Journey of Faith? My involvement with this documentary film was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and stands as one of the high points in my academic career. But it did not occur in cool isolation from other events and influences, including the creation of another film, Golden Road, which provided a historical frame for the story of Lehi and Sariah.
Folktales regularly recount events in sets of three—either three adventures, three mishaps, or three personalities. We immediately think of the stories of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. My story of involvement with Journey of Faith seems almost a folktale in hindsight, but it consists of three important incidents, plus one, making a fourth and expanding the rule.
The first scene took place at the BYU Center in Jerusalem in April 1996. My friend, the late Charles E. Smith of Simon and Schuster Publishers, came to my office and brought a close associate, Mr. Emanuel Hausman, who was the president of Carta, the publisher of the most important atlases and maps of the Bible. During our conversation, unexpectedly, Mr. Hausman said, "I think that you ought to write an atlas of the Book of Mormon. I have read the Book of Mormon and believe that it is possible to create a series of maps for it. Carta would be willing to publish such an atlas." I tried to hide my surprise. The thought darted quickly through my mind: "You just heard the publisher of the most distinguished series of atlases on the Bible say that he would be willing to work on an atlas of the Book of Mormon. Unbelievable."
While the idea of a Book of Mormon atlas eventually grew into a different project, it spurred John Sorenson and me to begin an effort to drape the Book of Mormon with fabrics of historical color and texture that placed events within known contexts in the Old World and the New. Because of my background in biblical studies, I took the assignment to write about Lehi and Sariah in Arabia. A simple task, I thought. Just place their party within what is known about Jerusalem and its environs during the late seventh century BC and, presto! my contribution to our joint effort would be largely complete. But as I should have learned long beforehand, when one begins to press ancient evidence for clarity, it goes soft.
I began winsomely to write about Lehi and Sariah and Arabia and their journey. Gaps, gaps, there were gaps everywhere. Mostly, the gaps were in my mind, in my grasp of ancient Arabia, in my understanding of its rich history and traditions. I had read nothing about Arabian archaeology and about attempts to reconstruct ancient Arabia's past. So for two years most of my reading had to do with the fascinating world of Arabia, that mysterious peninsula of sand and burnt rock where for millennia people had eked out a living from their herds of goats and camels. Gradually, slowly, and with the help of a growing number of studies by people who had spent time in Arabia, including a few Latter-day Saints, the world of Lehi and Sariah began to come into focus.
This focus received an unforeseen bump in the second scene, a visit from Noel Reynolds at the beginning of the Christmas break in 1997. A few years before, Brother Reynolds had spent time in southern Oman looking at the possibility of archaeological field work in places like Wadi Sayq because of the high likelihood that the Dhofar region was Lehi's Bountiful. It was the only locale that fits Nephi's botanical description of a place with "much fruit and also wild honey" and "timbers." Noel did not think that he was the person to pursue such efforts, but he believed that I would be because of my experience in the Middle East and my burgeoning interest in the trek of Lehi and Sariah. In our conversation he urged me to take up the task of serious field work in Oman because, he pointed out, it would potentially shed important light on the world into which Lehi and Sariah emerged when they and their party walked out of the desert.
The third scene unfolded in southern Oman in February 1998. As a result of my conversation with Noel Reynolds, I began to wonder how to buttress my interest in Lehi and Sariah within a suitable academic framework. My studies had led me to the incense trail again and again. This remarkable economic highway had flourished for more than a thousand years, beginning long before Lehi's time. Its traders had carried the aromatics frankincense and myrrh, as well as goods from as far east as China, along its corridor that ran north into the Mediterranean region, with final destinations in Egypt, Rome, Damascus, and Jerusalem. The incense trail framed the big picture into which the smaller story of Lehi and Sariah fit. It had become evident to me that Lehi and Sariah were following or shadowing the incense trail as they came first south and then east, the exact opposite directions of the large camel caravans that plied their trade.
Creating "a suitable academic framework," I determined, meant traveling to southern Oman where the incense trail begins and, serendipitously, Lehi's trail ends. But a mere visit would not do. There had to be a broad research purpose enriched by skills and perspectives that I did not possess. I had to take others with me. My first call was to my friend Arnold Green, a Middle East historian who had spent many years in the Middle East, including a year in Yemen as a Fulbright Fellow. I then contacted a botanist, Terry Ball; a geologist, Revell Phillips; and an archaeologist, David Johnson. Not insignificantly, each of them had lived and worked in the Middle East.
