Nudged firmly by the Lord, Lehi and Sariah led their family out of Jerusalem and into the desert of Arabia, beginning an exodus that would be celebrated in story and song for a thousand years. Yet, until the translation of the Book of Mormon, their saga would not be known to the wider world for almost two and one-half millennia. While spending months, perhaps years, at a base camp near the northeastern arm of the Red Sea, the family maintained occasional contact with their estate at Jerusalem through the four sons, Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Nephi. Twice these sons went back the approximately 250 miles to the city at the behest of the Lord, the first time to obtain a scriptural record inscribed on plates of brass and the second time to persuade another family, that of a man named Ishmael, to join them at the camp in their quest for a promised land. Then, after the Lord directed the party to move deeper into the desert, they packed up their tents and provisions and crossed the "river Laman," never to return again to Jerusalem, effectively cutting themselves off from hearth and home. The question is, Could Joseph Smith have made up the story of this journey based on literary and historical sources available to him during his early years? As we shall see, the answer is no.
The mild surprise in the early part of the narrative is that anyone fleeing Jerusalem or its environs would head for Arabia, camping near the Red Sea. Almost all flights into exile that are recorded in the Bible show people going southwest to Egypt, not southeast into Arabia.1 To be sure, hundreds of years later Jews would flee the Roman siege of Jerusalem by traveling into Arabia (AD 68–70). But unless a reader knew the unfamiliar names of Arabian cities and peoples noted in the Bible, there are few hints of meaningful connections in that direction as early as the seventh century BC, when Lehi and Sariah were on the move.2 Now there is a growing body of evidence, made available long after Joseph Smith's day, for extensive contacts between Arabia and Jerusalem in antiquity, most commercial and military.3
Lehi, Sariah, and their four sons could have followed a number of routes from Jerusalem to the Red Sea. None of them would have run north and south along the shoreline of the Dead Sea, except along the western shoreline from the Ein Gedi oasis southward. On both the east and west sides of the Dead Sea the terrain slopes steeply from cliffs to water's edge and would not have allowed them to pass. The challenges of negotiating such terrain would have escalated, of course, for pack animals.4
The Route South
If family members traveled south from Jerusalem, starting toward Bethlehem, at least two routes were available. One was the trade route that led south to Hebron, then to Arad and down through the Zohar Valley into the Arabah Valley, which continues the Jordan Valley southward.5 This trail would have been the most direct and would have led them toward the tip of the eastern arm of the Red Sea where Aqaba and Eilat are now located. In this connection one should not discount the possibility that the family generally followed a trade route not only for this segment of the journey but for later segments too. Even though Nephi's narrative of the journey does not specifically mention meeting other people, the party surely would have done so. And Nephi offers hints that family members ran into others as they traveled.6
A second southward trail open to them would have carried them down into the Arabah Valley next to the Dead Sea. It was the so-called ascent of Ziz (see 2 Chronicles 20:16 Revised Standard Version), which connected the area near Tekoa, birthplace of the prophet Amos, and Ein Gedi, which lay on the west shore of the Dead Sea. Tekoa lies south and slightly east of Jerusalem, and the party could have reached the neighborhood by traveling through or near Bethlehem. From here the trail descends eastward through rugged country to the oasis of Ein Gedi. At that point the party would have turned south toward the Red Sea, keeping at first to the west shore of the Dead Sea.7
The Route East, Then South
Two other trails would have led the family to the east, taking them down into the Jordan Valley a few miles south of Jericho. From either trail the party would then have ascended into the highlands of Moab, where they would have turned south and followed either the King's Highway or a road that ran farther east through Edomite territory toward the Red Sea. Of the two routes, the first departed from the east side of Jerusalem and skirted southward around the Mount of Olives, then turned eastward and followed the trade route that connected with the northwest shore of the Dead Sea through Wadi Mukallik (Nahal Og). This trail was known in antiquity as the "Route of Salt" because caravans carried salt extracted from the Dead Sea from its northwest shore up to Jerusalem.8 The family could have broken off from following this trail at any point after descending into the Jordan Valley and then aimed for the mountains of Moab, perhaps reaching the King's Highway near Mount Nebo.
The second or more northerly route would also have taken the family from the east side of Jerusalem, but on an eastward track up over the Mount of Olives near the modern village of At-Tur and eventually down through Wadi Kelt. This path, too, carried trade and travelers between the Jordan Valley and Jerusalem. The family would have exited Wadi Kelt just south of Jericho. From there it was an easy trek across the Jordan Valley to the base of the mountains of Moab.
What does all this mean? The fact that the Book of Mormon narrative follows the family of Lehi and Sariah from Jerusalem to the tip of the Red Sea and beyond, seeing them set up camp in northwest Arabia (see 1 Nephi 2:4–6), fits what is now known about commercial travel in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BC. In addition, though the direction of travel—generally southeast—is unexpected because most known flights of people seeking refuge from Jerusalem went into Egypt, not Arabia, the Lord was leading Lehi and Sariah to a promised land in the New World, not into exile.
There are four factors to remember about the camp of Lehi and Sariah in northwest Arabia. First, this area, also known as Midian, was rather heavily populated in antiquity.9 Hence, it may be incorrect to think that the family was completely isolated in this region. Second, they camped about three days' journey south or southeast of modern Aqaba, a distance of between forty-five and seventy-five miles, depending on their speed and endurance (see 1 Nephi 2:6).10 Third, the camp lay next to a "river of water" (v. 6) that "emptied into the Red Sea" (v. 8). Lehi described this stream as "continually running" (v. 9). Fourth, the evident impressive character of the valley where they located their camp led Lehi to term the valley "firm and steadfast, and immovable" (v. 10).
Nephi's narrative thus offers a few clues about the camping place. The most astonishing is the claim that there was a "continually running" stream of water in that part of Arabia. After all, students of geography believe that Arabia has been largely a desert for thousands of years and that water flows only after heavy rains.11 But there is an unforeseen surprise in the mountains south of Aqaba, a surprise that Joseph Smith could not have learned about.
In 1952 Hugh Nibley pointed out that the camp had to lie near "the Gulf of Aqaba at a point not far above the Straits of Tiran" where Lehi, "perhaps from the sides of Mt. Musafa or Mt. Mendisha," beheld that the stream of water ran into the Red Sea.12 In 1976 Lynn and Hope Hilton visited the area and proposed that the likely location of the camp was at the oasis Al-Badc in Wadi al-Ifal, about seventy-five miles south and east of Aqaba. Although any running water at the oasis was seasonal, flowing only after heavy seasonal rains, there were springs. Besides, the distant hills were impressive to behold. Thus, the Al-Badc oasis seemed to be a good fit with Nephi's narrative.13 More recently, George Potter has come upon a deep valley that cuts through the granite mountains that border the Gulf of Aqaba on its east shore. Known locally as Wadi Tayyib al-Ism ("Valley of the Good Name") and lying almost seventy-five miles south of Aqaba by foot, the valley holds a stream that flows year-round. Moreover, even though the amount of water flowing in the stream has diminished in recent years because of pumping, it still reaches almost to the shore of the Red Sea. Further, the valley itself is characterized by narrow passages and steep sides that rise about two thousand feet, features that would fit Lehi's description of an impressive valley.14 Hence, Wadi Tayyib al-Ism is a very attractive candidate for the party's first camp in a desert region that features no other known "continually running" stream.
