Camille Serchuk

title.none: Scafi, Mapping Paradise (Camille Serchuk)

identifier.other: baj9928.0804.004 08.04.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Camille Serchuk, Southern Connecticut State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Scafi, Alessandro. Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Pp. 400. $55.00 0-226-73559-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.04.04

Scafi, Alessandro. Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Pp. 400. $55.00 0-226-73559-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Camille Serchuk
Southern Connecticut State University

Alessandro Scafi's magisterial Mapping Paradise is a beautifully produced multidisciplinary survey of the history of the cartography of Eden. Beginning with the scriptural text and its translations, lingering long in the Middle Ages, and concluding in the present day, Scafi moves with considerable agility through discussions of biblical exegesis, poetry, the disciplinary boundaries of university departments, contemporary art, the hydrology of the Nile, and the exact date of the Creation. Although not exclusively focused on medieval material, the mapping traditions of the Middle Ages dominate the book; this is almost certainly due to their origins in the author's doctoral thesis written at the Warburg Institute, which provided the basis for this impressive and encyclopedic work of scholarship.

The book comprises eleven chapters, framed by a prologue and an epilogue. The first chapter reviews the literature on the mapping of paradise, which is in large extent a microcosm of the broader historiography of cartography. In his even-handed and balanced discussion of the prior sources, Scafi illustrates the current discursive approach to the study of maps as a departure from a more positivist position taken in the nineteenth century. As he moves through the historiography of his subject, Scafi cautiously addresses the concerns of the two principal specialist audiences for his project: one conversant with the history of cartography and the other with medieval studies. In the slow exposition of his subject and its history at the hands of other scholars, he seems keenly conscious of the possible blind spots of each group, which appear to be, respectively, that the Middle Ages were a dark and backward period, and that maps are functional objects that have a one-to-one correlation with reality. Both of these assumptions are steadily dismantled in his meticulously argued early chapters. Scafi makes an elegant case for the rich and dynamic intellectual life of the medieval period and also for the status of maps as graphic expressions of ideas about physical space. Scafi's agile interweaving of theology, philology, literature, and history reminds us of what Mapquest might let us forget: that maps are dense and complex images, that they are shaped by ideology, that they are never neutral transcriptions of a fixed reality.

Scafi begins his discussion of paradise in the second chapter with a discussion of the biblical description of the Garden of Eden in Genesis, and the challenges faced by translators of the text from Hebrew into Latin and Greek. Several words pose particular problems, most notably a word that qualifies Eden, miqedem, which can be translated "away to the east" and also "from before the beginning." This conjunction of spatial and temporal description confounded translators, who could find no comparable term to it and were forced to settle for one aspect or the other. Jerome rendered it a principio; the translators of the Septuagint and the Vetus Latina preferred to cast miqedem as "in the east." Other problems of translation included the exact identification of the rivers Pishon and Gihon (commonly deemed the Ganges and the Nile, following Flavius Josephus, but also identified as the Danube and the Indus) and the regions Havilah (variously the Ganges valley, Abyssinia, Syria and Arabia) and Cush (thought by some to be in Africa, by others to be in Mesopotamia). The challenges faced by early translators of the Hebrew text were revisited again and again by scholars and cartographers of later periods who sought to locate the true Eden.

In this chapter and the next one, "Locating Paradise in Space," Scafi examines the writings of early commentators who sought to determine if paradise was a purely spiritual place or a physical one. Both Philo and Origin claimed the former position, rejecting the notion that Eden could be found on earth. Refuting this position, Augustine made the argument--which was to be widely influential--that Adam had been brought into being in physical form, and that he therefore lived in a physical location on earth. Bede, Isidore of Seville and Peter Lombard, among many others, affirmed this geographical notion of Eden as a part of the earth created by God, albeit inaccessible to man. Legendary accounts drew on this assertion and described the remote location of paradise, sought, but not found, by human travelers.

Just as Eden was beyond the spatial grasp of travelers, so too was it temporally remote. In chapter four, "Locating Paradise in Time," Scafi outlines efforts to determine the date of the Creation and how it influenced conceptions of time in medieval historiography. The chapter includes a brief discussion of medieval representations of Eden, and concludes with the genealogies of Peter of Poitiers, which took the form of roll manuscripts that began at the top, with Adam and Eve, and proceeded down to culminate with Christ. This vertical format, dictated by the roll itself, was to prove hugely influential to the representation of history on medieval maps of the world.

Scafi shows in the next two chapters, "Mapping Time and Space" and "The Heyday of Paradise on Maps," how medieval conceptions of paradise shaped medieval representations of paradise and particularly its relationship to the inhabited world. Maps of the world or mappae mundi from the Middle Ages took many forms, both simple and complex; some showed only climactic zones; others showed continents and still others, cities and sites. All but the first group served as documents of both time and space, illustrating both location and chronology of the world's history. Most medieval maps placed east at the top, (maps weren't regularly oriented to the north until the early modern period) and therefore "began" with Eden, which was the easternmost site known. According to Orosius, history proceeded from east to west, and therefore, locating Eden at the top of the map indicated both its historical primacy and its presumed geographical location. Medieval mappae mundi are topological maps, their components (called signs) exist in relation to each other (both in terms of hierarchies of scale and in terms of location) rather than in reference to external factors. On such maps, the eastern/topmost location of paradise was balanced by Jerusalem located at the center, sometimes shown as the site of the Crucifixion, other times as the Heavenly Jerusalem; both types show how time as well as space was conceived on the map. Whereas paradise, walled and remote, was always inaccessible, Jerusalem and redemption seemed within grasp.