In February 1998 we arrived in Oman, where Rod and Rosalea McIntire opened door after door for us. They were long-time residents of Muscat and had called people in the relevant government ministries and at Sultan Qaboos University. Rod swept us from appointment to appointment through most the first day, racing to meet our flight time to Salalah. Their efforts and time spent on our behalf were truly gifts to us. By the end of that day, we were equipped with important contacts for further cooperative work, a prized ingredient for gaining a clearer grasp of the region and its associated incense trail which, happily, had played host to Lehi and Sariah.
With contacts in hand, thanks to the McIntires, we flew to Salalah. Our days in the Dhofar region were to sharpen our views about what we could pursue in a research vein. We were far less interested in "proving" anything concerning the Book of Mormon than in pursuing field work that would contribute to ongoing study of the area and, perhaps, on the side, might shed light on Nephi's story. Hence, our visits included a museum, potential and active archaeological sites, varied ecological regions, and areas that exhibited unusual geological characteristics. A day after we arrived, Rosalea McIntire joined us. By midweek, she said that she knew we were serious researchers when she saw David Johnson photograph a bone tool and then leave it in place, not putting it into his pocket.
We came away from Dhofar with clear projects in mind. While botanical studies had been published, no one had yet collected the unique tropical vegetation and stored it in herbariums where it could be studied. Two important coastal ruins at Khor Mughsayl and Wadi Sayq beckoned archaeologists to study their role in the ancient economic network that is known to have carried goods along the seashore. Further, fifty miles to the east of Salalah, a basement-rock complex buckles to the surface of the earth, interrupting the limestone structure of the mountain range and offering possible veins of semiprecious stones and exploitable minerals. Clearly, fieldwork was called for.
The fourth incident occurred twenty months later in the FARMS office of Daniel Oswald, then the executive director of the Foundation. Arriving at a meeting, I met Peter Johnson and Steve DeVore. Daniel Oswald and John Sorenson were also present. Peter and Steve had come to FARMS seeking an academic home for a documentary film that they hoped to make on the journey of Lehi and Sariah. They thought that associating the film with FARMS would give them credibility when creating the film, as well as be favorable to potential donors. They were looking for an academic consultant who could guide them in what they portrayed in film and how they portrayed it. They wanted the film to be as accurate as possible when measured against what is known about ancient Arabia. Dan was fully aware of my interest in Arabia and wanted to include me in the conversation. It was an easy step to say yes to an invitation to become involved.
It was difficult, however, to see how we could film on site in Arabia, especially for a documentary that carries a faith component. Then it occurred to me that the Lehi film should be subsumed within a visual, academic presentation of the incense trail. Before that moment, I had never considered a documentary on the incense trail, but it was natural, even imperative, that such a film be made. Besides, I would be working with a first-rate filming team, a circumstance that guaranteed success. Moreover, a sister organization of FARMS had begun to publish important Middle Eastern documents that had never appeared in a Western language. In a real sense, with this series of documents, and with other programs, the University had flown the flag of serious interest in the Middle East. A first-rate documentary film on the incense trail would be a natural addition. The proposed film on Lehi and Sariah would therefore fit cozily as a component inside the bigger story of the Arabian incense trade.The First Filming Trip
My assignment, as I saw it, was to find a way to film in Oman, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, the modern countries through which the ancient incense route had run. Each of these countries would require a permit to film.
Though Saudi Arabia was in the process of loosening its restrictions on foreign travelers, the reins were still tight. I knew of faith-driven Americans who, under false pretenses, had gotten into trouble with the government by filming illegally in restricted areas of northwestern Saudi Arabia. That sort of track record would keep doors closed for us, even though I was in correspondence with the economic adviser to the US ambassador in Saudi Arabia. The path into the country was a dead end.
It occurred to me that we could apply for visas to go to Yemen and, when in the country, obtain the needed permit to film. So I obtained the needed permissions from the Church and University for a filming team to go to Yemen. Then, literally on the eve of buying our airplane tickets, we received news that the USS Cole had been attacked in the Aden harbor. It was immediately clear that we would not be going to Yemen. Our plans were shelved. But an unexpected door opened.