There is actually a fifth consideration that Joseph Smith could not have known. It concerns the custom of a newcomer's naming a place and its geographical features. That is exactly what Lehi did when he camped next to a desert stream in an impressive valley. He called the stream by the name of his oldest son, Laman, and the valley by the name of his second son, Lemuel (see 1 Nephi 2:8–10; 16:12). Such actions seem odd in light of the fact that people lived in this part of Arabia and therefore the valley where the family camped probably had already received a name.
It was Hugh Nibley who first drew attention to this aspect of the narrative and also pointed out what was obvious, that the names conferred by Lehi did not stick.15 Charles Doughty, an Englishman who traveled in Arabia during the nineteenth century, made a similar point. During his journey in Arabia, Doughty observed that "every desert stead" had received a name. In fact, many had two or more names. Why? Because landmarks and important places received names from both local residents and from traveling caravanners. These names were never the same because the places in question meant different things to these individuals, depending on the function and importance of the landmarks or depending on an event that occurred there. Perhaps oddly, a person cannot predict which name will stick to a locale, that of the local people or that of the caravanners who visited places again and again.16 In any event, the constant passing through a region by local herdsmen or by caravanners contrasts with the journey of Lehi and Sariah's party only once through Arabia.
The chief question concerning Lehi's sacrifices in the wilderness is how Joseph Smith knew the proper sacrifices that travelers were to offer according to the Mosaic law. The answer is that he did not. But Lehi did. And he offered sacrifices suitable for the occasions noted in Nephi's narrative, including burnt offerings for atonement.17
Nephi's account highlights three occasions on which his father, Lehi, offered sacrifices (to be distinguished from burnt offerings). These occasions were when the family arrived at their first campsite (see 1 Nephi 2:7), when the sons of Lehi returned with the plates of brass (see 5:9), and when the sons returned with the family of Ishmael (see 7:22). In each instance, Nephi specifically connects the offering of sacrifices with thanksgiving. Such a detail allows us to know that these sacrifices were the so-called peace offerings that are mandated in the law of Moses (see Leviticus 3).18 According to Psalm 107, a person was to "sacrifice the sacrifices of thanksgiving" for safety in journeying (v. 22, emphasis added), whether through the desert or on water (see vv. 4–6, 19–30).
The burnt offerings are a different matter entirely. They are for atonement rather than thanksgiving (see Leviticus 1:2–4). This type of offering presumes that someone has sinned and therefore the relationship between God and his people has been ruptured, requiring restoration.19 The priests offered this sort of sacrifice twice daily in the sanctuary of ancient Israel on the chance that someone in Israel had sinned. While the priests could not know that some Israelite had sinned, the Lord obliged them to make the offering anyway. In this sense it was a just-in-case sacrifice.20
Lehi offered burnt offerings on two occasions. The second occurred after the sons had returned from Jerusalem with the family of Ishmael in tow (see 1 Nephi 7:22). Had there been sin? Yes. The older sons had sought to bind Nephi and leave him in the desert to die (see 7:6–16). Even though they repented and sought Nephi's forgiveness (see 7:20–21), Lehi felt the need to offer burnt offerings for atonement. In the earlier instance, Lehi offered such sacrifices after the return of his sons from Jerusalem with the plates of brass (see 1 Nephi 5:9). Had there been sin? Again, the answer is yes. The two older brothers had beaten the younger two, drawing the attention of an angel (see 3:28–30). There was also the matter of the unforeseen death of Laban (see 4:518; 5:14, 16). Even though Nephi knew through the Holy Spirit that the Lord had commanded him to kill Laban and thus justified Laban's death (see 4:11–13),21 Lehi was evidently unwilling to take any chances that the relationship between God and his family had not been securely reconciled. So he offered burnt offerings, exactly the right sacrifice for the occasion.
Lehi's dream, perhaps more than any other segment of Nephi's narrative, takes us into the ancient Near East. For as soon as we focus on certain aspects of Lehi's dream, we find ourselves staring into the world of ancient Arabia. Lehi's dream is not at home in Joseph Smith's world but is at home in a world preserved both by archaeological remains and in the customs and manners of Arabia's inhabitants. Moreover, from all appearances, the dream was prophetic—and I emphasize this aspect—for what the family would yet experience in Arabia. To be sure, the dream was highly symbolic. Yet it also corresponds in some of its prophetic dimensions to historical and geographical realities. The test is in the details.
One of the dominant images in Lehi's dream is the "great and spacious building" whose occupants wear "exceedingly fine" clothing (1 Nephi 8:26, 27). Such expressions point to obvious wealth. On a symbolic level the building and its inhabitants represented "the world and the wisdom thereof," as Nephi reminds us (11:35). But the wealthy occupants of the building were also at home in Arabia. Most probably, Lehi's party saw some of this opulence in travels farther south.
All recent commentators, from Ahmed Fakhry (1947) to Nigel Groom (1981), note the extraordinary wealth of the ancient kingdoms that arose in the southwestern sector of the Arabian Peninsula, in what is modern Yemen.22 A chief source of that wealth was incense, which camel trains carried into the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian areas from a time beginning long before Lehi and Sariah.23 The wealth derived not only from the sale of incense but also from taxing the goods, from transporting them, and from offering services in the form of food and so on to the men and animals that made up the caravans. The wealth led to massive public works programs, which included dams for irrigation and temples for the deities worshipped by people there.24
The scenes in the dream alternate between long, lonely stretches of desert crossed at night (see 1 Nephi 8:4–8) and regions of dense population (see vv. 21, 24, 27, 30, 33). Lehi also wrote of deep canyons—known as wadis—that were almost impossible to traverse (compare "a great and a terrible gulf" in 12:18 and "an awful gulf" in 15:28). After rains, the seasonal streams in the wadis fill with mud and debris (called "filthy water" in 12:16 and "filthiness" in 15:26–27).25 In contrast, Lehi described occasional green fields next to the desert graced not only by abundant water (there were already extensive irrigation works in south Arabia that supported a larger population than the one living there now) but also by lush vegetation represented by the tree full of delicious fruit (see 8:9–13).26 He saw heavily traveled paths leading to the green areas (see vv. 20–21) as well as "forbidden paths" and "strange roads" of the surrounding desert where the unwary would become "lost" (vv. 23, 28, 32). Further, Lehi's mention of "a mist of darkness" (v. 23) reminds one of the heavy mists and fogs that blanket the coasts of Arabia, especially during the monsoon season, including the place where the family most likely emerged from the desert.27
The dream is also true to other cultural and geographical dimensions of the family's world. For example, Lehi's dream began in "a dark and dreary wilderness" wherein Lehi and a guide walked "in darkness" for "many hours" (1 Nephi 8:4, 8). Plainly, they were walking at night, the preferred time for traveling through the hot desert. Further, when Lehi reached the tree that grew in "a large and spacious field"—which field is different from the wilderness—he partook of the fruit of the tree and then looked for his family, apparently expecting to see them (see vv. 9, 12–14). This sort of detail meshes with the custom of family travel in the Near East, with the father going as a vanguard to look for danger and for food while the mother and younger children follow. When there are other adult members in a clan or family, the males form a rear guard, as did Laman and Lemuel in this set of scenes (vv. 17–18). Hence, in the dream Lehi was evidently not alone with the guide as they traveled. His family members were following him, but at a safe distance as custom required.28
Multitudes of People
The dream of Lehi teems with people. Although the dream begins with a desert journey undertaken only by Lehi, his family members, and a guide (see 1 Nephi 8:5–7, 14, 17–18), it quickly fills with others. In his own words, Lehi "saw numberless concourses of people" who "did come forth, and commence in the path which led to the tree" (vv. 21, 22). Soon he "beheld others pressing forward" to take "hold of the end of the rod of iron," which also would bring them to the tree (v. 24). In the next scene, he "beheld . . . a great and spacious building" that "was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female" (vv. 26, 27). Moreover, in another setting Lehi "saw other multitudes," some of whom came to the tree and others of whom began "feeling their way towards that great and spacious building," each group proceeding cautiously and purposefully because of the murky mists (vv. 30, 31). Where did all of these people come from? Was not Arabia basically an empty place?
