© Copyright 1999 by Richard G. Grant.
Free use is granted, with attribution, for any non-pecuniary purposes.
A Brief Introduction to Arabian Geography
A great deal is known today about the geography of Arabia, its climate, the challenges of travel, and the way of life of its inhabitants. When today's knowledge is compared with the views of Arabia available at the time of Joseph Smith, one is struck with the almost complete lack of accurate knowledge possessed by those who had claimed to the world to be the experts. Eugene England, of BYU, has observed that the more Joseph Smith "had known based on contemporary expertise the more wrong he is likely to have been."(1)
In Joseph's day the best geographies that might have been available to him would have described Arabia as a "generally barren and uncultivated waste." He would have read that "the southern division is fertile in a high degree, and produces rice, maize, etc., and abounds in frankincense, gums, balsams, honey, wax, spices, and all the tropical fruits." He would also have "learned" that the whole southern coastline is "a rocky wall . . . as dismal and barren as can be; not a blade of grass or green thing." If he had access to foreign language sources, he would have learned little more.(2)
A reasonable question is, "Why were these geographies so wrong?" And they were very wrong. I see three factors contributing to this "expert" error. First, the frankincense trade was a known reality and that frankincense came from somewhere in southern Arabia. Second, virtually all maritime reports were in agreement, the Arabian coast was barren. Third, travel through this Arabian wilderness by westerners had not been attempted and Arabs don't talk. A fourth factor, pride, was also a significant contributor. "Experts" don't like to say "I don't know." Anyway, they thought they did know. Putting together the information they had gleaned from "eyewitness accounts," they formed a perfectly rational hypotheses: southern Arabia must be the fertile source of the frankincense. The reality, that frankincense producing trees grew along the southern coast, could not be conceived.
Nibley describes "A growing treasury of great classics on life among the Arabs, beginning with Burckhardt in 1829 but mostly confined to our own age:  Doughty, Philby, Lawrence, Hogarth, Thomas, etc."(3) Since the publication of this remark by Dr. Nibley, this knowledge base has continued to expand. There are even some modern day Latter-day Saint explorers who can be added to this list.
In addition, there have been a number of significant document discoveries dating back to Lehi's time and earlier. In 1887, a country woman of Tell el Amarna, a village on the Upper Nile, found in a rubbish heap a collection of inscribed clay tablets. This proved to be an ancient file of correspondence written chiefly from Egyptian overlords in Palestine to the Pharaoh of Egypt. These Amarna letters appear to be from about the time of Joshua, the time when Israel was settling in Palestine. To date, 358 of these cuneiform tablets have been found.
In 1933 some glazed potsherds covered with writing were found. These date from about 600 BC, long after the days of Joshua, but exactly at the time of Lehi. Dr. Nibley describes these as:
. . . the remains of the correspondence of a military officer stationed in the city of Lachish, about thirty-five miles southwest of Jerusalem, at the time of the destruction of both cities, and so give us an eyewitness account of the actual world of Lehia tiny peephole, indeed, but an unobstructed one. In these letters "we find ourselves brought into close contact with the inner religious, political, and military life of Judah at this period."(4)
In Nibley's, Since Cumorah,he lists twenty such finds since the time of the publication of the Book of Mormon.(5) However, it is particularly these Amarna and Lackish letters that have contributed to the deepening of our understanding of the Hebrew culture of Lehi's day.
While this work will draw heavily on the writings of Nibley and England, their emphasis is not mine. They write to defend the Book of Mormon against charges of fraud. They've done their work well. My purpose is to increase understanding of this sacred text. I will look at much the same material that they discuss but will seek, with that material, to make the experiences of Lehi and his family more real in the minds of my student. First Nephi is rich with cultural detail. However, as we read through the glasses of our own generation, there are few of these details that will be apparent. We need to gain Nephi's perspective.