David Johnson, who had excavated in Yemen with the American Foundation for the Study of Man, informed me that one of his Yemeni colleagues on the dig was in Chicago at the Oriental Institute and might be willing to come to BYU to give a lecture. David did not know how to reach his friend, but gave me the telephone number of the director of the American Foundation, Mrs. Merilyn Phillips Hodgson. As matters would turn out, she graciously turned a key for us to film in Yemen. For in one telephone call she led me not only to David's colleague, Dr. Abdu Ghaleb Othman, but also to another close friend, Dr. Yusuf Abdullah, the director of Yemen's General Organization of Antiquities, Manuscripts, and Museums.
Dr. Othman, a professor of archaeology at the University of Sanaʿa, was on sabbatical at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Educated at the University of Pennsylvania, he has been a leading light among Yemeni archaeologists who have sought to recover the story of their nation's people. He kindly accepted my invitation to lecture at BYU on his work at the spectacular Mahram Bilqis temple in Marib, the ancient capital of the Sabaean kingdom. While he was in Provo, Peter, Steve, and I sat with him and made plans to film in Yemen. He was invaluable in his precise suggestions about where we needed to film in order to tell the story of the incense road and how we should reach those locales. It became clear that his aid would make our filming far more exacting than we could have imagined a few months before. He also agreed to assist us in making needed arrangements in the country, including with desert tribesmen who would guarantee our safety. We were aware that local tribes have kidnapped foreigners in order to win concessions from the central government. We were not interested in spending time as prisoners nor in becoming the subject of news stories. Little did we know that while we were in Yemen the biggest story of our time would unfold in horrifying hues in New York City and Washington DC.
Our crew of seven, soon to be joined by three others, boarded a plane on Saturday, September 8, 2001, and arrived in Sanaʿa soon after midnight, Monday, September 10, following a long stopover in Amman, Jordan. Arnold Green, then the director of the BYU Jerusalem Center, joined us in Amman. Abdu and Brent Hall met us in Sanaʿa.
As one might expect, arriving in a foreign airport with twenty large cases of equipment creates a stir. Fortunately, Brent had gone ahead of our team and, with Abdu's guidance, had lined up porters and vehicles to carry our equipment out of the airport without delays. I recall how dark the city seemed as we approached. As often, streetlights in the cities of Third World countries burn dimly.
That first day, Monday, presented us with two filming "gifts." The first consisted of the unparalleled opportunity to film at the museum on the campus of the University of Sanaʿa. It was the recovered burials, lying in glass cases, that drew us to the building. The footage would illustrate the unusual ancient custom of burying the dead in large leather pouches. Such pouches are also known from the region of Jordan where nomadic herdsmen would carry the dead back to ancestral burial grounds in leather bags or clay coffins.
The second gift occurred in the company of Dr. Yusuf Abdullah, the director of the General Organization of Antiquities. Peter refused to film Dr. Abdullah in his office. "It is too dull," said Peter while we all stared at the grayish-green paint in the sitting room. So off we went to the national museum in Sanaʿa, confidently anticipating a more appropriate setting. While waiting for an opportunity to set up our camera in the entry of the museum, Dr. Abdullah showed Peter and me some of the renovation efforts. It happened that a crew of stone masons was cutting and shaping stones for a new wall. We were able to film their work and later fold a set of clips into the description of the name Nahom which, in the old South Arabian language, refers to cut or dressed stones.
Our arrival at the gate of the old city with a big camera late in the day caused a sensation. As soon as Brian Wilcox and his associates set the camera on its tripod and mounted it on a donkey cart, hundreds surged toward the camera, curious to see what the light-skinned foreigners were doing. It was a good fifteen minutes before the crowd thinned enough to allow us to roll the donkey cart inside the old city walls. As we suspected, the market just inside the gate held an abundance of the raw ingredients for the incense trail film: frankincense and myrrh and other aromatics native to Arabia.
As one might expect, a few young people who wanted to try out their English skills, and possibly to earn extra cash, became our "buddies" as we moved through the town's narrow streets. In an important way, one of them pointed out features of the market that were important for our filming. He became another "gift" in our efforts.
The next morning, on September 11, the living drama of what we were doing bore into my mind during our drive from Sanaʿa to Marib. Our military escort did not come at dawn as promised. We then learned that the soldiers would meet us outside the capital city. So we climbed into our four 4-wheel drive vehicles, equipment and all, and rolled northward through the high mountain valley, soon swinging eastward toward Marib and the lower desert. At a checkpoint, we found our escort, which consisted of a number of soldiers, some of whom joined us in our vehicles and some of whom rode in a Toyota truck equipped with a large, mounted machine gun. Their appearance, with automatic weapons in hand, reminded us of the sometimes deadly complexities of life that these people face on an almost daily basis.
