March 15, 2010

Pilgrims search for biblical Eve

DONNA ABU

— By -NASR

The Associated Press

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — On a sweltering August morning, a small group of Iranians crowded outside the green metal door of a cemetery. They wanted to go in to look at the remains of one particular tomb: the tomb of biblical Eve.

Like hundreds of Muslims who visit Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage in nearby Mecca, the Iranians had heard the legend that Eve was buried in that spot. The two blue signs inscribed with ''The Graveyard of our mother Eve'' flanking the cemetery entrance appeared to add credibility to a story passed on by generations of Saudis but never scientifically proven.

''We hear this is the tomb of Eve,'' said Minoo Ghadimkhani, 45. ''That is why we want to go in.''

There is no archaeological evidence old enough to authenticate the story of Eve's burial in Jiddah, according to many Bible experts. But that hasn't kept the legend from persisting.

Some say that the city's name, when pronounced as ''Jaddah'' -- an Arabic word that means grandmother -- is a reference to Eve. No one really knows how the story originated, and many in this Red Sea port city dismiss it as a myth.

''It's a legend, but it is one mentioned by many scholars,'' said Sami Nawar, general director for culture and tourism. Nawar, an expert on the history of old Jiddah, likes to lace a bit of the legend into his presentations on the city to visiting foreign dignitaries and journalists.

''Jiddah is the most feminine city in the whole world because it has Eve,'' Nawar says.

The Quran, Islam's holy book, talks about Adam and Eve's expulsion from paradise after eating from the fruit of the forbidden tree. It does not say where they appeared on Earth.

But Arab tradition puts Adam in the holy city of Mecca, which is 43 miles east of Jiddah, where God ordered him to build the Kaaba, the sacred stone structure that Muslims face during their five daily prayers, according to Nawar.

God then told Adam to go to a hill in Mecca to repent for his sins, Nawar said. After he repented, God sent him Eve, and the hill became known as Mount Arafat, from the Arabic word that means to know, he said. That story places Eve, Hawwa in Arabic, in the vicinity of Jiddah, which is the entry point for Muslim pilgrims to Mecca. It could explain how the legend of her burial began.

Arab and Western historians and travelers have described a tomb outside the walls of old Jiddah that they referred to as Eve's Graveyard.

Historian Hatoon al-Fassi said 9th century Mecca historian al-Fakihi reported that two of the Prophet Muhammad's companions, Ibn Abbas and Ibn Massoud, mentioned Eve's tomb. The prophet died in 623.

Writing about Jiddah in his ''Travels,'' Ibn Jubayr, a 12th century geographer, traveler and poet born in Valencia, then the seat of an Arab emirate, says that ''in it is a place having an ancient and lofty dome, which is said to have been the lodging place of Eve, the mother of mankind, God's blessing upon her when on her way to (Mecca).'' The passage was quoted by the Arab News, a Saudi paper.

The tomb no longer exists. And it's not clear how it was destroyed. Those who have been inside the cemetery say that in its place is a row of unmarked tombs, and there's nothing to indicate the tomb had been there. (The Wahhabi strain of Islam bans the marking of tombs, and women in the Saudi kingdom are barred from entering cemeteries.)

William Dever, a professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at the University of Arizona and a prominent U.S. archaeologist, said there just isn't any archaeological evidence going back far enough to back up the claims.

''The problem is that these are all legends, these are all myths and we can't date them,'' said Dever, who specializes in the history of Israel and the Near East in biblical times. ''My guess is the story could go back two or three thousand years, but we don't have any archaeological proof.''

''There are lots of traditional tombs of saints of various kinds in the Middle East,'' he added. ''But they are never excavated or investigated scientifically.''

Asked if he had heard of any other final resting place for Eve, Dever said, ''No. There are tombs of Abraham all over the place, but I don't honestly know in Israel or the West Bank or Jordan of any Eve tomb in these places.''

On the street of the cemetery, the Eve legend remains alive even though those who grew up with the story don't believe it.

Ahmed Bakoudij, a 32-year-old mechanic, said he called his garage ''Hawwa's Garage'' despite his skepticism.

''I've been hearing about Hawwa's grave since I was a kid,'' Bakoudij said. ''But no one believes it. I have to see it with my own eyes to believe it.''

''But,'' he said, ''if I ever have kids, I'll pass on the legend to them.''

Grocer Saleh Ba-Aqeel said hundreds of Muslim pilgrims from Iran, Indonesia and other countries visit the cemetery, especially before and after the annual hajj pilgrimage.

''When they come and ask me if Eve is really buried here, I tell them, 'God only knows,' '' Ba-Aqeel said.

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