Scottish botanists to restore Garden of Eden

WOULD you Adam and Eve it? A team of Scottish botanists are heading to Iraq to help restore an area thought to be the biblical Garden of Eden.

The Centre for Middle Eastern Plants (CMEP), based at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, has joined forces with conservation charity Nature Iraq to rebuild the delicate eco-system of the Iraqi marshlands, which were drained by Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. The area south of the city of Basra, is regarded by scholars as being the location of the Old Testament Garden of Eden.

In the Book of Genesis, it is described as at a place of four rivers. Since the early days of Christianity this has often been interpreted as being the Mesopotamian Marshes, where the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates and two other rivers once met before climate change transformed the once highly-fertile region into marshes.

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During the trip in March, the Scottish team will record and register plants in the area as part of an ambitious project to restore the marshlands. They will also help to train Iraqi botanists to take the work forward.

An exhibition in Scotland later this year – Paradise Restored – will explain the plan to a wider public. Sophie Neale, a CMEP researcher involved in the project said: “This will cover its [the area’s] history as the Garden of Eden and the cradle of civilization and recent restoration work after it was drained by Saddam Hussein.”

Tony Miller, director of the CMEP said: “Nature Iraq’s first project is the restoration of the marshes and we are working with them. Without the marshes there is no wildlife in the region. They support the bio- diversity of the area which is rich in bird life and in the past was very important for fish. There is a complete eco-system that is in the process of being restored.”

Prior to his downfall and execution in 2006, Saddam drained the wetlands to punish the indigenous Marsh Arab tribes, who had risen up against him in the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1991. The former Iraqi dictator built a network of canals to channel water from the Euphrates and Tigris around the marshes, dumping it straight into the Persian Gulf.

Within months the marshes, which had covered 15,000 sq km, were reduced to less than 10 per cent of their original size, killing off wildlife and plants and destroying delicate eco-systems which had been there for thousands of years.

Slowly, however, the biodiversity of the region is returning under the control of Iraqi engineer Azzam Alwash, head of Nature Iraq. He is carrying out work to refill the marshes, which had turned to desert, with water.

Around 50 per cent of the area has since been refilled, and the ecosystem and wildlife is slowly recovering.

Later in the year, the Botanics will host the exhibition to document the work being undertaken in Iraq, as well as projects in other parts of the Middle East, including Turkey, Afghanistan and Syria. Miller described it as an important project for humanitarian, as well as botanical, reasons. “It is scientifically interesting for us and it’s also something that I feel we should be doing. If we are going to go into a country like Iraq in a military sense it seems quite reasonable that we should try to help rebuild the country afterwards as well.”

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Not only have scientists recognised the area’s importance. At the start of the second Gulf War, with Allied troops about to invade southern Iraq from Kuwait, Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins, commander of the Ist Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment, famously told his men: “This is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham – tread lightly there.”