Abdu offered an almost endless stream of information as we drove through the hilly countryside, patiently describing the endless orchards of kat trees whose leaves, when chewed, surrender a mild, addictive narcotic into the mouth.
The most important person in the van was Peter because he was constantly on the lookout for places to film. Abdu mentioned that in 1994 he had excavated some burial caves near the road, not far from Sanaʿa, and Peter, as is his custom, insisted that we stop to look. It turned out to be a promising site to film. So with the soldiers hovering nearby, Brian Wilcox, Kelly Mecham, and Justin Andrew set up the camera for work. This stop was also a "gift," for it connected in a distant way to the story of the burial of Ishmael. In fact, we had just filmed the human remains taken out of these caves at the University of Sanaʿa museum.
In January 2001, during our initial conversations, Abdu had become aware of our interest in the Nahom/Nihm tribal region. When we reached an overlook above the valley of Nihm, we stopped again. Mountains rose above small green fields nestled in a high desert valley. "So this is the area of Nahom," I thought to myself. I could see that the terrain fell off to the north toward the Wadi Jawf, the widest drainage basin in western Yemen. The region in that direction was fully tribal, with little government influence. The importance of where we were standing was that the name Nahom was at least as old as Lehi and Sariah, as demonstrated by its appearance in Nephi's narrative (see 1 Nephi 16:34) and on three votive altars discovered among the ruins of the ancient temple of Barʾan on the outskirts of Marib.
Our stops became more frequent because we were in the Nahom territory. To me it was breathtaking to envision what Lehi and Sariah might have seen and experienced. One of the most important pieces to film was the burial mounds. They consisted of mounds of stones piled atop a small chamber formed of stone slabs. There are thousands of these burial mounds scattered across an extensive rocky plateau unusable for agriculture. Naturally, no one can know where Ishmael may have been buried, but the type of structure that we were filming offers one possibility, as did the caves that we had seen earlier that morning. To film burials discovered by Abdu was also a "gift" because it is likely that the party of Lehi and Sariah buried Ishmael in a place that was readily accessible and inexpensive, such as in a cave or under a mound of stones, away from shrines or temples where many, more expensive burials are found.
We finally reached a major junction in the highway. Here a road ran north to Maʿin, the site of the ancient capital of the Minaean civilization of traders. When we stopped at the checkpoint, an argument broke out over compensation for the soldiers. In the end, the soldiers quit our small caravan of vehicles, leaving us to drive the final eighty or so kilometers to Marib on our own. Driving without an escort was a risk that became clear when, as we crested a hill, Abdu casually mentioned that at the bottom of the hill a local tribe would occasionally park some of its trucks across the road and stop traffic, looking for money or other goods of value. He also pointed out a place in the mountains to our south where a tribe was currently holding a German hostage for concessions from the central government.
With no small relief, we pulled into the parking lot of our hotel in Marib about four o'clock in the afternoon. We quickly took our luggage to our rooms and then drove to the Mahram Bilqis temple, said to have been built by the famous queen of Sheba. Abdu and Mrs. Hodgson had arranged for our filming crew to be let inside the protecting fence. This too was a "gift" that allowed us to get close-up shots of the monument and its famous inscriptions. The biggest surprise hit us when we arrived back at the hotel. As we walked into the lobby, someone behind the desk shouted, "A plane has hit the White House." While the information was wrong, the seriousness of the news was accurate. We all ran to our rooms and, in stunned silence, watched on CNN the unfolding events in New York City and Washington DC, cities which were nine time zones away.
After dinner, we met together in one of our rooms to decide our next steps. I brought Arnie to the meeting, even though he had taken a sleeping aid, because I believed he would be the coolest head in our discussion. He was. A couple of our team members thought that we should simply cut our filming efforts and return immediately to the capital city to wait for the next flight out of the country. Others believed that we had a day or two for filming before we needed to make a decision. Someone pointed out that there were few international flights out of Sanaʿa. Brent Hall had called the American Embassy, and the officer recommended that we lie low for the time being. In the end, we decided to continue filming because we were going into the sand dunes the next day and would be largely invisible to unfriendly eyes. It turned out to be the right decision.
The next morning we were moving before sunrise, heading eastward toward Shabwah, the ancient capital of the Qatabanian kingdom, which lay on the other side of the Ramlat as-Sabʿatayn desert, a patch of high dunes almost 200 miles wide. Gratefully, our drivers and Bedouin guides did not object to the early departure. Peter and Brian wanted to shoot the rising sun over the desert. The low sun would also create important shadows to show the contours of the dunes.
When we turned off the paved road and headed south into the dunes, our drivers stopped to reduce air pressure in their tires to sixteen pounds per square inch, virtually flattening the tires so that they would gain more traction in the sands. It was a clever trick that explorers had learned long ago. Now it was the Bedouin guides' turn to show their stuff. They roared away in their small Toyota truck. The rest of us eagerly followed them into the undulating sands. The next few hours became an unforgettable part of our trip.
After an hour or so we stopped to film some of the high dunes. The drivers all parked the vehicles in a line on the crest of a dune, opened their hoods, and let their engines cool in the warming day. As far as the eye could see, there were hills of sand pushing 300 feet up into the dry, clean air. Except for an occasional scrubby plant, no vegetation grew. It was apparent why no caravans ventured into this region—no water, no fodder, no protection, no relief from heat, no respite from an endless struggle against the unstable, fickle sands.
My mind went to people who may have tried to cross this part of the desert. Might Lehi and Sariah have attempted a crossing, traveling with infants, facing at least a week between the last well in the Wadi Jawf, or at Marib, and the closest water still at a distance? I could not imagine them taking such a risk unless their compass led them into such unlikely terrain.
Early in the afternoon we drove into the remains of Shabwah, the main gathering center for aromatics harvested anciently in southern Arabia. Everything that came by overland caravan from the east reached Shabwah; all goods shipped by sea from Oman and points eastward came northward from the seaport of Qana (modern Bīr Ali) to Shabwah; by law, all roads led to the grand city of Shabwah. Now, only a few families live in rebuilt buildings; now, only remnants remain of a dazzling past; now, only crumbling foundations of temples and impressive structures stand as mute witnesses to civilized ages gone by. In reality, it was the last civilized spot where Lehi and Sariah could stop on their eastward journey, the last green area before entering a vast, dry, uncharted territory ruled by unruly tribes.
Darkness overtook us as we were escaping the last of the dunes before the paved road to Shibam, the Manhattan of the desert. This medieval city, constructed of mud brick skyscrapers and inhabited by perhaps 5,000 people, is currently under the protection of UNESCO as a World Heritage site. As we approached the city, floodlights gave it the appearance of floating above the surface of the ground. I immediately thought of Lehi's dream and the spacious building that "stood as it were in the air, high above the earth" (1 Nephi 8:26). Even without floodlights, lights inside the buildings at night give a person standing outside the sense that they are poised high in the air.
When we reached our hotel in Say'un, a few miles beyond Shibam, we were greeted by telephone calls from representatives of the LDS Motion Picture Studio and the University saying that we needed to return to the United States as soon as possible. Officials judged that we were in potential danger as long as we remained in the Middle East, perhaps becoming a target. We said that we were willing to return if it were possible to find a flight out of Sanaʿa. Those on the other end of the line said that they would try their best to adjust air travel arrangements before our scheduled departure early Sunday morning, three days hence. They did not succeed.
In the late morning of the following day, Thursday, September 13, as we were filming at a bluff that marked the beginning of the Wadi Hadramaut, the longest valley in Arabia that sweeps east and then south in a long arc to the sea, Steve DeVore asked me if I thought that Lehi and Sariah had seen this terrain. I responded that they must have seen this very bluff, whether they intended to climb onto the Mahrat Plateau or to bend their trek northward toward Al-ʿAbr before entering the corridor that runs between the sands of the Empty Quarter and the fractured tableland of the plateau.
Before returning to Sanaʿa on Saturday, September 15, we went to the temple of Barʾan, which lies outside the modern town of Marib. It was here that a German archaeological team uncovered three seventh-century votive altars that mention the donor's tribe, that of Nihm, which comes into Nephi's narrative as Nahom. When I stumbled upon the first of the altars pictured in an exhibit catalogue from France, I was stunned and thrilled, to say the least. Following my publication of that altar in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, David Johnson of BYU's Anthropology Department saw the second altar at the Barʾan temple while in Marib with a team of archaeologists working at the temple of Mahram Bilqis. We later learned of the third altar which, with the other two, made the case airtight for the first archaeological confirmation of the Book of Mormon narrative.