As an aid us in gaining this perspective, we will occasionally refer to the travels of the explorer Bertram Thomas as he, in the late 1920s, traveled much the same trail through Arabia that Lehi and his family traversed. Hugh Nibley would tell us that this is a reasonable way to at least get another view of what Lehi saw in this journey. He says that for the most part Arabia and its people have changed little since the days of Lehi.
The value of the Lackish letters is illustrated by letter No. 6. This letter denounces the prophet Jeremiah for spreading defeatism both in the country and the city. This confirmation of the threatening atmosphere in Jerusalem tells us that Lehi was not the only prophet threatened. Perhaps it was the antagonism towards Jeremiah the spawned the threat against Lehi. The leaders in Jerusalem were attempting to quiet Jeremiah and counter his influence. Then, along comes the wealthy, respected, and influential Lehi, trumpeting the same defeatist denunciations of the Jewish leaders. They couldn't afford to allow Lehi to rally support for Jeremiah. Lehi had to be stopped!
The Lord told Lehi to leave and it appears that he was prepared to leave immediately. He just abandoned his home near Jerusalem and took his family into one of the most formidable and hazardous environments on the earth, and he never looked back. Nephi, in one simple phrase communicated his father's preparation for this difficult journey. He said, "my father dwelt in a tent."
Dr. Nibley tells us of recent discoveries that have demonstrated the closeness of ancient ties between the Arab and the Hebrew. He quotes Montgomery, an eminent Middle East scholar, as stating that when the evidence is examined, "We come to realize, that Israel had its face turned towards those quarters we call the Desert, and that this was its nearest neighbor." "The Hebrews remained Arabs," is the verdict of another modern authority; "their literature . . . in its recorded forms, is of Arab scheme and type." And of all the tribes of Israel, "Manasseh was the one which lived farthest out in the desert, came into most frequent contact with the Arabs, intermarried with them most frequently, and at the same time had the closest traditional bonds with Egypt."
In saying, "my father dwelt in a tent," Nephi is suggesting that Lehi's life may have been more closely related to that of the Beduin than to that of the city dweller. He is at least telling us that Lehi knew how to live in the wilderness. Dr. Nibley describes Lehi as "a man of threecultures, being educated not only in 'the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians,' but in the ways of the desert as well."(6)
Lehi was a rich man. He was probably a trader. Dr. Nibley claims that "the rule always was that the desert trade, specifically that of the South Desert, was the one reliable source of wealth for the men of Jerusalem."(7) As a trader, Lehi would have been the expert on caravan travel that he demonstrates himself to be. Thus, he was ready at a moment's notice to take his whole "family, and provisions, and tents" into the wilderness (1 Nephi 2:4). He was not packing for a short trip. This was not just a "run and hide" in the wilderness. They left their home and took with them all that was necessary for their extended subsistence in a near barren wasteland. They left to find a new home. They knew that they were never coming back. And Lehi knew exactly what they needed to take and Nephi says that he took only what was necessary. When they did return to Jerusalem, it was for records and additional participants in this journey, not for any necessities for the journey. Nibley sees in the response of Lehi's family the ultimate evidence of his familiarity with wilderness travel:
His family accused Lehi of folly in leaving Jerusalem and do not spare his personal feelings in making fun of his dreams and visions, yet they never question his ability to lead them. They complain, like all Arabs, against the terrible and dangerous deserts through which they pass, but they do not include ignorance of the desert among their hazards, though that would be their first and last objection to his wild project were the old man nothing but a city Jew unacquainted with the wild and dangerous world of the waste places.(8)
Yes, Lehi "dwelt in a tent." He knew what to do and he knew how to do it. While his family didn't all want to go, and some complained that he was imagining the threat to their lives, they seemed to have full confidence in Lehi's knowledge of the hazardous wilderness environment.
