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Eden vs. Eden PDF E-mail
In the beginning, William Willcocks had wanted to be a missionary, but instead he became the foremost British irrigation engineer of his time, and God saw that it was good.

In 1902 Willcocks designed the world's largest bridge--the Aswan Dam across the Nile--and two years later he was knighted for his work reconstructing the waterways of South Africa after the Boer War. With a resume like this, it was not surprising that Willcocks developed a reputation for megalomania. After observing him at work, the British archaeologist, writer, and sometime intelligence agent Gertrude Bell--no wilting flower herself--wrote: "Sir William is a 20th century Don Quixote, erratic, maddening--and entirely loveable; a streak of genius, a good slab of unreasonableness…Good luck go with him, and may I never have to work with him." Willcocks, tall and lanky, always wore a slight scowl, and he spoke and wrote with a blunt honesty that his well-mannered English colleagues found off-putting.

Whether one found him lovable or maddening, Sir William undoubtedly approached his scientific work with evangelical zeal. He carried his Bible everywhere, although he'd memorized it long ago, a chapter a day. So when in 1908 the Ottoman Empire invited the decorated fifty-six-year-old scientist to survey the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and suggest irrigation projects for Turkish-controlled Mesopotamia, Willcocks accepted immediately. It was the perfect assignment for him, and not only because new development was sorely needed: without working irrigation, The Tigris and Euphrates rivers were too dry for agriculture nine months out of the year and too flooded for the other three. But also, here in Iraq, Willcocks could use his beloved Bible as a guidebook, literally. He spent three years navigating the entire lengths of the Tigris and Euphrates on a steamship, with a topographic map in one hand, and a Bible in the other.

He wasn't the only British official using the King James Bible as a Middle Eastern guidebook. There were dozens of places in Iraq with Biblical connections. Some, like the palaces of Nebuchadnezzar that had been discovered by Delitzsch's expedition, had been granted legitimacy by respected archaeologists. Others were pure hoax, like the shriveled swordfish in a Baghdad museum that was supposed to be the whale that swallowed Jonah. There were so many, in fact, that when bored British surveyors began naming tiny desert towns "Sodom" and "Gomorrah," as a joke, nobody seemed to notice. The names made it through numerous revisions and were not officially expunged until ten years later. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, there were even rumors that Bibles were being used to draw up post-war national boundaries. Diplomats needed all the help they could get. President Woodrow Wilson had insisted that all groups had the right of self-determination, and delegates, swamped with conflicting claims to nearly everything, had their work cut out for them. But Willcocks had a special Biblical mission.

In order to plan Mesopotamia's bright, irrigated future, Willcocks believed, there was no better place to start than the past. After all, irrigation was the world's oldest applied science. Before the Mongols destroyed Mesopotamia in 1258, this flood- and drought-prone country had had the most highly developed system of dams and canals in the world. And long, long before that, in Biblical times, there must have been general irrigated perfection and prosperity. He would learn from the old masters, improving on their ideas when possible. He simply opened his Bible and investigated everything in it that had to do with water--beginning, of course, with the Garden of Eden.

The Bible says four rivers flow out of Eden, and two of those rivers are the Tigris and the Euphrates. So it must be here somewhere--but where exactly? He analyzed the data. The Garden was clearly a well-watered place. Yet it had to have existed before the invention of complex irrigation techniques like waterwheels and lifting mechanisms. If they wanted to divert any serious volume of water in order to grow crops, Eden's citizens would have had to rely on naturally occurring obstructions, like rocks in the middle of the river. Then the first people could simply build small levees of mud around the rocks. Willcocks called this kind of low-tech improvement "free-flow irrigation." Water could be gently led into the right places using nature and a little help from mankind.

But where did that first water come from, anyway? Just before God planted the Garden in Eden, Genesis noted "the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth," which would seem to make it difficult to grow a garden. The problem is solved in the next line, where "there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground." But that doesn't really make sense. What was this 'mist'? How could it fill a riverbed with enough water for free-flow irrigation? Sometimes the word "mist" is translated "rain" or "spring" or "stream." Willcocks knew he was out of his depths in the Biblical language department, so he contacted the eminent Oxford language expert--who also happened to be an ordained Anglican minister--Archibald Henry Sayce.

Sayce was an unusual scholar. Years before, he had escaped insular Oxford for a "non-resident" professorship. He bought himself a dahabiya, a large, low-slung Egyptian houseboat designed to sail up and down the Nile, and that's exactly what he did, stopping to explore whatever Egyptian scenery caught his fancy. He could read a book from his two-thousand-volume library in the salon on one end of the Ishtar, or entertain other "Nilotics"--fellow Europeans who wanted to escape the European way of life--in his drawing room above-deck. Sayce never married. He spent June through October lecturing at Oxford, and October through May on the Nile. He was living the dream. At least, he was until Willcocks came along and built the Aswan Dam.

After that, travel on the Ishtar just wasn't the same. The Nile waterway was crowded with steamships, so Sayce had to keep the boat in the center of the river rather than crawling along its banks. It had become "difficult to escape from the postman or telegraph boy." Everything was noisier, smellier, and more expensive. In 1908, after more than a decade wintering on his dahabiya, Sayce sold the Ishtar and returned to London. So when the Dam's famous builder contacted him for help with another river project in another Biblical land, one might have expected the older man to be less than forthcoming.

But Sayce was unfailingly gracious, or maybe he just figured that Biblical queries from an engineer weren't likely to have any academic repercussions. He let Willcocks in on a little scholarly secret: that word "mist" only appears once in the Bible. It's not really Hebrew, it's Babylonian. And so, he allowed cheerfully, the word might very well mean instead what Willcocks wanted it to, that is, water that allows "free-flow irrigation."

With this word of encouragement from an admired Orientalist, Willcocks was off and running. He'd hardly begun his north-south survey of the Euphrates when he found a likely candidate for Eden: Anah, a picturesque town along the northern Euphrates not far from the Syrian border. Near Anah, there were many obstructive rock outcroppings in the river: a sure sign of free-flow irrigation. Eden criterion number one: accounted for.

Here in Anah, Willcocks found a level of abundance he hadn't been expecting in impoverished Mesopotamia. "Life and prosperity are before us wherever the water can reach." Along with the date groves, there were gardens upon gardens, and orchards, cotton fields, and grape vines. All of these crops, except the cotton, writes Willcocks, were old enough to have been "familiar to Adam." If Anah remained this luxurious after thousands of years of neglect, just think how prosperous it would have been in Biblical times--but Willcocks tried not to get ahead of himself. In order to make Anah the Garden of Eden, he needed to find the four rivers that the Bible says split out from Eden.

Reluctantly working his way south out of Anah, Willcocks was pleased to discover that the Euphrates did indeed split into four branches, or rather, two rivers and two ancient canals. They were: the Euphrates, the Karbala branch of the Tigris, the Sakhlawia, and the Hindiya. Here, in this magnificent setting, in the cradle of civilization, Willcocks would make civilization rise again.

And what could be more civilized than irrigation? According to Willcocks, the "lessons of order and method" -building blocks of civilization--"are taught so thoroughly by irrigation that it is not surprising that all the ancient civilizations of the world had their birth in the irrigated valleys of the great old-world rivers. All rivers were "rivers of paradise." Uncivilized men could live in woods, and partially civilized ones in desert oases, but to survive in a country needing irrigation, men had to be disciplined and to be amenable to laws and regulations." The more irrigated, the more civilized, the more prosperous.

If the first step in civilization was the rule of law, the second was prosperity. The most salient feature of Willcock's Eden in Anah was its sheer abundance--of fruit, of trees, of water. What mattered was that in this Eden, like the one in Genesis, there was "every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food." An abundant Eden was theologically satisfying. It dovetailed nicely with the idea of Christ as a "second Adam." If Eden was still here, still fruitful, it must be because Christ's sacrifice had made up for mankind's original sin. But more to the point: an abundant Eden would show his Ottoman bosses that real, financial prosperity was possible where there was water.

Prosperity was not intended just for poor Mesopotamian farmers. The Turks and British also had much to gain. Just one of the two canals Willcocks proposed for the Tigris could divert 10,000 cubic feet of water per second. This water could irrigate 750,000 new acres of cotton, which would be worth seven and a half million pounds each year.

With such high stakes, Willcocks worked hard to make Anah as much like Eden as possible. He was determined to harmonize every detail of the Bible story with something he could see from his steamship. And because Willcocks was an optimist, and his Eden had a hopeful future, even the darkest parts of the ancient myth of temptation and sin came out sounding sunny. Willcocks' explanation of the exile from Eden, for example, did not involve a fruit-dealing snake or vengeful God. Instead, the Semites left this stretch of the Upper Euphrates because of the "gradual degradation of the cataracts." That is, as the rocks in the river wore down, it became more difficult to divert the water for irrigation, and their gardens started to dry up. So much for exile: Eden's first people had left gradually and could come back whenever they felt like it.

So what about the "angel with a flaming sword" who, according to Genesis, was stationed at the gates of Eden to keep Adam and Eve from returning? If Willcocks was actually standing in a pre-Fall Eden, what had happened to God's vengeance, or man's humility? Willcocks didn't have time for such vast theological questions. This is where his megalomania came in: God had clearly granted man the ability to re-create Eden. So the Lord must have intended Willcocks to do so.

Although he had disarmed the sword-wielding cherubim, Willcocks still needed to account for some kind of flaming something outside his Eden in Anah. The revelation came to him while steaming south on the Euphrates, a triumph of pragmatism over mythology: bitumen. South of Anah, he looked to his left and saw the vast fields of sticky liquid tar near the town of Hit, hot and bubbling. After their anticlimactic exile, Willcocks' Adam and Eve would have paddled the same route in their reed boats, looking for more fertile lands. They too, Willcocks surmised, "could see behind them nothing but the bitumen springs on the east of Eden, which seemed to them like flaming swords in the hands of offended seraphim." Bitumen certainly had its uses: Hot bitumen mortar held up the walls of the ancient city of Babylon. Today, bitumen mixed with gravel makes asphalt. But Willcocks was no doubt the first to associate asphalt and angels.

Willcocks pronounced his Eden complete. "I do not think it possible to imagine anything more like a practical paradise than the country near Anah." If Anah could be a practical paradise, so could the rest of Mesopotamia, which was after all still known as the Fertile Crescent. "Irrigation such as we propose will bring us back to the happier days of the early settlements in the marshes where the waters were comparatively free from silt and where they created for themselves gardens of Eden, whose memory has lasted so long."

Such miraculous results were not as far away as one might think. "We are apt to imagine that works of restoration must also take long years to bear any fruit. But in the arid regions of the Earth it is not so. There, the withdrawal of water turns a garden into a desert in a few weeks; its restoration touches the country as if with a magician's wand." It's true that water in the desert acts more dramatically than it does in temperate climates. But the fruits of restoration depended on more than biology. They depended on politics.

Willcocks had laid the groundwork for massive improvement, but he couldn't go ahead with any of his plans without permission from the Ottoman officials who governed Iraq, the same Turkish officials who by 1908 had let the irrigation situation in Iraq reach such a pathetic state to begin with. And they had other things to worry about: the Empire was in disarray. In Iraq, British military and industrial pioneers began quietly putting down roots. In all the political maneuvering, everybody neglected Iraq's native population unless they called out for attention, as they did in the spring of 1909.

As Willcock's steamer rounded the bend of the Tigris at Amara, it was met by hostile Iraqis who would not let it pass for several weeks, even once the Turks sent Willcocks reinforcements. This crisis prompted a British colonel to lament the fact that Willcocks' irrigation plans hadn't been implemented yet. If they had, he said, control of the dams would be kept in Baghdad, so that the moment any Arab "misbehaved or refused to pay taxes…the water supply cuts off. The Arabs would not dare to ruin the water works as they would thereby ruin themselves."

British officials were worried; they needed Iraq stable, and they needed Willcocks' irrigation plans to stabilize it. First, they needed to stabilize Willcocks, so they suggested he take a much-deserved break from his Ottoman service and come report on his adventures to London's Royal Geographic Society.

The discussion after his presentation, "Mesopotamia: Past, Present and Future," made clear just how much was riding on Willcocks' survey. In the audience was Gertrude Bell, on leave from her office in Baghdad, where she was by now Willcocks' main competition in the business of mapping Mesopotamia. Whatever her personal reservations may have been about Willcocks' methods--apparently, she had not got her wish never to have to work with him--she knew Mesopotamia, still an impoverished Turkish province, needed help, and quickly. Behind the podium at the Geographic Society, she called Willcocks' plan, "full of hope. I do not doubt it would bring back into prosperity a great province, and I more than agree with him that with prosperity would come peace and order." Whether prosperity or order came first was subject to debate, but whatever the path to civilization, it started with irrigation.

In Mesopotamia, Willcocks' title was "Advisor to the Turkish Government," but by November 1909, his friends in London began to call him the "Director-General of Irrigation in Mesopotamia." And Britain's most pressing needs were concentrated in the southern half of Iraq. They needed the shipping route to India through the southernmost port of Basra, on the Persian Gulf, and they needed a protective zone around the newest oil wells in Iran, just east of Basra. So Willcocks shifted his surveying efforts south, past Baghdad, past millions of acres of Mesopotamian marshes, to the place where the two great rivers finally meet, just north of the crucial city of Basra.

In short, Willcocks had been asked to survey the part of Iraq that his mentor, Archibald Henry Sayce, had declared to be the Garden of Eden. Sayce spelled out his southern Eden had been spelled out so often--in popular books, lectures, and the Hastings Dictionary of the Bible entry for "Eden"--that Willcocks could not in good conscience ignore it. So what would happen to his own northern Eden in Anah?

Sayce likewise could not ignore Willcocks' Eden theory--though he must have thought it ridiculous. Northern Iraq? Three hundred fifty miles north of the flood plain that the Babylonians called "Eden" in countless cuneiform tablets? Rubbish!

Although Willcocks was only six years younger than Sayce, they might as well have been generations apart. Sayce had grown up in the bosom of ultra-English Oxford with the exotic Orient as his escape fantasy. Willcocks had grown up in the Orient, in British colonial India, where he and his father both worked for the Public Works Department, a line of work utterly devoid of romanticism. And when times had been especially tough in Iraq, he had turned to a fantasy of England, as represented by the 1904 novel God's Good Man, a so-called simple love story that contained rapturous descriptions of England in springtime:

"Young almond and apple boughs quivered almost visibly every moment into pink and white bloom, cowslips and bluebells raised their heads from mossy corners in the grass."

But Willcocks respected Sayce--he always addressed him by both his religious and academic titles, "Reverend Professor." Innocently, he turned to the older man again for help in investigating his new southern territory.

Sayce, ever helpful, recommended several volumes of newly translated Babylonian tablets--poems that referred to Southern Iraq as "Edin." Sure enough, this time, instead of carrying a Bible on the decks of his steamship, he carried "translations of the Babylonian tablets of creation in my hand, and the plans and levels of the country before me." (His Bible, no doubt, was still close at hand.) He couldn't in good conscience deny what Sayce had insisted all along: the Garden of Eden, Babylonian in all its details, existed in southern Mesopotamia. But that left two Edens.

Before Willcocks got swept up into the volatile politics of Iraq, he'd discovered a neat and tidy Eden that represented--to him and to the Turkish officials--the potential for a developed Iraq. He relied on that potential. He couldn't go back on his original Eden, there was too much money and prestige riding on it, and how would that look? So he began to call his northern Eden "The Garden of Eden of the Semites," as opposed to Sayce's Southern Eden, which was of course "The Garden of Eden of Sumer." But it wasn't really a theological debate, it was a practical one: development vs. preservation.

By 1911, Willcocks was more than ready to be out of Iraq. In his frenzy to finish his assignment, Willcocks didn't have time to come to a final conclusion about the location--or locations--of the Garden of Eden. He had to finish his final report for the Turks. He'd disembarked from his steamship and set himself up in temporary office--a canvas tent--on the banks of the Tigris. There, he wrote with abandon, adding new dams and canals to the list, no matter their anticipated price tag.

Finally back in London, Willcocks was again asked to speak to the Royal Geographic Society about the Garden of Eden. Among professional Assyriologists, he painted himself an amateur. "Studying these questions and pondering over them, I have formed opinions on them, but my reading is not sufficiently deep to tell me whether I am not restating what others have stated before."

Willcocks felt that Sayce's southern location, lack of a four-river split, and lack of anything resembling a flaming sword to the east were weaknesses in the older scholar's Eden theory, and he said as much in his lecture.

Sayce was in the audience. As a revered authority on the matter at hand, he was given the chance to respond to Willcocks' speech with his own. He was perfectly satisfied to rely on his Babylonian translations, which undeniably used the word "Edin" or "plain" to describe their southern Mesopotamian home--not the northern village of Anah. He was not going to let Willcocks get away with leaving two Gardens of Eden unreconciled.

Sayce noted, politely, that Willcocks had "formerly considered that the Garden of Eden lay more to the north." (More to the north, indeed!)

Now that Sir William had "come over to my view in regard to its southern position, I should like to ask Sir William what is his opinion at present regarding the identification of the rivers of Paradise?"

Sayce knew that his southern Eden would have to have different rivers, and he knew Willcocks would not want to admit that.

In response, Willcocks repeated his northern rivers: the Euphrates, the Karbala branch of the Tigris, the Sakhlawia, and the Hindiya. That left the matter at a momentary standstill.

The Royal Geographic Society was not going to mediate on Biblical matters. They were more interested in praising Willcocks' undeniably revolutionary maps of Mesopotamia, which the Society published in the following issue of its journal. Willcocks had spent his years on the steamship meticulously following every possible river, creek, dry river, ancient canal bed, reservoir, marsh, lake, and delta in Mesopotamia. On his map they all spider haphazardly southeast, curving in and around land features both modern and ancient, toward the Persian Gulf. Even the paths of ancient canals seem to follow this curving flow, as if man's work really were a continuation of God's. Running diagonally across the grain of this mass of rivers are all Willcocks' proposed irrigation works. They look like steel bobby pins trying to capture unruly hair: Basra barrage, Tigris escape, Diyal diversion, flood bank, earthen bank, Chala regulator.

Several months after the Royal Geographic Society meeting, a New York Times reporter caught wind of the muted scholarly argument: Were there Two Gardens of Eden or One? The article never answered the question directly, but it did note sarcastically that the arguments over the location of the Garden of Eden had become "almost violent"--at least as close to violent as scholars of ancient antiquity could get.

Willcocks seemed to know he couldn't push the issue. Sayce was an admired scholar, a fellow religious man. Sayce didn't need the northern Eden the same way Willcocks did; he did not share Willcocks' stake in the development of Iraq. He surely wanted peace to reign in the sacred lands of the Middle East, but he may not have equated peace with prosperity and prosperity with development. He had still never been to Mesopotamia, though he knew all its ancient stories. But he had been to the other Biblical land of Egypt, and development of the kind Willcocks had in mind had already ruined the Nile for him. The thought of technology ruining the Tigris, another of his childhood dream-rivers, must have broken Sayce's heart.

But there was nothing that Sayce or anyone else who wanted to preserve the Oriental fantasy could do: real violence was about to break. Maybe Willcocks was willing to coddle Sayce just a little bit, recognizing that the older man's ideas were soon to become obsolete.

When war was declared in 1914, the British had to fight the Germans in Europe and their allies the Ottomans in Mesopotamia. Any last semblance of cooperation between the Turks and the British dissolved. The violence spread out all over the whole area that would become the country of Iraq, all the way from Anah south to Basra. Willcocks' detailed survey maps, the first accurate maps of the country, turned out to be invaluable to the Allied Armies, who finally defeated the Turks in November 1918. The Ottoman Empire was essentially dead, and many hoped Mesopotamia would finally settle down.

After the war, Willcocks published a soberer, much-edited version of his 1911 Royal Geographic Society lecture entitled From the Garden of Eden to the Crossing of the Jordan. Willcocks and Sayce, like the rest of Europe, seem to have come to an exhausted truce. Though Willcocks still insisted there must be two Gardens of Eden, about their locations, he admitted, "there is room for divergence of opinion."

Sayce, for his part, wrote a preface to the book. He pays Willcocks a backhanded compliment: "He has attacked [critical theories or assumptions] with a fearless disregard of accepted conclusions." And then, wearily, Sayce bows to the superior power of Oriental pragmatism over Oriental fantasy. "It must be remembered," wrote Sayce, that Willcocks' Eden theory "is written by one who has given practical illustration of his views by again turning the land of Babylonia into a Garden of Eden."

Sayce was referring to Willcocks' Hindiya Barrage, which had allowed 300,000 acres to be reclaimed for farming. This was prosperity of sorts. On those 300,000 acres, it was possible to grow almost enough food to feed the British army that would be stationed in the country for the next thirty years.
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