only by passing through Hell.) At the top of this mountain sits the earthly paradise, which those who have been fully cleansed of sin are allowed to enter: They have become like Adam before the Fall. But Ulysses sees none of this. As soon as he gets within sight of the mountain, God sends a great storm to sweep his ship under the waves.

Still, if finding isn’t everything, at least it’s something. To see-delineated on a sheet that includes or could include Athens, Greece, and Athens, Georgia-the place where God first shaped man from the dust! Canterbury Cathedral in England once possessed, and for all I know still possesses, a little of the clay from which God made Adam (presumably the leftovers and trimmings), and, if this alone was sufficient to enchant pilgrims, still greater would be the awe experienced from merely picturing the spot where the Divine Hand reached down and scooped up the earth. To think that the tree in which the serpent entwined himself and from which Eve plucked the fruit once stood, and maybe even still stands, on the same ground that we walk! The theme of Scafi’s book is the power of this idea: that paradise belongs to the world that we recognize as our own, that perfection was found in the same continuum of space that we know in all its brokenness. To map paradise is to feed grief for what has been lost and hope for what may be restored.
Scafi’s exploration of this history can be pedantic at times-the opening chapter, alas, is a history of histories of the mapping of paradise-but his research is impeccable and the illustrations are astounding. Especially welcome are the many redrawings of medieval maps, by Scafi himself, that make their outlines clearer and translate their often-obscure labels into clear English. And there is a powerful story here: how through the history of Christianity confidence in the human ability to map Eden-and in the very legitimacy and validity of the project-waxed and then waned.

A point of great controversy in the early Church concerned whether Eden was indeed a geographically specific place on this globe. For some theologians-most notably Origen of Alexandria, who had inherited this line of thought from the first-century Jewish thinker Philo-a physical paradise was almost unthinkable, unworthy of God. The topic prompted one of the classic battles between the Alexandrian school of exegesis, which consistently read the Genesis narrative allegorically, and the school of Antioch, which read it historically and literally. From the Antiochan tradition, John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia condemn the allegorical reading as fiercely as Origen had denounced the literal.

It remained for Augustine effectively to resolve the debate by saying, with perhaps uncharacteristic irenicism, that both sides were right: The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden does indeed describe a historical event but one that God has shaped so that it was full of allegorical and typological significance. This would become the normal, if not unanimously held, position of Christians for many centuries, but it raised an interesting series of questions in its turn: Where, then, was this physical paradise? Might it still be in its original location? If so, could it be found? If it were found, would angels with flaming swords still be guarding its gates?

The first geographical hint offered by the narrative arrives at Genesis 2:8: “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.” For titans of the Church like Isidore of Seville and the Venerable Bede (a century later), this could only mean that Eden was set in the uttermost East of the world. The easternmost land Bede had heard of-from his reading of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History-was India, so he suspected that Eden could be found there, or nearby.

So when the mappae mundi-maps of the whole world-began to be made in the Middle Ages, paradise was placed in the extreme East, often near that many-named island then known as Taprobana, later as Serendip and Ceylon and Sri Lanka. (Thus the seventh-century scholar Isidore of Seville would write, in what sounds to us like a deadpan comic tone: “Asia includes many provinces and regions. I shall briefly list their names and locations, starting with Paradise.”) Anyone accustomed to reading modern maps will be puzzled by these medieval representations of our world, for shapes and distances often seem crazily distorted. But, as Scafi wisely points out, “The first thing to bear in mind when looking at paradise on a medieval mappa mundi is that this kind of map was not created to inform the observer of the precise latitude, longitude, and size of the Garden of Eden, but to demonstrate its contiguity to the inhabited earth.”
Scafi calls this “topological mapping,” and it scarcely disappeared with the end of the Middle Ages. The famous multicolored map of the London Underground is topological, caring nothing for relative distances or even for strict orientation (its lines move only vertically, horizontally, and at 45-degree angles). Previous depictions of the Underground had been confusing to the point of uselessness because they included precise information about distances and directions that are frankly irrelevant to people riding on trains, which, after all, are underground. Fair to say that riders need to know only (a) whether they are on the proper line, (b) whether they are headed in the proper direction, and (c) how many stops away their destination is.

So the point of placing the earthly paradise on a mappa mundi is not to show people how to get there but to make the theological point that Eden really was here, in our world-indeed was the heart of our world, was what our world was supposed to be and would still be had Adam not disobeyed God. “The two key criteria in the mapping of paradise,” writes Scafi, are “that it must be shown as adjacent to, but not part of, the inhabited earth and that it should be prominent.” It occupies the same spatial continuum that we do, but must be marked as somehow separate in order to reinforce the message of the Fall. Thus some maps place it across a great sea, others across a vast desert or wilderness, others atop a great mountain. (Bede thought it had to be atop the highest ?mountain so it could escape the flood that submerged the rest of the world, a thought that perhaps also governs Dante’s placement of it.)