Nephi clearly states that in fleeing from Jerusalem they first "came down by the boarders near the shore of the Red Sea" (1 Nephi 2:5). He says that they then traveled three days "into the wilderness." Dr. Nibley tells us that "wilderness" does not necessarily mean an uninhabited wasteland, "rather it means a country such as nomads may inhabit, with oases and wadies where crops may be raised." Today we know that this description of Nephi fits perfectly the beginning of the ancient Frankincense Trail. This was an establish trade route in 600 BC, providing Jerusalem and Egypt access to the coveted frankincense resin produced by the boswellia trees of South Arabia. Eugene England suggest that the point of contact "near the shore of the Red Sea" was probably near the port city of Aqaba, at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba. He describes Lehi's probable travel from Aqaba into the wilderness:
About "three days in the wilderness" from Aqaba (seventy-six miles) along the Frankincense Trail is the large oasis of Al Beda, in an impressive valley with a riverbed that flows dramatically after rain and a flowing stream that waters substantial crops, all conditions that fit exactly the "valley of Lemuel" where Lehi's party stayed for some time. In addition the water flows into the Gulf of Aqaba, an arm of the Red Sea which in ancient Hebrew was likely called (in order to distinguish it from an ocean or large sea) a yam, a "source" or "fountain."(9)
Note, England assumes that they were able to travel at a speed of about twenty-five miles a day. This is the average speed of a camel caravan. He is assuming what Dr. Nibley states as a necessity, that Lehi's family traveled by camel. "If by camel," you might ask, "why does Nephi never mention this?" Dr. Nibley says that this is the surest clue. If they had traveled by any other means, it would have been mentioned in almost every verse. He says that "camels were as common then as automobiles are today." Certainly, to carry their tents and other provisions, camels were a necessity. No traveler, even today, could survive the Arabian desert on foot.
Nephi says that Lehi set up camp by a "river of water." What does he mean? What other kind of river is there? Even today, the traveler in Arabia will distinguish between the dry river, "the river of sand," and the near torrents produced by spring run off. Dr. Nibley points out that, "The very fact that Nephi uses the term 'a river of water' (1 Nephi 2:6), to say nothing of Lehi's ecstasies at the sight of it, shows that they are used to thinking in terms of dry rivers."(10)
For the people of the desert there is no more miraculous and lovely thing on earth than continually running water. Bertram Thomas gives us an excellent example. Describing how his Arabs reacted upon reaching a "river of water," he says that they "hailed it with a song in praise of the 'continuous and flowing rain,' whose bounty filled the bed of the wadi, 'flowing along between sand and stream course.'" Lehi was also moved to impressive and spontaneous poetic expression by the sight of his "river of water."
And when my father saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea, he spake unto Laman, saying:
O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!
And he also spake unto Lemuel:
O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord! (1 Nephi 2:9-10)
There is a primitive Arabic poetic form called a qasid. Dr. Nibley says that it's the "oldest actual poetry of the desert." The qasid always consists of a pair of poems which follow a very precise pattern. Nibley gives these criteria:
The perfection of Lehi's qasid is obvious. Even a casual evaluation of Lehi's admonishments to his wayward sons against these criteria of ancient Arabic poetic excellence, clearly suggests that the resemblance of his expression to the Arabic ideal could not have been mere chance. Chance may produce similarity, but chance seldom produces perfection.
Moving on from the valley of Lemuel, Nephi said that they traveled for "the space of four days, nearly a south-southeast direction," then pitched their tents in a place they called Shazar.(11) While temporarily camped, Nephi and his brothers went hunting to replenish their food supply. Brother England tells us that this would have taken them to an ancient oasis, now called Wadi Al Azlan. Nephi explains that as they traveled they kept "in the most fertile parts of the wilderness" (1 Nephi 16:13-4).
Dr. Nibley quotes an Arab expert as claiming that "The secret of moving through this desolation has at all times been kept by the Bedouin,"but Lehi learned this secret. Nephi explains this secret in simple and easy to overlook phrases:
Yes, this is how you must travel in Arabia. There arefertile parts. The explorers Woolley and Lawrence describe these "fertile parts" as "stretching over the flat floor of the plain in long lines like hedges."(12) Wadis, where some water can be found, are the remains of dried up river beds (Nibley calls them watercourses). These river beds sometime stretch for hundreds of miles. Bertram Thomas called them "the arteries of life in the steppe, the path of Bedouin movement, the habitat of animals, by reason of the vegetationscant though it iswhich flourishes in their beds alone."(13)
It was common for travelers to stay at a wadi for ten to twelve days, or until "it is soiled by the beasts, and the multiplication of fleas becomes intolerable, and the surroundings afford no more pastureage."(14) If, however, there was a chance of raising a quick crop, they might stay for several months. For the most part, hunting and occasional wild fruit were the only sources of food. To this day, Arabs, like Lehi's sons, use slings and bows in their constant effort to obtain sustenance. The importance of the hunt to the Arab is suggested by the claim some have made that the original root of the name Arab"is a combination of sounds meaning 'to lie in ambush'" The western Arabian mountains are very steep and rugged and are home to both leopards and mountain goats, making hunting the game that abounds in these mountains a challenging and dangerous experience.(15)Nibley quotes one authority as stating that, "it is no exaggeration to say that the Bedouin is in an almost permanent state of starvation."(16)
Nephi says that as they continued their journey they "traveled for the space of many days." Brother England calculates that this would have put them "in the general area of modern Jiddah." Jiddah is near the eastern shore of the Red Sea, a place of high heat and humidity. Today, the salt air of Jiddah will rust a car fender in just a few months, and hard woods brought in from other areas quickly become soft and limber. Nephi said that the wood bows of his brothers "lost their springs," and his steel bow broke. Nibley points out that Nephi's "fine steel" bow was probably not a solid piece of metal. Rather, it would most likely have been a steel-ribbed bow.
Nephi, faced with the potential starvation of his family, did the near impossiblehe made a bow. There are few events in this story that better emphasize Nephi's expertise in desert survival. The making of a bow is no task for the novice. Few woods are suitable and bow and arrow must be perfectly matched. Note that Nephi not only made a bow but also made new arrows. Nibley says that "it was almost as great a feat for Nephi to make a bow as it was for him to build a ship."
As for the wood for this bow, Nibley says that "according to the ancient Arab writers, the only bow-wood obtainable in all Arabia was the Nab wood that grew only 'amid the inaccessible and overhanging crags' of Mount Jasum and Mount Azd, which are situated in the very region where, if we follow the Book of Mormon, the broken bow incident occurred." On the other hand, Eugene England suggests that the pomegranate trees that are prominent in Jiddah would have provided appropriate wood. Either way, we see that the Lord looked after his servants. Yes, they had problems, but through faith and humility, the means for addressing those problems were always found to be at hand.
Again they traveled for many days, then pitched their tents. At this camp Ishmael died and we are told that he was "buried in the place which was called Nahom." Apparently, the burial did not take place at their camp site. The implication here is that they took Ishmael to an appropriate place to be buriedan established burial ground.
In the August, 1978, issue of the Ensign, Dr. Ross Christensen, then a BYU professor of archaeology, reported that the name Nehhm appeared on a 1763 map of Arabia, about 25 miles northeast of Sana'a, the modern capital of Yemen. More about this later.
Nephi says that following the burial of Ishmael at Nahom, they "did travel nearly eastward from that time forth." Nephi tells us that the Lord instructed them that during this travel they should avoid making any fires. "I remember well," writes Bertram Thomas, "taking part in a discussion upon the unhealthiness of campfires by night; we discontinued them forthwith in spite of the bitter cold." The danger, of course, was bandit bands. Thomas lays down the law for all travelers in the desert, even today: "An approaching party may be friend, but is always assumed to be foe."
That Bertram Thomas followed nearly the same course through the Arabian wilderness as that traveled by Lehi and his family is evidenced by this description of his journeys end:
What a glorious place! Mountains three thousand feet high basking above a tropical ocean, their seaward slopes velvety with waving jungle, their roofs fragrant with rolling yellow meadows, beyond which the mountains slope northwards to a red sandstone steppe. . . . Great was my delight when in 1928 I suddenly came upon it all from out of the arid wastes of the southern borderlands.(17)
These were the Qara mountains of Dhofar, on the southeastern coast of Arabia in the modern state of Oman. Thomas, in 1928, was surprised to find a fertile land in a place where all the experts claimed there was nothing but barren desert and rocky crags. Yet, the discovery of Dhofar had been reported by seafarers on at least three previous occasions; in 1838, in 1843, and again in 1894.(18) Thomas goes on to describe the aromatic shrubs of the place, the wooded valleys, "the hazy rim of the distant sea lifted beyond the mountains rolling down to it," and the wondrous beauty of the "sylvan scenes" that opened to the view as he passed down through the lush forests to the sea."
This story of two modern explores of Arabia had its beginning in 1974 in the sealing room of the New Zealand Temple. There, Warren Aston, then the assistant recorder for the temple met Michaela, who had come from Australia to be sealed to her parents. As their acquaintance blossomed into romance, they discovered that they shared an attraction for ancient history and archaeology, particularly that related to the scriptures. As one of their marriage goals they determined to pursue this mutual interest, traveling as their means would allow to those places which related to the origins of the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Of course they did not, and probably would not today, consider themselves to be explores. But, you decide. Here's their story.
Following their marriage in 1974, the Astons established their home in Brisbane, Australia. Warren, with the objective of maximizing the effective value of their limited travel resources, took a job in the airline and travel industry. Their first overseas vacation took them to Israel in 1976. They brought with them their first child, six months old Claire. This was a time of considerable instability in all of the Middle East and the Aston's were immediately introduced to the realities of the resulting tensions. Immediately following their landing, Warren found himself, with other male passengers, lined up on the runway being interrogated by a heavily armed military. Despite this inauspicious beginning, they were delighted with Israel. On subsequent vacations the family visited Baghdad, Beirut, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Also, intermingled, were return trips to Israel.
One day in 1984 Warren read a letter that was destined to give their family vacations a new dimension. Warren took to work, to read during lunch hour, the August 1978 issue of the Ensign. He found Ross Christensen's letter regarding the possible discovery of "a place called Nahom." Warren's curiosity was prickedwhat, he wondered, had been done in the intervening years to follow-up on Dr. Christensen's hypothesis? He contacted FARMS and was told that nothing had been done. In Warren's mind "a plan for doing something began to take shape."
Through what the Aston's describe as "a series of minor miracles," they very soon found themselves (with Michaela in the seventh month of her fifth pregnancy) in Sana'a, the capital of the Yemen Arab Republic. They described Sana'a as "overflowing with sewage and garbage." A city with "colorful and chaotic" markets, with small bags of frankincense for sale along side machine guns, grenades, and surface to air missiles. Michaela reported that she "once found herself surrounded by dozens of armed men in the city who refused to let her leave." It was with great relief that she came to understand that what they wanted was her picture.
It was not until their last day in Yemen that they found their first cluea recently printed map showing "Nehem." Since vowels are not included in either the Arabic or Hebrew script, both "Nehem" and "Nahom" would be identically scripted, "NHM" in either language. When this is translated into English, the vowels must be supplied by the translator.
Over the next ten years this research of Nehem produced strong evidence that Nehem is indeed identical to Lehi's Nahom. They discovered two ancient burial grounds in the hills of Nehem, each clearly predating Lehi. One of these is considered by local archaeologists in the area to be the largest ancient burial site discovered in all of Arabia.