The answer is yes and no. There are vast regions where no human inhabitant lives. The problem in those areas, of course, is a lack of water. But anciently both the northwest and southwest sections of the Arabian Peninsula supported large populations, as well as large numbers of animals.29 It was through these very areas that Lehi's party passed. Though animals do not appear in Lehi's dream—the lone exception is a lamb (see 1 Nephi 10:10)—people do. And lots of them, matching the images in the dream. Although it is possible for a modern author to make up parts of a story that are unrealistic, the story will not gain credibility in the eyes of readers unless the author carefully masks the unrealistic elements with a heavy dose of reality in the other parts. In the case of Lehi's dream, it is impressive that even this detail of large numbers of people fits the ancient context of the family's journey into Arabia. No source that Joseph Smith had access to would have told him this fact.
The "great and spacious building" of Lehi's dream appeared unusual enough to his eye that he called it "strange" (1 Nephi 8:33). He also wrote that this building in his dream "stood as it were in the air, high above the earth" (1 Nephi 8:26). Why would Lehi, who had evidently traveled a good deal during his life (he possessed "tents," 1 Nephi 2:4), call a building strange? And does the word strange fit with the fact that the building soared into "the air, high above the earth"? Evidently, Lehi's descriptions of this building point to architecture unfamiliar to him. Furthermore, his words prophetically anticipate architecture that he and his party would see in south Arabia.
Recent studies have shown that the so-called skyscraper architecture of modern Yemen, featured most vividly by the towering buildings in the town named Shibam in the Hadhramaut Valley, has been common since at least the eighth century BC and is apparently unique in the ancient world. The French excavations of the buildings at ancient Shabwah in the 1970s, including homes, indicate that the foundations of these buildings supported multistoried structures. In addition, "many ancient South Arabian building inscriptions indicate the number of floors within houses as three or four, with up to six in [the town of] Zafar." Adding to the known details, "these inscriptions also provide the name of the owners" of these buildings.30
In this light, it seems evident that Lehi was seeing the architecture of ancient south Arabia in his dream. For contemporary buildings there "stood as it were in the air," rising to five or six stories in height. Such structures would naturally give the appearance of standing "high above the earth" (1 Nephi 8:26). Could Joseph Smith have known that any of these architectural features existed in the days of Lehi and Sariah? The answer has to be no.
At issue are, first, whether Joseph Smith or any of his family or neighbors could have gained access before 1830 to written works that spoke about ancient Arabia and, second, whether such works were available in libraries near his home. The year 1830, of course, saw the publication of the Book of Mormon. The libraries that Joseph Smith could have visited include that of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire (which was close to where his family lived from 1811 to 1813, when he was between five and seven years old), and John H. Pratt's Manchester lending library (which was in the neighborhood of Palmyra, New York, where Joseph Smith spent his teenage years, from 1816 on).31
Sources for information on Arabia include the classical writings of Strabo (ca. 64 BC–AD 19), Diodorus Siculus (fl. ca. 60–30 BC), and Pliny the Elder (ca. AD 23–79), as well as the anonymous sailor who authored the account in Greek titled The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (ca. AD 100).32 We can set aside most classical works as possible sources of information about ancient Arabia for Joseph Smith. Strabo's Geography did not appear in English translation until 1854. The Bibliotheke of Diodorus Siculus appeared in English translation as early as 1814, but a copy was not in the Dartmouth library until 1927. Although The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea was published in an English translation in 1807, the Dartmouth library did not acquire its copy until 1908, and John Pratt's library in New York never owned a copy. Pliny's Natural History appeared in an English translation in 1635. But again, evidence does not confirm that his writings were available to readers in English either at Dartmouth before 1924 or in John Pratt's library at any time. The only classical work available in English translation from Pratt's library before 1830, for example, was that of Josephus.33
An important dimension of the classical sources consists of the authors' distinctive interests. Except for the anonymous Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which featured information almost exclusively about the coastal areas of Arabia, no firsthand information comes to us from classical authors. They featured descriptions of the land and peoples—some inaccurate—that were based chiefly on reports of others. In contrast, 1 Nephi rehearses personal difficulties in the wilderness of Arabia as well as God's deliverance from such troubles. As an example of classical authors' interests, Diodorus Siculus writes about animals not generally found in the Mediterranean region, about gold mining and smelting by slaves in Arabia, and about the sweet smell of the land because of its aromatic plants. Pliny also devotes page after page to aromatic plants in Arabia.34 Nothing like these interests appears in the narrative of 1 Nephi. Why not? Because 1 Nephi rests on the personal experiences of people who traveled through Arabia, whereas the classical authors selected their information out of curiosity, some of which is inaccurate and even fanciful. On this basis alone, we conclude that Joseph Smith did not fall under the influence of such works.
Naturally, ancient authors writing about Arabia will exhibit some overlapping. That would include 1 Nephi and Pliny's Natural History, the latter circulating in English by Joseph Smith's time, although not in libraries where he lived.35 But the points of overlap are few, and the concerns that underlie such points differ significantly. For instance, Pliny notes that a people called "Minaei have land that is fertile in palm groves and timber." Nephi also mentions that he and his brothers harvested "timbers" to build their ship (see 1 Nephi 18:1–2). But any hypothetical link between the two accounts cannot be sustained. The interest of Pliny's secondhand report is to point out the sources of the Minaean people's wealth. By comparison, Nephi's minor concern is to tell us about how he and others built a seaworthy ship. Another point of overlap is Pliny's report that "the Sabaei" people of south Arabia "irrigated agricultural land" and produced "honey and wax."36 On his part, Nephi reports on irrigated land of sorts from the dream of his father, Lehi, who saw a "field" next to "a river of water" that was evidently irrigating the field as well as the most prominent plant in it, a tree (see 1 Nephi 8:9–13). Moreover, Nephi writes of "wild honey" in the coastal area that he and others called Bountiful (17:5; 18:6). But Pliny, as in his description of the Minaeans, is writing about the source of the Sabaeans' wealth. By contrast, the irrigated field of Lehi's dream supports a tree that represents the tree of life, whose fruit is "desirable to make one happy" (8:10). In addition, Nephi's note about "wild honey," a delicacy that one can still find in the cliffs that overlook the sea in southern Oman, does not mirror Pliny's economic interest in domestic honey and its by-product of wax.37 Again, we conclude that the interests of Pliny's secondhand description differ markedly from the firsthand, vivid record of 1 Nephi.