One of the most striking and powerful elements of Scafi’s book is his insistence that such geographical conceptions marry a biblical picture of space and a biblical account of time. Beatus of Li?bana’s commentary on the Book of Revelation, contemporaneous with the great Vatican map, includes its own map of the world in order to show where and how the gospel has spread throughout the world. His map is therefore, to some degree, a map of salvation history. When, some centuries later, Hugh of St. Victor speaks of the world in its spatial aspect, he uses the term mundus; when he speaks of it in its temporal aspect, he uses the term saeculum. Medieval mapping is a way of connecting the mundus to the saeculum. So one of the reasons these maps are often oriented to the East-and of course orient means “east”-is that this puts the earthly paradise at the top or beginning of the map and thereby at least gestures toward a historical dimension. Among the most famous of all the mappae mundi, the great and astonishingly detailed Hereford Map at England’s Hereford Cathedral reinforces this point, not only by placing the earthly paradise at the top of the map, but also by adding, as a kind of crown to the circle of the world, a portrayal of Christ’s Second Coming in Judgment, with images on either side of him of people going to blessedness or to damnation. The physical proximity of this image of Christ to the circular walled garden of paradise-which is just below his feet-reminds us of what he comes again to restore.

Perhaps even more striking is the still vaster Ebstorf world map, which portrays a world that obscures Christ and yet is embraced by him: His head is visible at the top, a hand emerges at the North and South, and the feet poke out below the Pillars of Hercules. As Scafi points out, one way to look at this map is to see the world as “a gigantic eucharistic Host.” (The map was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid on the German city of Hanover in 1943.) Likewise, regions on these maps are often divided according to biblical events or histories. For instance, a map now in Lambeth Palace shows how the whole world was divided among the sons of Noah; and the aforementioned map of Beatus of Li?bana divides the world among the twelve apostles according to their geographical responsibilities for preaching the gospel.

This imaging of the world as a mundus and saeculum established by apostolic mission finds a powerful modern proponent in the great and strange Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a German-Jewish convert to Catholicism who came to the United States when the Nazis took power, taught at Harvard and then Dartmouth, and wrote an enormous book called Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man (1938) that won great admiration from W.H. Auden and Reinhold Niebuhr. The book is, in effect, nothing more than a vast and detailed interpretation of the last thousand years of Western history as an elaboration of Beatus’ great map of apostolic proclamation.

Scafi makes the interesting point that many world travelers from the High Middle Ages onward-Marco Polo and his ilk-are fascinated by the legend of Prester John’s kingdom and other such fabulous tales of exotic kingdoms and strange places, yet they never talk about paradise. It’s just not on their itinerary. In the early medieval period, there had, of course, been the many legends surrounding Saint Brendan, but in his journeys a quest for the Garden of Eden becomes mixed and confused with the quest for the terra repromissionis sanctorum, the “Land of the Promise of the Saints,” a kind of Christianized version of the ancient writers’ Elysian Fields. In some medieval legends, Alexander the Great is a seeker after Eden, as is Ulysses in Dante, but once Europeans start traveling well beyond Europe they show little inclination to imitate these great heroes of history and legend. The semi-fictitious traveler John Mendeville mentions Eden but only to say that he doesn’t consider himself worthy of going there. Somewhat later, Christopher Columbus would affirm his belief in the continuing geographical reality of the earthly paradise but insists that no one could ever travel to it.

Perhaps this is just as well, because what C.S. Lewis might call the Medieval Model of Eden’s place on earth was never without strenuous controversy, and eventually there arose people like the philosopher Duns ?Scotus who were prepared to demolish all the existing theories. Eden is in the far East? Well, the notion of “East” is a relative one, Scotus said: Wherever you are, you’re always east of something and west of something else. Paradise is situated at the equator? Nah, too hot for what must, in the biblical account, be a perfectly temperate garden. As for Bede’s atop-the-highest-mountain theory, the air in such a location would be far too thin. It appears that Scotus did believe in a physical paradise, but he did not think it was accessible to the developing tools of natural philosophy, or what we would call experimental science. But, in that case, what becomes of the idea that paradise is part of the world we now live in? What becomes of the idea that it belongs on our maps? “From about 1500 onwards,” Scafi writes, “no map of the world showed the earthly paradise.”

Scafi explains that the great age of nautical exploration that accompanies, and hastens, the advent of the Renaissance had a profound effect on the practice of cartography in Europe. After all, when errors in navigation can run your ship onto rocks, drowning your cargo and perhaps your crew as well, topological maps that ignore proportional size and relative distance are worse than useless; they are potentially deadly. But perhaps even more disruptive than the rise of the nautical chart was the discovery of one of the great masterpieces of Western learning, Ptolemy’s Geography, written in the second century A.D., with its atlas of twenty-seven maps of various parts of the world. A Byzantine manuscript of this book arrived in Venice in 1406 and was soon thereafter copied and distributed all over Europe. Oddly, Ptolemy’s geography began to exert a kind of dominance at almost the same time that, thanks to Copernicus and others, his cosmology began to decline in influence.