Chapter seven, "Where is Nowhere?" considers the diversity of medieval conceptions of paradise. Deemed a symbolic realm by some authors in Eastern Christendom, paradise and its location was decidedly physical in the eyes of the west, and the temperance of its climate challenged the imagination of scholars and theologians, who sought to locate it in a perfect climate, one clearly remote from their own. Struggling to discover where such a garden could flourish, some still placed it in the east, a region largely unknown (albeit well imagined) to medieval Europeans; others set it on the equator, although at a high altitude to temper its climate, or in the southern hemisphere. Still others set it in the polar zone, separate from the world and connected only by the flow of its rivers; this solution acknowledged the distinctness of Eden from any place known on earth. These creative solutions were inspired by new knowledge of the physical properties of the earth, as the rise of Aristotelian science in the thirteenth century ushered in a new degree of geographic precision to the search for paradise. Despite the application of scientific method, the garden still evaded detection, and the question of whether it had survived the Flood became a complicating factor.

"The Twilight of Paradise on Maps" shows how the rise of navigational and nautical maps in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries led to the slow disappearance of paradise from maps of the world. The historical dimension of cartography was on the wane, and with it, Eden; likewise, the new, northward orientation of maps used for navigation led to the marginalization of an eastern Eden, and sometimes to its relocation in Africa. Accounts persisted of its remote and exotic location and its high altitude, although clearly there was less agreement than before about its physical situation.

Chapter 9, "Paradise Lost and Found," marks considerable changes in the representation of paradise. First, the topological maps of the Middle Ages give way to the projection based maps first described by Ptolemy. These dealt the definitive blow to east-oriented maps, and also to the fundamental bond between history and geography that had characterized medieval cartography. Scafi notes that theology still played an important role; indeed, the form of maps of paradise changed as theologians reconsidered the survival of paradise into the present. Whereas medieval world maps had shown the survival of Eden as a place apart from the inhabited world, in the early modern period, such representations gave way to regional maps that showed were Eden had been, but could be found no longer. Both Luther and Calvin, drawing on different sources, concluded that Eden had long been lost (Luther blamed the Flood, Calvin, sin) both in time and space, and considered it unnecessary to speculate on its exact location.

Chapter 10, "The Afterlife of Paradise on Maps," explores the proliferation of ideas that followed, when sacred geography emerged as a genre of knowledge. Tracing changes in maps from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century that focus on the geography of the Bible in general and paradise in particular, Scafi shows how new knowledge and precision in cartography fomented debate by scholars and amateurs regarding the identification of the four rivers (underground or above ground, rivers and tributaries), the location of paradise (now often held to be in Mesopotamia, although sometimes in Armenia or the Holy Land) and its surroundings, notably Havilah and Cush. The distortions of the Flood were also a matter of some concern, for it was feared that the original courses of the rivers might have been changed. In meticulous and detailed regional maps, these arguments are logically and earnestly rehearsed by their authors, whose considerable erudition ultimately rendered Eden as elusive as ever.

It seems somehow ironic that Scafi's final chapter, "The Eclipse of the Theological Eden," which deals with nineteenth- and twentieth- century material, includes what seem to be the strangest and most idiosyncratic ideas about the location of paradise. Noting that the modern period sees the departure of theologians from the field of Eden-seekers and the influx of enthusiastic amateurs, Scafi assesses even the quirkiest of the modern investigators with respect and a balanced analysis. Acknowledging that the roles of mainstream and fringe thinking often change over time, he gathers here a variety of perspectives that are no less imaginative than the medieval examples described above. Some of the sites of Eden proposed here include the Babylonian site of Eridu, downtown Jerusalem, the North Pole, a site east of Damascus, in the Seychelles, submerged, variously, under the Persian Gulf or the Indian Ocean, in the Hunza Valley in Pakistan, and even on the Mecklenburg-Pomeranian border in eastern Germany. Scafi reminds us that these efforts belong to their time, and that they reveal ways of thinking about scriptural geography that ultimately are part of intellectual history, no matter how strange they seem.

In his epilogue, after discussing a 1944 photograph of a dead tree, located at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, and identified by a sign, in English and Arabic, marking "The Original Garden of Eden," Scafi describes a more recent vision of paradise that is neither remote nor lost, but accessible and ever-ready. He allows it to serve as the final word, for now.

It is hard to find fault with this book--the scholarship is impeccable, the argument both elegant and resourceful. The book is richly illustrated, and drawings are provided to clarify elements of many of the medieval maps, which can be hard to decipher. There are 21 color illustrations, and like those in black and white (of which there are 175), their features are elaborated with lengthy and detailed captions. These are both an asset and liability to the book: they provide additional information, and they enable the reader to browse through the volume casually, but they also distract from the main narrative, and are not always located on the same page on which they are discussed in the text. The result, amplified by the now- common use of endnotes, is that a fair amount of flipping back and forth is necessary, and as the book is large, this process can be a bit cumbersome. It is entirely worth the trouble.