There is one final distinction that concerns the purpose for which these ancient authors wrote. Diodorus Siculus sums up rather neatly his purpose when, after his long description of Arabia, he declares that he had "reported many things to delight lovers of reading."38 In comparison, Nephi writes that he intends to "show unto [his readers] that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty unto the power of deliverance" (1 Nephi 1:20). Such purposes influenced how ancient authors selected the information that they would report. In the cases of Diodorus and Nephi, the differences could hardly be sharper.
From Joseph Smith's era we need to review the published works of contemporary authors. Why? Because, some might suggest, Joseph Smith could have gained access to the information reported by classical authors about Arabia by consulting sources that relied on them and that had been written in or near Joseph Smith's era. The first two volumes of Carsten Niebuhr's Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegenden Ländern, dealing with Niebuhr's ill-fated expedition to Arabia from 1761 to 1767, were published in 1774 and 1778. Robert Heron translated and published these volumes in English in 1792 under the title Niebuhr's Travels through Arabia and Other Countries in the East. This work was reissued in 1799. We note that the only ancient tie to Arabia that Niebuhr discusses concerns the incense trade and the trees that produced the resin. The rest of his work consists of observations about Arabia of his day.39 But Niebuhr's map of south Arabia raises an important question, for it shows the area of the "Nehhm" tribe. This identification becomes an issue in light of recent studies because the Nehhm tribal area most probably links to "the place that was called Nahom" of Nephi's narrative (1 Nephi 16:34).40 Could Joseph Smith have obtained information from Niebuhr's map? No, because the English translation of Niebuhr's book and accompanying map were unavailable to him either at the Dartmouth library, which did not acquire a copy of the English translation until December 1937,41 or from John Pratt's library, which did not own it. Besides, there are problems with the geography of Niebuhr's map. He pictures the Nehhm tribal area as north of both the Hadramaut region and its main water course, the Wadi Masilah (mistakenly spelled Wadi Meidam by Niebuhr). Thus, according to Niebuhr's map, a traveler would go south from Nehhm to reach the Hadramaut area. But in fact a traveler would have to go eastward almost 150 miles across the Ramlat Sabcatayn desert. This eastward direction, incidentally, is preserved in Nephi's narrative, not in Niebuhr's map (see 1 Nephi 17:1). (For further discussion about Nahom, see the sections below titled "Adopting the Name Nahom" and "Journey from Nahom to Bountiful.")
A second set of key works includes Jean-Baptiste d'Anville's geographical description of Arabia in his three-volume Géographie ancienne abrégée, which appeared in 1768. His map Prémièr Partie de la Carte d'Asie was printed in 1751 and notes for the first time in a Western publication the approximate location of the Nehem tribe in south Arabia.42 Before 1830 d'Anville's work appeared twice in English translations. John Horsley translated d'Anville's volumes, publishing them in 1814 as Compendium of Ancient Geography. The maps that appeared with this rendition are the most complete and are based on d'Anville's maps. Another translation of d'Anville's French work was Robert Mayo's An Epitome of Ancient Geography, which first appeared in 1818. The map of Arabia is much simpler than that which accompanied Horsley's translation. But neither of these English translations reached the Dartmouth library before Joseph Smith's family moved from the area. Likewise, d'Anville's map that notes the tribal area of Nehem was never part of the collections of either the Dartmouth library or John Pratt's library while Joseph Smith lived in these areas.43
The same can be said about Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Volume 5 of his original six-volume work came off the press in 1788. In this volume he devoted chapter 50 to a brief description of Arabia and the rise of Islam under Mohammed. Gibbon repeats straightforwardly what he has learned about Arabia from his sources, sometimes uncritically including the fantastic as if it were fact. As an example, he recalls the story of Agatharchides, alluded to by Diodorus Siculus, to the effect that "the soil was impregnated with gold and gems."44 In sum, his description of Arabia focuses on places and products of the region, showing topographical and economic interests. Such are foreign to Nephi's account.
A review of the holdings of John Pratt's Manchester lending library and those of Dartmouth College has yielded no evidence that any of the aforementioned works dealing with Arabia—classical or contemporary—existed in these two collections in Joseph Smith's day. They are simply absent from the accession lists of John Pratt's library. In the case of Dartmouth College, the library did not acquire any of these works until after 1830, except volume 2 of Horsley's English translation of d'Anville's work, which came to the library in 1823. Apparently only one of d'Anville's maps came with the translation, but which one is unknown; copies of forty maps came to the library in 1936. Dartmouth College acquired Edward Gibbon's famous historical work only in 1944 and the English translation of Niebuhr's volumes in 1937, much too late for Joseph Smith to have consulted them.45 Furthermore, the books in John Pratt's library that claimed to treat the ancient world deal with Arabia only in a general way, focusing almost exclusively on the northern area near the Persian Gulf.46 In this light it is safe to conclude that Joseph Smith did not enjoy access to works on Arabia in either of the libraries that lay near his home at one point or another in his youth. In a similar vein, any hypothesis that Joseph Smith had access to a private library that contained works on ancient Arabia is impossible to sustain.
The narrative of 1 Nephi focuses on a traveling party's attempts to follow God's commandments and thereby stay alive in a harsh clime. We sense no interest in unusual features for the sake of the unusual. On the other hand, except for the Periplus, the accounts by classical writers, and by the contemporary authors who based their works on those writers, are all secondhand reports that explore chiefly the unusual dimensions of Arabia that they had learned from others, all the while ignoring everyday living conditions. One thinks, for instance, of Diodorus's wild tale about the fantastic wealth of the city of Sabae wherein the king of this city was not allowed to leave the palace and the inhabitants lived their lives surrounded by objects of gold and silver and precious stones.47 None of this sort of interest appears in the Book of Mormon text of 1 Nephi.
One further observation is worth making. Carsten Niebuhr's books contrast with the works of d'Anville and Gibbon in the sense that they highlight the personal experiences of the author, who had spent time in Arabia. Even so, Niebuhr's interests do not coincide with those of 1 Nephi. For example, he shows little interest in ancient Arabia and the kind of life that archaeological remains might illuminate. Instead, almost all of his concern focuses on describing people whom he met and places that he visited. This sort of material does not appear in the pages of 1 Nephi. In fact, one of the unusual but persistent characteristics of Nephi's narrative is that Nephi mentions no one whom party members met on their trek. Evidently, he purposely omits mention of all persons and preexisting places, except for Nahom (see 1 Nephi 16:34).