One aspect of Ptolemy’s maps would prove to be especially revolutionary: They were all oriented to the North. Once Western European cartographers began imitating this practice, then paradise was displaced from its “narrative” position at the top of a map and the bond between mundus and saeculum was broken. As soon as maps are oriented to the North (or indeed anywhere but the East), the earthly paradise starts to disappear from them, because under the Ptolemaic influence maps become purely spatial rather than continuing their earlier spatio-temporal character. Maps of the world were severed from the biblical narrative, and indeed Scafi’s book causes me to wonder if what Hans Frei famously called “the eclipse of biblical narrative” is not significantly related to the history of cartography, something that Frei and other tellers of this tale have scarcely considered. What Weber called the “disenchantment of the world” may have gotten a head start when mapmakers displaced Eden from its traditional place of primacy.

Scafi asserts that the first scholar-by whom he must mean the first orthodox scholar-to claim that the earthly paradise no longer exists at all was one Augustine Steuchus, a bishop who in 1542 became prefect of the Vatican Library. On the basis of the kind of textual and historical scholarship we usually associate with early Protestantism, Steuchus argued that Scripture clearly indicates Eden was located not in the far East-the “Eden, in the east” line from Genesis 2:8 had been for all those centuries a lamentable red herring-but rather, and quite obviously, in Mesopotamia.

Moreover, he continued, Eden could not have been separated in any significant way from the rest of the world, else what would have been the point of posting angelic guards around it? And anyone who wished to see it would have been motivated by curiosity rather than greed, for after the Fall the perfect Garden became just another wild and uncultivated spot of land, distinguished only by those mighty guardians. Then the Flood, which according to the text was clearly universal, utterly destroyed the spot, which relieved the angels of what had surely been a tedious duty and made any discovery of Eden forever impossible.

The idea that the Flood had wiped out all evidence of the earthly paradise’s location had already been articulated by Martin Luther. Steuchus and Luther also agreed that the traditional interpretations of the four rivers mentioned in Genesis 2:10-14-some earlier maps had shown them flowing into the ground
in a far-eastern Eden and then emerging again in Mesopotamia-were wildly misbegotten, and that one could reasonably conclude the Garden of Eden had been located somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates. The point of their confluence is rather ?farther south than Steuchus thought the Garden was likely to have been, but he was willing to consider that spot as a possibility. John Calvin, by contrast, did not think the deluge had been quite so devastating; indeed, he believed that the same four rivers that flow through Mesopotamia today were the ones that flowed through that land in Edenic times, and that this continuity is
a sign of God’s continuing benevolence to us.

In reading the later chapters of Scafi’s book, I found it curious that this one issue-the location of the four rivers and their correspondence, or lack of correspondence, to present-day streams-would come to dominate debate about the location of Eden almost to the exclusion of other matters. From Sir Walter Raleigh’s map in his History of the World (1617), to Pierre-Daniel Huet’s Trait? de la situation du paradis terrestre (1691), to Paul Wright’s New Map of the Garden and the Land of Eden (1782), all the way to Albert R. Terry’s The Flood and Garden of Eden: Astounding Facts and Prophecies (1962), it’s all about the rivers.
The later history of mapping paradise is continually beset by confusion and frustration on this point: attempts to figure out, first, what the Bible actually says about them and, second, how that might be reconciled with growing knowledge of the actual geography of the region are endlessly disputed. (“A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers,” says Genesis, and it names two of those rivers as the Tigris and the Euphrates, which quite obviously do not have a single source.) Scafi is perhaps too detailed in his coverage of his subject, but there’s no doubt that the rivers became a topic of hot controversy precisely because they raised in unique ways the increasingly dominant problem in the Western world of how to reconcile Biblical testimony with scientific discovery, especially as in the nineteenth century the new science of archaeology rises and develops. Archaeology has, overall, done far more to reinforce and support the biblical narrative than most practitioners in the field ever imagined it could, but it has left the quest for a geographically definite Eden in permanent and irrecoverable disarray.
There are, of course, still a handful of cranks and oddballs searching for Eden or believing that they have discovered it through some combination of geography, textual criticism, trigonometry, and personal revelation. But more common is the attitude taken by the makers of the “Map to Heaven and the City of Life,” produced a few years ago by Champion Gospel Publications of Daytona Beach, Florida.

Here the King’s Highway emerges from “THE WORLD,” skirts the Lake of Fire, and heads upward (on the old mappae mundi, that would have meant eastward, but we are beyond geography here) toward Heaven through the various suburbs of the Godly life: the dense networks of streets in Truth and Church; the prosperous riverside communities of Baptism and Discipleship; and there, on the far bank of Righteousness River, the culs-de-sac of Love, with its forested parkland, and the oddly underdeveloped and sparsely populated Giving. We get to this highway from our well-appointed homes on Covenant Street or Reconciliation Way or (perhaps my favorite) Unspeakable Drive. But, by the grace of God, we make it to the Highway and follow it until it passes into Rapture Field and becomes Resurrection Runway and shoots us into the clouds to meet the Lord.

Perhaps you feel your view of paradise is unlike this one? Nevertheless, in the long story of these maps and of an imaginative world progressively disenchanted and disoriented, we’re all allegorists now, all members of the Alexandrian school, though Origen might blanch to see the company he’s now keeping. Meanwhile, far away in Qurna, perhaps by now they have planted another Tree of Adam.

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College and author of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis.