The quest for pinpointing the exact location of the Biblical Garden of Eden and the four rivers almost rivals the quest for the location of fabled Atlantis. And the theories that abound are almost as numerous as the interpretations of the seven days of Genesis. Before tackling this question let’s review what is written in Genesis about the four rivers:
And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone. And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia. And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.
(Genesis 2:10-14 KJV)
The Bible says that a single river flowed “out” of Eden and then does something that most rivers DO NOT do; specifically, split into four separate “heads” or rivers that flowed downstream, all fed from a common single river source. Almost all rivers start from a single source or are fed by multiple sources (tributaries). For example, the Ohio River actually begins where two rivers (the Monongahela and Allegheny) flow together at Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. The Ohio River terminates when it flows into the Mississippi river as one of that river’s many tributaries. So the names of rivers are an arbitrary thing, usually denoting only a portion of a greater complex stream system, with one stream flowing into another, which in-turn, may flow into yet another. This pattern of rivers, as observed in nature, is just the opposite of what the Bible describes about the river of Eden.
For that reason, nobody has been able to look at modern maps of the regions mentioned in Genesis and figure out exactly where the Garden of Eden was, at least by the present topography of the lands of the Middle East. Only one river of the four, the Euphrates, is known by the same name in modern times. It presently originates in the mountains of Turkey and terminates when it merges with the Tigris River near the Iraq/Kuwait border region. Many have speculated that the Tigris is the river Hiddekel.
This has led to speculation that the Garden of Eden was located somewhere in Turkey. This is assumed because the present headwaters of the Euphrates River originate in Turkey, as do the headwaters of the Tigris.
Others have proposed that the other end of the Euphrates River, where it meets the Tigris, may be the true location. This requires interpreting the Tigris river as one of the other three (the Hiddekel), then interpreting a tributary confluence of rivers as a river head, and then locating at least two more rivers (or old river beds) as the other missing two. Having done so, they then claim that the Garden of Eden was near present day Kuwait. This is a convenient solution, but not one supported by the literal wording of the Bible or the geological and geographical realities of what river “head” means, i.e. headwaters or source of origin.
You will notice that the present day headwaters of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers originate in Tuekey very close to each other in mountainous terrain. Logically, one would assume that if two of the rivers started there, the other two must have done so, as well, if Turkey was the location of Eden. Neither the Pison nor Gihon rivers are ever mentioned again in the Bible. However, the Hiddekel River is:
“And in the four and twentieth day of the first month, as I was by the side of the great river, which is Hiddekel;”
(Daniel 10:4 KJV)
This reference by the prophet Daniel comes from a vision he had while with the children of Israel during the Babylonian Captivity. This would put Daniel somewhere in the area of present-day Iraq and would make the present-day Tigris river a fairly good candidate for the “Hiddekel” river spoken of by the prophet, as it is the only other great river known in that region today. But the Bible says that this river “that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria” and a historical map of the location of Assyria, shows that the Tigris actually goes southeastward.
Keep in mind that the geographical area known as “Assyria” is not so easy to pin down. Although the Assyrian Empire was centered near Nineveh, the actual empire also extended into what is also present-day Syria and Palestine. However, lacking a better candidate, and knowing that the prophet Daniel was in that geographical area at the time of his visions, the Tigris appears to be the best possible modern-day candidate for the Hiddekel River.
We now must search out the probable locations of the other two rivers. It is here that the theories that the Garden of Eden was either in Turkey or Kuwait starts to lose credibility.
First, let’s identify the geographical region of the Pison river. The Bible says: “Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold” and gives us two good clues. There is a recently discovered “Fossil River” that runs from the western mountains of Saudi Arabia towards Kuwait. This old river course is now nothing more than a dry riverbed. It was detected by satellite imaging. Many have speculated that this may be the ancient Pison, as it has been dry since about 3,500 to 2,000 BC. Although Saudi Arabia could marginally qualify for the land of Havilah, the fossil riverbed that flows across it had its origins in the mountains bordering the eastern side of the present day Red Sea, south of Israel.
It should be pointed out that those mountains are mirrored by another range of mountains on the western side of the Red Sea. The Red Sea is a tectonic spreading zone and part of the Great Rift system that runs from northward in Turkey, down through the Dead Sea, down through the Red Sea and southward deep into the African continent. Obviously, when that mountain range was split by the Rift the source waters of the proposed Pison river would have dried up.
But this proposed river path may be somewhat of a “red-herring” because it does not seem to naturally “fit” the overall pattern. An even better fit may be for the river to have flowed down what today is the Gulf of Aden south of present day Yemen (southern tip of Arabia). Yemen has both gold and onyx and the eastward trending fault branch from the Afar triangle would have been a natural riverbed in the days prior to Noah’s flood (when sea levels were lower than today).
If this was indeed the Pison River, one of four that flowed out of the main one rising in the Garden of Eden, it does not correspond with the present-day headwater source of the Euphrates or Tigris up in Turkey. What’s more, the geography of the last remaining river, the Gihon, further complicates the problem.
The Gihon is spoken of as: “Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia” which is the African land area west of the Red Sea and southward. Of course, the political boundaries of what we call Ethiopia today were certainly different in Biblical times, but the general area is correct. And if a river formerly flowed down what is now the Red Sea basin and southward into Africa at the Afar Triangle, it would certainly fit the description of a river that “compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia.” (Genesis 2:13)
If we have correctly identified all four rivers, we now have 2 rivers (Euphrates and Tigris) originating today out of Turkey and another running down what was is now the Red Sea south of Israel and deep into Africa, following the path of the present-day Great Rift system. For the moment, we will also include the previously discussed “fossil river” running through Saudi Arabia. Look at the same map again:
The yellow lines show the paths of the four rivers as proposed from what we have discussed so far. You should note that we did not trace over the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to their present-day sources, but terminated them close to the Great Rift fault zone line. You will also note that we have not continued the proposed path of the “Gihon” beyond the top of the Red Sea, and have terminated the proposed “Pison” at the Great Rift fault zone line.
All 4 of these rivers have one thing in common: All are connected to the Great Rift system. And that is the key to the mystery. Two rivers presently originate out of Turkey to the north and two other fossil rivers flowed south of Israel. The geographical “center” of these four points of flow is neither Turkey nor Kuwait; the center is somewhere near the general region of present day Israel and Jordan.
The Bible itself lends further credence to Israel (or someplace nearby) as the location of the Garden of Eden. If you run the name “Eden” through a search of the Bible, among several references the following ones provide some insightful clues:
“Behold, the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon with fair branches, and with a shadowing shroud, and of an high stature; and his top was among the thick boughs. The waters made him great, the deep set him up on high with her rivers running round about his plants, and sent out her little rivers unto all the trees of the field. Therefore his height was exalted above all the trees of the field, and his boughs were multiplied, and his branches became long because of the multitude of waters, when he shot forth. All the fowls of heaven made their nests in his boughs, and under his branches did all the beasts of the field bring forth their young, and under his shadow dwelt all great nations. Thus was he fair in his greatness, in the length of his branches: for his root was by great waters. The cedars in the garden of God could not hide him: the fir trees were not like his boughs, and the chesnut trees were not like his branches; nor any tree in the garden of God was like unto him in his beauty. I have made him fair by the multitude of his branches: so that all the trees of Eden, that were in the garden of God, envied him.”
(Ezekiel 31:3-9 KJV)
In this passage the Bible says that the Assyrian was in Lebanon. Spiritually speaking, the “trees” in this passage refer to men and leaders. Cedar trees are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible as references to Lebanon (Judges 9:15, Psalms 29:5 & 104:16, Song of Solomon 5:15, Isaiah 2:13, Jeremiah 22:23 and more).
Notice also in the last of the passage that the Spirit associates the trees with “Eden” that “were in the Garden of God.” Lebanon, although not a part of modern political Israel, was a part of the Biblical lands ruled by the Kings of Israel in times past. From this we can infer that the Garden and the source of the rivers of the Garden was somewhere close to the land of Lebanon.
Assuming this postulation is correct, that the source of the four rivers was somewhere near Lebanon, the interconnection of the river systems would need to be somewhat like the map below:
What roughly emerges, when all four rivers are connected to trace of the Great Rift fault system, is a complex river network emerging from a common point of origin that flows both north and south, with each north and south extension splitting into two separate streams, for a total of four rivers. That adds up to four separate heads.
Of course, to propose such a reconstruction one would have to assume that the present day headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates were not the main source headwaters in ancient times. It is possible that there could have been older main tributaries previously flowing from Lebanon which were, at that time, the main headwaters of those two rivers.
But the so-called Kuwait River, which has been proposed as the lost river Pison, does not seem to match with the common denominator of the others, that is the Great Rift and branching fault systems. Based on the description of its path in the Bible which says, “compasseth the whole land of Havilah” and knowing from the geology of present day Yemen that onyx can be found there, then this part of the verse, “where there is gold; And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone” suggests an alternate path for the River Pison, to the south of Yemen, and that would give us the path indicated by the blue and yellow markings on the next graphic.
When all factors are considered (Bible text and geology), I believe the paths indicated by the dotted lines on the large map below are probably where those rivers flowed. And a southern path around Yemen puts the fourth river squarely into the basin of the Great Rift system, flowing east from the upwelling Afar Triangle.
These paths meets the requirement of the Biblical text because the single river water source, originating from high ground somewhere in or near present day Israel, hits the Rift Valley, then would have flowed both north and south along the path of the Rift zone, with both the north and south forks each splitting a second time when intercepting other fault zones.
Keep in mind that the course of rivers around and through the vicinity of the Great Rift fault system may have changed or dried up because of block faulting all along the Rift zone. Certainly Horst and Graben faulting along the Rift could, and would, change the surface topography. Horst and Graben faulting is defined as “elongate fault blocks of the Earth’s crust that have been raised and lowered, respectively, relative to their surrounding areas as a direct effect of faulting. Horsts and Grabens may range in size from blocks a few centimeters wide to tens of kilometers wide; the vertical movement may be up to several thousand feet.”
Image courtesy of Dr. M. Mustoe www.tinynet.com/Graben.html
But when did this happen? The most likely time frame would be in the years immediately following Noah’s Flood. Keep in mind that the Bible says there was a significant geologic event that happened 101 years after Noah’s Flood – The “Earth was divided” (see: Genesis 10:25 & 1 Chronicles 1:19). The Bible also describes what was probably tectonic/volcanic activity in the Rift valley in Abraham’s days (the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – See Genesis 19:28).
Imaging of the Dead Sea indicates that, at one time, the river bed of what is now the Jordan River once flowed across the land surface that is now at the bottom of the Dead Sea. This suggests that there was Horst and Graben faulting at the southern end of the present Dead Sea, which abruptly terminated the former flow of that river southward. And that stream was probably the feeder channel to the ancient Gihon River, which ran down the floor of what is now the Red Sea into Ethiopia and through the Rift basin south from the Afar Triangle. Supporting coincidental evidence for this is the fact that fish species down in the African Rift valley river and lake systems are very similar to those found in the Jordan River system:
Note: The aquatic life of the African lakes and rivers belongs to the so-called Ethiopian zoogeographical region. According to Annandale, the explanation of the Ethiopian affinity of the fish fauna of the Jordan is that the Jordan formed at one time merely part of a river system that ran down the Great Rift Valley. The Jordan was one branch of this huge river system, the chain of lakes in East Africa represents the other; and together they opened into the Indian Ocean. See R. Washbourn, The Percy Sladen Expedition to Lake Huleh, 1935, Palestine Exploration Fund, Quarterly Statements, (1936), p. 209. (Source website: The Great Rift and the Jordan)
Now, returning to the general area of Lebanon as the Biblical location of the Garden of Eden and the water source for the four rivers, let us take a look at the present-day geology and topography of that area. This map shows a great deal of block faulting in the area of Lebanon just north of modern day Israel.
Below is a satellite image of the entire area. You will note from the topographical relief that, had waters once flowed out of this area, they would naturally flow northward into the Euphrates Fault system river basin. At the time of the Garden of Eden the main headwaters of the Euphrates could have come from that direction. If the water flow at that time continued northward along the path of the Great Rift, it would also intersect the present-day Tigris river basin.
41G-120-0056 Dead Sea Rift Valley, Israel and Jordan October 1984 Seen from an altitude of 190 nautical miles (350 kilometers)
The prominent bodies of water along the Rift zone in this photo are the Dead Sea (bottom) and Sea of Galilee (top). They are connected by the Jordan River which flows south. Before the Earth was divided by the Rift, the mountainous land on both the Israeli and Jordanian sides were joined. You are looking at “ground zero” of what was once the Garden of Eden.
Here is another important point to remember. The Bible says that the river flowed out of Eden, but nowhere does the Bible give a geographical size for what constituted the actual area of Eden. Therefore, the actual source of the waters could have been south of Lebanon. More specifically, those waters could have originated in or near Jerusalem in present-day Israel, or even up welled from a massive spring under the sea of Tiberius.
The Israel/Lebanon region as the location of Eden and the lost river finds considerable support in the Bible. Support for this line of reasoning is found in the fact that God considers the land of Israel as His Holy land. It was upon one of the mountains in the “land of Moriah” (Genesis 22:2) where Abraham was told to sacrifice his son (a type of the Lord’s sacrifice of Jesus). Solomon was told to build the Temple “at Jerusalem in mount Moriah” (2 Chronicles 3:1) and Jerusalem was where the Lord Jesus was actually crucified. By extension, we can assume that when God sacrificed an animal to cover Adam and Eve with its skin (Genesis 3:21), that animal was a Lamb (Revelation 13:8). Therefore, we can be certain from the typology that Adam and Eve, and the center of the Garden of God, were somewhere at or very near geographical Jerusalem.
Now, what exactly do those spiritual realities have to do with the location of the river of Eden? In the future, when the Lord Jesus Christ establishes His Kingdom and Righteous Temple in Jerusalem, the Bible speaks of a river flowing from below the Temple. The prophet Ezekiel spoke of seeing this in a vision:
Afterward he brought me again unto the door of the house; and, behold, waters issued out from under the threshold of the house eastward: for the forefront of the house stood toward the east, and the waters came down from under from the right side of the house, at the south side of the altar. Then brought he me out of the way of the gate northward, and led me about the way without unto the utter gate by the way that looketh eastward; and, behold, there ran out waters on the right side. And when the man that had the line in his hand went forth eastward, he measured a thousand cubits, and he brought me through the waters; the waters were to the ankles. Again he measured a thousand, and brought me through the waters; the waters were to the knees. Again he measured a thousand, and brought me through; the waters were to the loins. Afterward he measured a thousand; and it was a river that I could not pass over: for the waters were risen, waters to swim in, a river that could not be passed over. And he said unto me, Son of man, hast thou seen this? Then he brought me, and caused me to return to the brink of the river. Now when I had returned, behold, at the bank of the river were very many trees on the one side and on the other. Then said he unto me, These waters issue out toward the east country, and go down into the desert, and go into the sea: which being brought forth into the sea, the waters shall be healed. And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed; and every thing shall live whither the river cometh. And it shall come to pass, that the fishers shall stand upon it from Engedi even unto Eneglaim; they shall be a place to spread forth nets; their fish shall be according to their kinds, as the fish of the great sea, exceeding many. But the miry places thereof and the marishes thereof shall not be healed; they shall be given to salt. And by the river upon the bank thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow all trees for meat, whose leaf shall not fade, neither shall the fruit thereof be consumed: it shall bring forth new fruit according to his months, because their waters they issued out of the sanctuary: and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine.
(Ezekiel 47:1-12 KJV)
And this corresponds with what John said about the New Jerusalem:
And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
(Revelation 22:1-2 KJV)
Since the original “Tree of Life” was in the Garden of Eden, does it not make sense that when the Lord makes all things new again the future “Tree of Life” would be restored to its proper place? And that place is in Israel, the same place upon the mountains of Moriah (Jerusalem).
Yes, the Bible tends to indicate that the river from the Garden of Eden originated in Judea and from there became four heads. A forensic study of the region’s geology tends to support the theory over the alternatively proposed locations of Turkey or Kuwait. What we have not shown is a geologic model for the source of these waters originating from the area of Jerusalem. Keep in Mind that Jerusalem sits just west of the Great Rift Valley. It is quite possible that the legendary river of Eden originated from a massive artesian aquifer, the source of which has long since been disrupted by block faulting along the Rift. We know for a scientific fact that there is a considerable amount of “fossil” water under the Middle East in the deep-rock sandstone aquifers of the region such as the Nubian sandstone aquifers and equivalent formations.
Also keep in mind that in the days of Adam and Eve a “mist” went up and watered the face of the Earth within the Garden (Genesis 2:6). Fountains of waters (underground waters under pressure gushing upwards) would certainly be a logical source for the generation of such a mist and would be a logical feed-source for such a river. Certainly, we cannot exclude this possibility.
In summary, although the modern-day geology and topography of the Middle-East does not readily reveal the exact location of the Garden of Eden and the four rivers source, guidance by faith from the Holy Bible and a forensic study of the region’s geology reveals the matter. The available data appears to suggest that present-day Israel was the central location of the Garden of Eden.