How long was the journey from the first camp to Nahom, and at what point did the party cross from the west side of the Al-Sarat mountain range to the east? The first question can be answered from clues in Nephi's narrative, plus an appeal to an account in Strabo (ca. 64 BC–AD 19). The second is more elusive because hints about passing through the mountains are indirect. Even so, there are enough clues to indicate that the family crossed a natural barrier, such as a mountain range, which would fit with their trip through this part of Arabia. Let us take them up in reverse order.
A range of mountains, called Al-Sarat, runs almost the entire length of the west coast of Arabia and separates the coastal lowlands from the uplands of the interior. The peaks in the north rise to heights of five thousand feet while those in the south reach much higher. A limited number of passes and valleys offer access from one side of the range to the other.48 At some point the party had to cross the mountains before reaching "the place which was called Nahom," where the group turned "nearly eastward" (1 Nephi 16:34; 17:1). Otherwise, the mountains would have formed a major barrier to their eastward trek. Nephi's narrative offers hints that the family went into the mountains not long after leaving the camp.
The first hint is the amazing initial success of the hunters in the party.49 For after leaving a place they called Shazer, which lay four days' journey from their first camp (see 1 Nephi 16:13), they traveled "for the space of many days, slaying food by the way" (v. 15). This expression indicates abundant cover for hunters that one finds in mountainous terrain rather than in the open, flat region of the maritime plain that runs along the shore of the Red Sea.
A second clue has to do with the possible location of Shazer. Nephi reported that the party had stopped specifically to rest and hunt at Shazer after traveling for only "four days." Shazer lay in "nearly a south-southeast direction" from the first camp (vv. 13–14). Traveling this general direction would have kept the group near the shore of the Red Sea, at least initially. But after the family departed from Shazer, Nephi's account mentions the Red Sea for the last time, a significant point (v. 14). In this light, we can theorize two possible locations for Shazer. Both point to the family's leaving the Red Sea coast soon and traveling into the mountains. First, Shazer may have lain next to the coast a few miles from the mountains and may have been the party's last stop before they entered mountainous terrain, which would explain Nephi's last mention of the Red Sea. Second, it is also possible that Shazer lay inside a mountain valley not far from the Red Sea, a valley that led into and across the mountains.50 There are not enough hints in the narrative to determine which alternative may be correct.
The third clue has to do with the word borders. This term seems to mark a mountainous zone. Early in his narrative, Nephi had apparently used the term borders in connection with the mountainous region that runs along the Gulf of Aqaba farther to the north (see 1 Nephi 2:5, 8).51 Then, as the party moved south from the first camp, Nephi wrote that party members traveled "in the most fertile parts of the wilderness, which were in the borders near the Red Sea" (16:14). In this context, the term borders may well point to mountainous areas.52
A fourth clue has to do with "the most fertile parts of the wilderness." Such areas did not lie along the coastal plain immediately south of the base camp, because that territory has been known for centuries as a region that does not support much plant life.53 Hence, one would not expect to find large numbers of wild animals there either. Such "fertile parts," as Nephi described them, either lay in the mountains, perhaps in a season when there was rain,54 or consisted of the oases that lay on the eastern side of the mountain range.55 The oases were already populated but often lay a good distance from hunting grounds.
In sum, from hints in Nephi's narrative, it seems that the family went into the mountains not long after leaving Shazer.56 Importantly, Joseph Smith does not seem to have known of this natural barrier even though the Book of Mormon narrative offers clear hints that it exists. Joseph Smith's only known statement about the geography of Arabia and the route of Lehi's family shows no knowledge of the mountain chain, or other geographical features for that matter. He simply said that the party traveled from "the Red Sea to the great Southern Ocean," a rather simple statement when compared to Nephi's complex narrative.57
Length of Trip
Because it was from Nahom that the party "did travel nearly eastward," two questions arise. How far had the group come, and how long had the trip taken to this point? If our conclusion about the general location of Nahom is correct (see next section), Lehi's extended family traveled altogether approximately 1,400 miles to reach this area. The first 250 or so miles brought them to the first camp, their valley of Lemuel. The remaining 1,150 or so miles lay between the first camp and Nahom. There remained approximately 700 miles to traverse to their Bountiful, where they would build their ship (see 1 Nephi 17:5, 8). The total length of their land journey would be at least 2,100 miles from Jerusalem.58
The time spent to reach Nahom from the first camp concerns us here. The answer is quite simple. Indicators in the narrative tell us that the trip from the first camp to Nahom took less than a year (see section below). As a comparison, we know of other groups—chiefly caravanners—who traveled between south Arabia and destinations either on the northeast coast of the Red Sea or on the southeast coast of the Mediterranean, the reverse of the party's journey. Such groups required only months to traverse those long distances. For example, it took six months for a Roman military force of ten thousand to venture down the west side of Arabia in 25–24 BC. The soldiers started from a small port called Luece Come (most probably modern Aynunah),59 crossed the mountains, and finally reached a city called Marsiaba (perhaps ancient Marib). Then, because the army had lost many soldiers due to unhealthful water and food, they retreated hastily, taking only two months to travel between 1,000 and 1,100 miles one way.60 If the starting point for the Roman army was Luece Come, which lies not far from the Straits of Tiran, and if the army reached the area of Marib in the south, then the Romans' trek almost matches that of the party of Lehi and Sariah from the first camp both in terms of distance and in terms of the general route that they followed.61
Clues in Nephi's narrative indicate that Lehi's party likewise took no longer than a year to reach Nahom, evidently not far from where the Roman army would later stop. How do we know that? The answer comes from Nephi's placement of details in his narrative. We start with observations about the marriages that took place in the camp before everyone departed (see 1 Nephi 16:7). While we cannot be entirely certain how long after the marriages the party left the camp, we would expect that one or more of the new brides became pregnant within the first months of marriage. Thus, they may have been pregnant when they set out from the camp. So we should expect a report of childbirths. And we find it. What may be significant is that Nephi noted the first births of children only as he finished his record of later events at Nahom, not before (see 1 Nephi 17:1). We naturally conclude that the women gave birth to their first children at Nahom and that the journey from the camp to Nahom took a year or less, the length of the new brides' pregnancies. This length of time more or less matches the time required for the later Roman expedition, though it is longer because of the possible pregnancies of some of the brides in Lehi's party. Thus, the Book of Mormon narrative approximates what we know from an ancient account of soldiers traveling in Arabia.
The issue of where Nahom was located is basically settled. From the first camp the family journeyed to "the place which was called Nahom," whence they turned "nearly eastward" (1 Nephi 16:34; 17:1). Nephi's statement about Nahom reveals that the name was already attached to this spot. Members of the party must have learned it from natives of the area. Incidentally, Nephi's statement forms the first firm evidence that they had met others while traveling.62
On the basis of three inscriptions dated to the time of Lehi and Sariah, the location of Nahom almost certainly lay in the area near Wadi Jawf, a large valley in northwest Yemen.63 The inscriptions appear on small votive altars given to the Bar'an Temple near Marib by a certain Bicathar of the tribe of Nihm.64 This tribe is known from Islamic sources that date to the ninth century AD, fifteen hundred years after Lehi and Sariah.65 In this later period the tribe dwelt south of the Wadi Jawf, near Jebel (or Mount) Nihm, where it currently resides.66 The inscriptions, which date to the seventh and sixth centuries BC, certify that the Nihm/Nehem/Nahom area lay in the same general region, almost fourteen hundred miles south-southeast of Jerusalem.67 In the world of archaeology, written materials are valued above all other evidence, and these inscriptions secure the general location of Nahom.68
The important ingredient in the name Nahom is NHM, consonants shared by the name Nihm. Although the sound of the middle letter, h, may be different in the two names,69 it is reasonable that when the party of Lehi heard the Arabian name Nihm (however it was then pronounced), the term Nahom came to their minds, a term that is familiar from the Old Testament.70 As others have noted, Nahom derives from the Hebrew verb meaning "to comfort" or "to console."71 Even though the meaning was quite different in Old South Arabian—it referred to masonry dressed by chipping72—the meaning in Hebrew may connect with the consolation that members of the party sought at Nahom after they buried Ishmael, father of one of the two families in the party. Except for the name Shazer (see 1 Nephi 16:13), each place-name that Nephi records in his narrative—Valley of Lemuel, River of Laman, Bountiful, Irreantum—bears a meaning for members of the party. On this basis, it is reasonable to presume that the name Nahom was also significant to them, perhaps reminding them of God's comfort.
There are hints in the narrative that those in Lehi's party knew of the incense trail, an aspect of ancient Arabia that Joseph Smith could not have known (see the section "Ancient and Modern Writings on Arabia" above).73 This route, already well established by the era of Lehi and Sariah, had already developed an infrastructure that would support desert travel, including wells and food sources for humans and animals.
It is not really possible to speak of a single trail. At times this trail was only a few yards wide when it traversed mountain passes. At others, it was several miles across. In places the trail split into two or more branches that, at a point farther on, would reunite into one main road. Essentially, the trail carried caravan traffic, loaded with frankincense and myrrh, from southern Arabia into the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian regions. Until late antiquity, the trail ran along the east side of the mountain range in western Arabia rather than along the west or coastal side.74 In addition, its caravans carried exotic goods that had come to Arabia by ship from India and China. Indeed, it was one of the most important economic highways of the ancient world, and therefore competition and disruption were not tolerated.75
The party of Lehi and Sariah could easily have followed, or traveled parallel to, the trail as they moved deeper into Arabia, except in areas where rugged hills or extensive boulder fields at the sides of the trail prevented a person from leaving the main road. The trail and its spurs kept to the main wells and grasslands where caravanners could obtain water and food for their animals and themselves. It is apparent that Lehi's party had met people who knew and used this trail because some in the group threatened to return home from Nahom, even though they were by then approximately fourteen hundred miles south of Jerusalem (see 1 Nephi 16:36) and even though twice between the first camp and Nahom they had faced the terrifying prospect of starvation (see 1 Nephi 16:17–32, 39).
As we might expect, the terrain through which the trail ran differed from place to place. In the south, where inhabitants harvested and packed the incense, the trail ran from populated area to populated area where cultivation was extensive because of irrigation works. Farther north, past Nahom, the trail passed through a vast, sparsely settled area that was inhabited largely by unruly nomads who had to be controlled and cajoled by the governments and merchants that profited from the incense trade. It was evidently in this area that the party of Lehi and Sariah came to rely heavily on their compass to lead them to the "fertile parts of the wilderness" where they could find fodder for their animals and food for themselves (see 1 Nephi 16:14, 16). Joseph Smith, of course, would not have been acquainted with such a huge desert region lying between two rather fruitful areas, one in the south and one in the north, for northwest Arabia, the location of the first camp, also offered regions of rather high fertility and settlement where a person could find oases and, in antiquity, large areas of cultivation.76
From northwest Arabia the northward trail split, one spur turning west toward Egypt and the other continuing north toward such destinations as Jerusalem, Gaza, and Damascus. Even though the terrain was rough and dry along this part of the trail, towns and cities sprang up at regular intervals and their citizens made much of their living by servicing the incense caravans.
It is important to add a few words about the kinds of vicissitudes that the party met along the way. Nephi said of their troubles that "we did . . . wade through much affliction," afterward characterizing the hardships less vividly as "afflictions and much difficulty" (1 Nephi 17:1, 6). Later Book of Mormon authors who had consulted the full set of records added important details, speaking of the family's suffering from both "famine" and "all manner of diseases" while crossing the desert (Mosiah 1:17; Alma 9:22). Joseph Smith would not necessarily have known about either kind of difficulty.77
Modern knowledge of Arabia shows it to be a land of harsh deserts with agriculture only in certain spots. Charles Doughty calls northwest Arabia "this land of famine," adding that "famine is ever in the desert."78 In contrast, beginning with Theophrastus (372–287 BC), authors of the classical age, whose writings only savants in Joseph Smith's day would have had some access to, uniformly but incorrectly portrayed the region as one of agricultural abundance and natural, luxuriant growth, giving rise to the name Arabia Felix—Arabia the Blessed.79 Thus, Nephi's narrative agrees with what is now known of the Arabian Peninsula rather than with what was seemingly true about Arabia from ancient classical sources.
What about disease? To be sure, in both Strabo's account of the Roman military force that met disaster in Arabia in 25–24 BC and in a brief note in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea there is information about illness.80 But none of this information about the general climate of health was available to Joseph Smith. It is chiefly modern explorers who have documented the awful conditions that meet travelers. For example, Ahmed Fakhry speaks of a cultivated valley that only descendants of African slaves live in because of the high risk of malaria. Doughty writes of wells filled "with corrupt water" and "infected with camel urine," a common phenomenon. He adds that he and his fellow travelers had to strain out "wiggling white vermin . . . through . . . our kerchiefs."81 Hence, the Book of Mormon offers a portrait of difficulties compatible both with what has recently become known about desert travel in Arabia and with the ancient situation that has continued roughly the same into modern times because of unchanging travel and climatic conditions.82
This topic connects back to the section on Lehi's dream. The issue has partly to do with the wealth of ancient Arabia. In the nineteenth century some of the best guides to Arabia in the Western world were the studies produced by the German explorer Carsten Niebuhr, who had traveled there in the mid-eighteenth century. The only problem with his explorations is that he hardly touched on the issue of ancient wealth, focusing instead on the then current situation. What he found were modest towns and villages, rulers of moderate means, and independent bedouins. There were only the smallest hints of former glory.83 Of course, there is more than the fabulous wealth that Joseph Smith would not have known about. It concerns writing. But first we will touch on wealth.
We merely remind ourselves of the abundant riches that came to the people of southern Arabia in large part because they controlled the growing and harvesting of the world's best incense. In the dream of Lehi, this feature appears connected most directly to the people whom he saw wearing "exceedingly fine" clothing and, less directly, to the verdant, irrigated fields that supported a very large population in antiquity (see 1 Nephi 8:27, 9–10, 13).84 Joseph Smith could not have known about these dimensions of life in Arabia that existed about 600 BC.
Writing on Metal Plates
The Book of Mormon came to Joseph Smith on plates of gold. While it is possible to find in the Near East many examples of ancient writing on metal plates, including seals, which confirm a precedent for writing on metals, those found in south Arabia are also relevant for our comparative purposes. Recent decades have seen a number of discoveries of writing on hard surfaces from south Arabia.85 Examples come from ancient temples, indicating perhaps that people understood such writing to be connected in some way to the realm of the divine. Moreover, they apparently chose hard surfaces—metal and stone—for writing because of durability. Significant for this study, skilled Arabian artisans had adopted and developed the skills to inscribe important records on metal surfaces. Of course, the record on the plates of brass would have served as the chief model for Nephi's later efforts to keep records on metal plates. Even so, the artisans and scribes who created records on stone and metal in all the major centers of south Arabia may also have impressed Nephi, who wrote his narrative on metal plates only after passing through Arabia86 (there are indications that the party kept a diary of the Arabian trek, but on a perishable material, not on metal plates).87
Perhaps even more remarkable are the possible connections between the ancient alphabet of people in Arabia and that which appears on the so-called Anthon Transcript of the Book of Mormon, a one-page document in possession of the RLDS Church (now known as the Community of Christ).88 A preliminary review has shown that twenty-five of the characters reproduced in the Anthon Transcript (some are duplicates of one another) are at home in Old North Arabian, a dialect of ancient Arabic spoken and written in northwest Arabia, where Lehi and Sariah set up their first camp. In addition, twelve of the characters on the transcript (again, some are duplicates) are the same as those known from Old South Arabian. This latter dialect was spoken and written in an area south and east of Nahom through which Lehi and Sariah would have passed.89 Since the party of Lehi and Sariah spent no less than "eight years" in the Arabian Peninsula (1 Nephi 17:4), it may be possible to see a connection coming through these travelers.
The most important piece in this section concerns Nephi's note that "we did travel nearly eastward from that time forth," after events at Nahom (1 Nephi 17:1). This geographical notice is one of the few in Nephi's narrative, and it begs us to examine it. We first observe that, northwest of Marib, the ancient capital of the Sabean kingdom of south Arabia, almost all roads turn east, veering from the general north-south direction of the incense trail. Moreover—and we emphasize this point—the eastward bend occurs in the general area inhabited by the Nihm tribe. Joseph Smith could not have known about this eastward turn in the main incense trail. No source, ancient or contemporary, mentions it.90 Only a person who had traveled either near or along the trail would know that it turned eastward in this area. To be sure, the longest leg of the incense trail ran basically north-south along the upland side of the mountains of western Arabia (actually, from the north the trail held in a south-southeast direction, as Nephi said). But after passing south of Najran (modern Ukhdd, Saudi Arabia), both the main trail and several shortcuts turned eastward, all leading to Shabwah, the chief staging center for caravans in south Arabia.91 One spur of the trail continued farther southward to Aden. But the traffic along this section was very much less than that which went to and from Shabwah. The main trail and its spurs ran eastward, matching Nephi's description. Wells were there, and authorities at Shabwah controlled the finest incense of the region that was coming westward from Oman, both overland and by sea. It is the only place along the incense trail where traffic ran east-west. Further, ancient laws mandated where caravans were to carry incense and other goods, keeping traffic to this east-west corridor.92 Neither Joseph Smith nor anyone else in his society knew these facts. But Nephi did.
In a different vein, there are hints that this stage of the journey required the longest time and was the most difficult. Even though the distance from Nahom eastward to the seacoast—the party's Bountiful—was seven hundred miles or less, about half the distance that the party had already traveled from Jerusalem to Nahom, it seems that the party spent the bulk of its "eight years in the wilderness" on this leg of the journey (1 Nephi 17:4).93 This observation should not surprise us. There is no clear evidence that, during the era of Lehi and Sariah, an established incense trail ran east of Shabwah, the major south Arabian city where caravans stopped to allow grading and taxing of incense coming from that general area. Instead, almost all goods reached Shabwah from the ancient seaport of Qana, which lay to the south.94 Hence, Lehi and Sariah could not even travel parallel to a route taken by camel drivers and their cargoes. Presumably their party followed a course that snaked eastward between the sands of the "Empty Quarter" on the north and the craggy landscape on the south.95 In addition, it is now known that the tribes in the region east of Shabwah were in a constant state of tension with one another and that a person could not cross tribal boundaries without having to negotiate afresh the terms of safe conduct. Such negotiations could and often did lead to temporary servility for the traveler among local tribes.96 Moreover, there were no assured sources of food in the region east of Shabwah except flocks and herds that belonged to tribesmen. Agriculture was little practiced.97
Such challenges fit the vivid reminiscences of the party's troubles preserved by writers other than Nephi. These later Book of Mormon authors, who enjoyed access to the fuller account of the party's journey, preserve recollections of troubles that differ markedly from details in Nephi's rather full narrative of the trip from Jerusalem to Nahom. For instance, King Benjamin recalls that at certain points along the way party members "were smitten with famine" (Mosiah 1:17). To be sure, the family had suffered from lack of food during the trip from the first camp to Nahom (see 1 Nephi 16:17–32, 39). But the word famine sounds a more ominous note. Moreover, Alma also writes of Lehi's party suffering "from famine" as well as "from sickness, and all manner of diseases" (Alma 9:22). In addition, Alma records that party members "did not travel a direct course, and were afflicted with hunger and thirst" (Alma 37:42). In contrast, according to Nephi's account, experiencing famine and disease, and not traveling a direct course, had not occurred to the party before arriving at Nahom. Hence, we should probably understand that the difficulties noted by Benjamin and Alma befell the group only after they turned "nearly eastward" at Nahom (1 Nephi 17:1).
In almost identical language, both Amaron and Alma write of God's preserving Lehi's party from "the hands of their enemies" (Omni 1:6; Alma 9:10). Who were these enemies? According to the fuller part of Nephi's narrative, it was not anyone whom party members met between the first camp and Nahom. The most attractive possibility is that the group met such people on the leg of the journey between Nahom and the seacoast, even though Nephi himself does not mention enemies.98 (Nephi's abbreviated account of crossing south Arabia from Nahom consists of only four verses, 1 Nephi 17:1–4.) Such a view strengthens the impression that the toughest and longest period of the trip came between Nahom and the sea. Another piece that fits into this part of the trip is Nephi's note that party members had not made "much fire, as [they] journeyed," an evident attempt to avoid drawing the attention of marauding raiders (1 Nephi 17:12).99 As a final addition to the portrait, Alma seems to tie a recollection of ancestors who were "strong in battle" to Lehi's party, whom God "delivered . . . out of the land of Jerusalem" (Alma 9:22). If so, then we are to think that the party struggled against more than the harsh realities of the desert as they forged on toward the seacoast. That is, one of their biggest challenges may have come in dealing with tribesmen whom they met. This impression, too, matches what we know of tribal troubles in this part of Arabia.100
Such a scene of desperate difficulties consisting of disease, famine, and enemies—difficulties that find expression chiefly in sources other than Nephi's narrative—resonates with the situations that one would certainly encounter in south Arabia.101 What is the likelihood that Joseph Smith knew such details of life there? The answer is zero.
