Lehi's Arabian Journey Updated
Noel B. Reynolds
Noel B. Reynolds is professor of political science at Brigham Young University and president of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies.
We can be certain that Joseph Smith knew almost nothing of the Arabian peninsula, and that what he might possibly have heard would have led him astray had he tried to imagine a journey of Israelite refugees through its foreboding wastes. Yet the Book of Mormon confidently describes an orderly exodus, directions of travel, stages of travel and rest, significant landmarks and turning points, and access to food sources and materials for ship building.1 Joseph could not possibly have concocted such a detailed account that would fit the realities of the Arabian peninsula as it is now known. Nephi's account appears in every way to have been written by someone who had personal knowledge of that area.
Work done principally by Warren and Michaela Aston has added greatly to our appreciation of the accuracy of significant details in Nephi's account.2 Largely due to their efforts, we have reasonable confidence that we now know the general area of Nahom and Ishmael's burial and the specific site of Bountiful, where the ship was built. More recent investigations in Oman further confirm the Bountiful location.
Lehi and his party, like other nomads of the Arabian peninsula, often named the places they visited in their travels, particularly their long-term campsites. Some places had already been named, of course, like Jerusalem and the Red Sea, but other places did not have universally recognized names. Lehi named a river after Laman and a valley after Lemuel, and when they finally arrived at the seashore, he named the spot Bountiful for its "much fruit" and the sea Irreantum, or "many waters" (1 Nephi 17:5). But Ishmael was buried "in the place which was called Nahom" (1 Nephi 16:34), suggesting that the location had already been named.
In a 1978 letter to the Ensign,3 Ross Christensen proposed that Nehem, a locality twenty-five miles northeast of Sana'a in Yemen, according to a two-century-old German surveyor's map, be more carefully considered as the possible location of Nephi's Nahom. The Semitic name NHM occurs in Arabic and Hebrew texts as Nahum, Naham, Nihm, Nehem, and Nahm. Its roots indicate mourning, consoling, and complaining from hunger. The name fits perfectly the events that Nephi associates with Nahom:
The daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father, and because of their afflictions in the wilderness; and they did murmur against my father, . . . saying: Our father is dead; yea, and we have wandered much in the wilderness, and we have suffered much affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue; and after all these sufferings we must perish in the wilderness with hunger. (1 Nephi 16:35)
Warren Aston has shown that the name NHM can be associated with this same area as early as the first century A.D. Because this area features an ancient burial ground that was actively used between 3000 B.C. and A.D. 1000 and is removed from places of settlement, it is not now known whether it was named for the Nihm tribe that has occupied the general area for centuries or whether the tribe took its name from the locality. What is known, however, is that the place name is unique in all the Middle East. Consistent with this understanding of Nehem as a traditional burial ground, Nephi states that Ishmael was buried in Nahom, not that he died there.
Lehi's party arrived in Nahom by traveling in "nearly a south-southeast direction" (1 Nephi 16:13). After burying Ishmael at Nahom they turned "nearly eastward" (1 Nephi 17:1) into the high desert, traveling through the harsh wilderness until they arrived at the coast at a fertile location they named Bountiful. Nibley and others note that this simple travel account fits well with what is now known of the ancient trade routes that carried frankincense from Oman and Yemen northward to the Mediterranean markets. These routes followed water holes through inland valleys that paralleled the east shore of the Red Sea. The Astons argue persuasively that while Lehi and his party traveled in the same direction as these ancient trade routes, they likely did not follow the most direct and efficient route, but were led "in the more fertile parts of the wilderness" (1 Nephi 16:16), out of the main traffic, taking years to traverse what could have been covered in months. Because of the geography, all southward routes ultimately led to the Jawf valley, only a few miles from Nehem, and from there travelers could go directly south to what is now Sana'a, the modern capital of Yemen, or strike eastward toward the frankincense-rich Hadhramaut region of eastern Yemen. But soon after Wadi Jawf, the ancient frankincense trails also veered south. No wonder the Book of Mormon descriptions of travel from that point on emphasize the difficulties of travel in the wilderness as Lehi's party follows the directions of the Liahona "nearly eastward" off the beaten track through the borders of the Empty Quarter. While no one in Joseph Smith's 1829 community would have understood this history or geography, Nephi's account in the Book of Mormon presents a complexity of details that could only have been written by one who had personally traveled the area.
Although Nephi's account does not give the exact location of Bountiful, it contains numerous details that can help locate it on a modern map. The Astons have developed an exhaustive list of factual implications from the text that can, mainly by process of elimination, help locate the sites that might fit Nephi's description of Bountiful. A slightly modified version of their twelve textual criteria for Bountiful follows:
The Astons have helped this investigation enormously by visiting every site on the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula that might possibly have been Nephi's Bountiful. Contrary to the theories of earlier investigators, they have shown that Salalah and other proposed sites do not fulfill the full criteria for Bountiful. Instead, they have discovered an obscure site, little known to people even in Oman, that seems to easily and convincingly meet all the criteria for Bountiful.
Khor Kharfot (Fort Inlet or Port) lies near the extreme western end of Oman's Dhofar coast and at the mouth of the short and rugged Wadi Sayq (River Valley). Though it is a small area and incapable of supporting much of a population, there is clear evidence that it has been inhabited in the past. The ruins of a small Islamic-period village are evident, and much older and even smaller ruins may date to the first or second millennium B.C. An irrigation system is still visible, and may have brought fresh water from further up the wadi to the walled fields nearer the beach and village.
While none of the other candidate sites meet more than half the requirements for Bountiful, Khor Karfot seems to meet them all:
Critics of the Book of Mormon who believe that Joseph Smith or a contemporary author created the story of Lehi out of his own imagination have much to explain: How did Joseph Smith know that Lehi's party had to follow an inland route to reach southern Arabia? How did he know that the direction should shift from south by southeast to east at a place bearing the Semitic name NHM? How did he know that this was the appropriate place for the burial of an important person like Ishmael ? How did he know that a group traveling due east from NHM would meet the sea at a uniquely fertile and hospitable spot that was suitable for building and launching a ship? How did he know that Oman had ample resources for ship building and sailing, and that there were mountains and cliffs on the sea shore itself?
These important details run directly counter to all knowledge of Arabia in Joseph Smith's day and to most popular belief about Arabia even today. The simplest and most reasonable explanation is that Joseph Smith and his contemporaries did not know these things; they truthfully said that the account was written by Nephi, who had experienced these things firsthand , and was given to Joseph Smith by divine intervention. Those who exclude this explanation a priori must explain a great deal in order to account for this 1830 text . Every serious effort to understand the geography of Nephi's account of his wilderness travels reveals its complexity and accuracy in describing the real world. The geographical account, often thought fantastic, must be seen as a powerful witness of the Book of Mormon's divine origins and ancient authorship.
1. See Eugene England, "Through the Arabian Desert to a Bountiful Land: Could Joseph Smith Have Known the Way?" in Book of Mormon Authorship, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982, republished by FARMS in 1996), 143—56, for a full account of this argument.
2. Much of this chapter draws on Warren and Michaela Aston's technical reports in their FARMS papers, "The Place Which Was Called Nahom" (Provo, Ut.: FARMS, 1991) and "And We Called the Place Bountiful" (Provo, Ut.: FARMS, 1991), and draws especially on their beautifully illustrated book, which gives a larger overview and more personal experience (see Warren P. Aston and Michaela Knoth Aston, In the Footsteps of Lehi: New Evidence for Lehi's Journey across Arabia to Bountiful [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994]).
3. Ross T. Christensen, "Comment," Ensign (August 1978): 73.
4. See the preliminary report of Eugene Clark's 1995 FARMS-sponsored mineralogical survey of the Dhofar region, "A Preliminary Survey of the Geology and Mineral Resources of Dhofar, the Sultanate of Oman," (Provo, Ut.: FARMS, 1995).