As the research of Nahom progressed, the Aston's curiosity naturally turned toward the place which Nephi called Bountiful. The location of Bountiful was seen as an important contributor to their evidence chain supporting Nehem as the location of Nahom. Nephi reported that they went nearly in an easterly direction from Nahom. Most LDS scholars felt that the location of Bountiful had been pretty much determined as Salalah in Dhofar. Yet, no LDS observer had ever visit Salalah to assess the evidence. This was because the Arab republic of Oman, where Salalah is located, was firmly closed to most outsiders. In October of 1987, after repeated requests, Warren was finally granted permission to visit Salalah.
After five days in Salalah, Warren was convinced that this was not Bountiful. Nephi provides many details either explicitly or by clear deduction as to the specific characteristics of Bountiful. While Warren reported that most all of these requirements were satisfied in the larger area of Salalah, "it took hours of driving to see them all." Warren's assessment was that "the area seemed very different from Nephi's description." However, after considerable probing, Warren learned of "large trees" growing near the Yemen boarder. But the roads didn't go that far and Warren was forced to leave that investigation to a future trip.
The details of their subsequent explorations and discoveries are described in their excellent book, In the Footsteps of Lehi. Suffice it here to say that over the next 5 years Warren and his family were able to discover and explore five additional possible locations for Bountiful. By April, 1992, they had pretty much eliminated all but one of these locations. And that location, a place which the Astons described as a Middle East Shangi-La, has demonstrated an unusual correlation with all of Nephi's description of Bountiful. In April, 1993, a FARMS expedition, let by Noel Reynolds, then the President of FARMS, visited this place called Khor Kharfot ("Fort Inlet"). Further evaluation has continued since that date. Thus far, each of these investigations has resulted in an increased accumulation of evidence in support of the identification of Khor Kharfot, located at the mouth of Wadi Sayq, as Bountiful.
The work of the Aston family has added both confirmation and detail to what has long been accepted as the most probable route of Lehi and his family as they traversed the Arabian wilderness. (Click here to view a probable map of that route.)
I find this very interesting. For years, professionals and others having significant financial backing have even devoted their lives to the search for archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon. Yet, little of significance has resulted. Then enters a family of moderate means whose only real qualifications were a firm testimony of the gospel, a healthy curiosity, a sense of adventure, and a desire to experience for themselves the lands and environments that provided the settings for the experiences presented to us in ancient scripture. From their simple efforts has come what now appears almost certain to become the first identifiable Book of Mormon archaeological sites.
The Book of Mormon tells us of the Mulekites who must have escaped from Jerusalem at about the time of Lehi. However, until 1907, the world's scholars had not identified any specific group as having left Jerusalem and maintained a unique identity as had the Lehites and Mulekites. In fact, it wasn't until the mid twenties that Dr. Albright, considered the foremost Egyptologist of his day, published his findings that the community of Elephantine, discovered in 1907, in Upper Egypt, south of Thebes, way up near the source of the Nile river, had originally been settled by Jews who fled Jerusalem shortly after Lehi's departure. It has since been learned that Jeremiah himself was one of these refugees. In Elephantine they built a temple. When that temple was destroyed shortly after the Jews returned to Palestine, the people of Elephantine requested permission from the priests at Jerusalem to rebuilt their temple. Interestingly, this permission was granted.(19)
Elephantine has a special significance for Book of Mormon researchers. Dr. Nibley identified that significance in a 1948 Improvement Era article. This article, written before he became aware of Dr. Albright's discovery of the history of Elephantine, reported the peculiar tendency for names in the ancient records in the area of "Upper Egypt, in and south of Thebes" to bare a striking resemblance to the names found in the Book of Mormon.
11. Shazer is an interesting name. It is surrounded by interesting coincidences. There is shajer (Palestinian) or shazher (Arabic) means "trees." These is also the Hebrew shaghur or shihor, which means "seepage. Either are excellent name for as desert wadi. In a farther coincidence, there is a famous water hole in South Arabia, called Shisur by Thomas and Shisar by by the explorer Philby.