But the story got weirder. In 2007, an MFA student at Columbia, I accessed the Times online archive. It turned out that picture sparked a mini-drama in the Letters page. Several British military personnel sent in competing descriptions of a decades-earlier incident: On New Year’s Eve, 1919, soldiers stationed in Qurna, Iraq, had climbed—and broken—this very Tree of Knowledge, enraging Iraqis and forcing the Brits to repair it with concrete. Soon afterward, rebellion broke out across Iraq. I had to know more. What were the soldiers thinking? Who was enraged and why? And what did the Garden of Eden have to do with the revolution?
One of the letter-writers claimed he’d gathered a file of outraged telegrams at the time. But I could find nothing in the British Library or Archives online. My professor, visiting London, offered to search the actual Library for me—still nothing. So I tried to accumulate enough background about the place, people, and timeline to able to tell at least a provisional story. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many travelers had passed through Qurna, at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates, and taken note the Tree. I stitched together numerous tiny references into something that resembled a whole. My proudest discovery was actually the answer to the Times photograph.
During Iraq’s one period of stable government between two bloody revolutions in the 1950s, the British-backed king went on a publicity tour of major European capitals, touting the country’s resources, achievements, and potential in an (ironically British-printed) glossy propaganda pamphlet. And one of those points of pride was Qurna’s Tree of Knowledge. This image shows a healthy Tree flourishing after being broken, bombed, and belittled. Before I returned the pamphlet—too soon, since the library somehow classified it as a periodical—I made sure to scan the photo.
But to actually understand what had gone on in 1919, I had to search closer to the present. Bruce Feiler’s Walking the Bible described the post-Saddam park built in Qurna to protect the Tree of Knowledge. One of the few travel companies that still took tourists to Iraq in the 1990s had photographs of the Tree on its website. (Or rather, Trees. By now there were several.) Reuters stories after the 2003 invasion talked of busloads of Iraqis coming to the Tree to pray.
But why? It couldn’t really be the tree from the Bible, could it? And weren’t Iraqis Muslim anyway? An online search for “trees” “Iraq” “shrine” and “sacred” eventually led me to an academic scholar of Middle Eastern folklore who, as it turned out, lived in my then-neighborhood, Astoria, Queens. We met for coffee. Oh sure, he said, this sounds like traditional Middle Eastern tree-worship. It predates the Bible, and monotheism in general, which is remarkable in a region filled with monotheistic fundamentalists.
I needed firsthand description. My brother, a journalist, put me in touch with a Kurdish Iraqi colleague; we met in the lobby of Columbia’s journalism school. Sadly, he didn’t remember Qurna’s Tree. But when I asked him about sacred trees in general, he lit up. In his hometown, hundreds of miles from Qurna, people visited sacred trees all the time, to request favors. The trees had to be treated with respect. You could not touch them, take a branch, or peel their bark, without risking the wrath of the holy man associated with them—or your mother. Finally, I understood why there were enough outraged telegrams to fill a file folder in 1919. And every time one sacred tree dies, another is planted in the same spot, which explained why there was now a small grove in Qurna. Three years later, I could finally tell the whole story.
A small illustrated version of it (in the literary journal Triple Canopy) became a twenty-page essay, and then informed three chapters of my book, Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden. This week, six years after I first discovered it, the Middle Eastern scholar told me he’d been teaching my story about the Tree in his folklore class. I guess it really is the Tree of Knowledge!
Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice in August. Her reviews and essays have appeared in Salon, Lapham’s Quarterly, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe. A graduate of Columbia University’s nonfiction writing MFA program, she lives in New Jersey.