There is only one area along the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula that matches botanically Nephi's description of Bountiful as a place of abundant fruit, wild honey,102 and timbers (see 1 Nephi 17:5–6; 18:1–2, 6). It is the Dhofar region of southern Oman. The summer monsoon rains turn the area into a green garden. In addition, one finds small deposits of iron ore there from which Nephi could have made his tools for building the ship that would carry the party to the New World. There is no way that Joseph Smith could have known these facts.
Although one must view attempts to tie Bountiful to a specific locale in Dhofar with deep caution, Latter-day Saint writers have rightly pointed to this area as the probable general region where the party of Lehi and Sariah emerged from the desert.103 It is almost as if one can hear party members singing in Nephi's narrative when he writes of their escape from the harsh desert into an area teeming with fruit: "We did come to the land which we called Bountiful, because of its much fruit and also wild honey; and . . . we were exceedingly rejoiced when we came to the seashore" (1 Nephi 17:5–6).104 At long last, the group had escaped the grasp of the living death of desert famine.
Wendell Phillips calls "the narrow half-moon shaped coastal plain of Dhofar . . . the only major fertile region between Muscat and Aden."105 Jörg Janzen adds the note that "the hothouse climate which prevails in the oasis plantations for most of the year permits the cultivation of many sorts of fruit, particularly bananas and papayas, and of vegetables, cereals and fodder. At least two and sometimes even three harvests a year could be achieved."106 Clearly, Dhofar has been a fruitful area.
The wide availability of domesticated bees and honey in certain regions of Arabia has been known since Eratosthenes of Cyrene wrote about the subject (ca. 275–194 BC) and Strabo quoted him.107 But it is impossible that Joseph Smith would have had access to this source because Strabo's Geography did not appear in English translation until 1854. Only recent years have seen biologists take a firm interest in the bees of the Arabian Peninsula.108 Terry Ball and others of the faculty of Brigham Young University reported that wild honeybees—to be distinguished from Eratosthenes' domesticated bees—live in the rock cliffs of the escarpment that rises above the maritime plain near Salalah, making the retrieval of honey an interesting challenge.109 Thus, wild bees and their honey are still in this part of Arabia.
Trees form part of the luxuriant, tropical growth in Dhofar, Oman. One question, of course, is which of the species Nephi shaped for his ship (see 1 Nephi 18:1–2, 6). We do not know. It is possible that Nephi somehow acquired teak logs floated from India, because sources earlier than Lehi speak of this kind of import for the work of shipwrights in the area of the Persian Gulf, hundreds of miles to the north. It is the judgment of George Hourani that "Arabia does not. . . produce wood suitable for building strong seagoing ships," and thus "the materials for building strong vessels had to be brought from India."110 On the other hand, it seems more likely that Nephi secured timbers that were nearby, because he relates that he and his brothers "did go forth" to obtain timbers (1 Nephi 18:1).
Although we do not know the species of tree that Nephi may have used—he may have cut different trees for different parts of his ship—trees have been growing in the Dhofar region for millennia. To be sure, most trees grow on the escarpment above the maritime plain and coastal waters of the sea. But there is evidence that trees once grew closer to the sea before people stripped them from the lower lands, most recently in the 1960s. In fact, Jörg Janzen writes that apparently the coastal plain of southern Oman was once "thickly wooded," at least in the vicinity of the wadis.111 Before him, Bertram Thomas had seen in 1928 the "the seaward slopes [of the foothills] velvety with waving jungle."112
The heavy vegetation of southern Oman is something of an oddity. Why? Because the rather scantly vegetated mountains of northern Oman, hundreds of miles away, actually receive on average 10 percent more rain per year. Janzen explains that the vegetation of Dhofar is far richer because of the relatively slow rate of rainfall during the summer monsoon—it comes in the form of mist and drizzle—and thus the ground absorbs the water better. In addition, the monsoon cloud cover slows evaporation.113 As a result, the vegetation remains rich and diverse and supports a wide variety of life forms.114
The mention of mists brings us back to Lehi's dream, noted earlier. To be sure, inhabitants experienced mists in desert regions, a mixture of dust and fog. And it may be these that Lehi envisioned in his dream.115 On the other hand, the mists of Lehi's dream could certainly anticipate the mists that build along the coasts, particularly in Dhofar during the monsoon season, an aspect that Joseph Smith could not have known about. In this connection, Janzen writes of a "coastal mist during the summer months" in Dhofar. Against the middle altitudes of the mountains, "the clouds most frequently stack up, giving rise to thick fog near the summits." Because of the weather patterns, Janzen calls the area "a tropical 'mist oasis.'" The increased moisture, as one might expect, means that much more dew forms in the desert areas north of the mountains.116 The main point is that the notation about mists in the Book of Mormon narrative fits an Arabian coastal context.
Where could Nephi have found ore to make his tools? (see 1 Nephi 17:9–10, 16). We know that there were copper mines at ancient Magan near the Persian Gulf that had been worked as early as the Sumerian period (third millennium BC). But the mines were more than six hundred miles to the north of where the party of Lehi and Sariah reached the coast.117 And because Nephi offers no hint that he had to travel far to find ore, particularly a trip that would have taken him back into the desert, it seems out of the question that he traveled to the distant Persian Gulf region in order to obtain copper. Moreover, concerning iron ore, Hourani observes that "Arabia does not . . . contain iron for nailing [ships], nor is it near to any iron-producing country."118
For the record, Nephi did not need a large deposit of copper or iron ore for his tools. Fifty pounds or so would have met his needs. In February 2000, geologists from Brigham Young University discovered two large deposits of iron ore in the Dhofar region of Oman. And they both lie within a few days' walk of any campsite along the seacoast.119 Although iron ore in the amounts that make mining profitable do not occur in southern Oman, ore does occur in sufficient quantities that Nephi could easily have traveled to a substantial deposit and extracted enough to smelt for his tools. Thus, the natural occurrence of iron ore in the Dhofar area offered a clear solution to Nephi's need for tools.
The entire thrust of these remarks underscores the observation that Joseph Smith could have known almost nothing about ancient Arabia when he began translating the Book of Mormon. Yet the narrative of the journey of the party of Lehi and Sariah through ancient Arabia, written by their son Nephi, fits with what we know about the Arabian Peninsula literally from one end to the other, for their journey began in the northwest and ended in the southeast sector. Nephi's narrative faithfully reflects the intertwining of long stretches of barren wilderness with pockets of verdant, lifesaving vegetation. Recent discoveries have illumined segments of the account, tying events to known regions (e.g., Nahom) and climatic characteristics (e.g., mists along the coastal mountains). People in Joseph Smith's world may have possessed accurate information about one or two aspects of Arabia through classical sources (e.g., incense trade, honey production). But those same sources offered inaccurate caricatures of Arabia that Nephi's narrative does not mirror (e.g., that the peninsula was graced by large forests, etc.). Hence, on both fronts—modern discoveries and more accurate information—the Book of Mormon account shines as a radiant beam across the centuries, inviting us to adopt its more important message of spiritual truths as our own.120