During the drive back to Sanaʿa, we stopped to film at the top of a long incline that leads from the floor of the desert to the mountain valleys that connect to the capital city. Abdu told us that this corridor was called in Arabic "the ascent of Nihm" and that it lay within the Nihm tribal area. It became apparent to all that this tribe had given its name to a large geographical area which embraced high valleys and low desert.
Back in Sanaʿa, one of our challenges was to ship the exposed film to Provo. We decided not to take it with our bags because it would surely be subject to x-ray. But even shipping the film with certification did not guarantee that authorities in New York City would not x-ray it because it would be arriving from Yemen. And with the United States in a state of virtual panic because of events on September 11, the chance was high that the film would undergo some sort of electronic scan. But we had to take that chance. Alas, as we feared, authorities in New York City saturated the film with x-rays. All of the film reached Provo, but much had suffered damage, some parts severely and other parts minimally. Upon review of the film, it seemed that there was a divine hand protecting the most important portions of the film from acute damage, namely the on-site interviews.
On our way back from Yemen we had planned to stop in Jordan to film at sites in the south of the country, Petra, Aqaba and Wadi Rum, all of which tie to the incense trail. Besides, Lehi's party must have passed the area of Aqaba on the way south. But by this point BYU officials were understandably adamant that we return directly home. From the Amman airport I called the man who had made our Jordan arrangements, Ziad Dakkak, and told him the expected news. He expressed his sincere sympathy for what had happened five days earlier in New York and Washington and wished us well on our return trip.
It was eerie to be on one of the first flights into LaGuardia airport after it had opened to air traffic. As we approached from London, we could see through the floodlights the pall of smoke that hung across lower Manhattan where the Trade Towers had stood. The next morning we flew a similar route when leaving and, in the morning light, saw the enveloping smoky cloud. We all felt sobered.
The Second Filming Trip
Three years passed before we returned to the Middle East to finish the on-site filming. The time of year was dictated by the need to go to Oman in September at the end of the monsoon rainy season when the vegetation was at its brightest. We wanted to show off the beauty of Oman in the two films. When the authorities in the Oman Ministry of Information gave approval for our filming effort, little did we anticipate the wonderfully warm welcome and cooperation that we would receive. Working through Mr. Ali Albulushi at the Oman Embassy in Washington DC, and with the support of the Oman Ambassador, H.E Mohammed Ali Alkusaiby, the team departed Thursday, September 16, 2004, for Oman, Jordan, and Israel. Events could not have gone any better than they did.
Long international flights always take a toll on travelers. By the time we reached Oman after two days on a plane, we felt tired and were looking forward to a night's sleep. But our spirits perked up when we were met by Ministry officials who graciously escorted us to our waiting vehicles and then to our hotel. It was an auspicious beginning to a productive filming trip and showed to me once again the refined hospitable spirit that people in the Middle East possess.
In Oman, our chief objectives were four. We needed to film desert scenes, incense trees, lush vegetation, and a boat under construction. People there, including especially H.E. Abdullah Aqeel Ibrahim, the Advisor to the Minister of State and Governor of Dhofar, had been making needed arrangements so that we could meet our goals. Their efforts truly were gifts to us.
On our first day, in Muscat, the undersecretary in the Ministry of Information, H.E. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Shwain Al Hosni, graciously received us. In his office we took note of a satellite photograph of Oman wherein a green band of vegetation stood out in southern Oman from the rest of the sand-colored terrain. We knew that it was the right time of year to capture on film the best of that greenery. In less than twenty-four hours we were in Wadi Sayq, a valley that runs down to the seacoast where there is no modern development and the eye of a camera can roam freely across the lush tropical landscape.
H.E Abdullah Aqeel had already made contacts for us at the seaside town of Dhalqut to transport our team and equipment to Wadi Sayq in boats. Naturally, when we reached the town, the boat owners told us that the surf was high and that it would be very difficult to land the boats on the beach. It was all part of the negotiating game over the price for the sailors' service. After some hard bargaining, mostly on the sailors' side, we left the dock, landed on the beach, and began our day of filming surrounded by the warm paradise of a tropical forest. The sea of flowers beckoned to the camera as an endless source of bee pollen, visually pointing to Nephi's note about "wild honey"; the pocked limestone cliffs where bees stored their honey, safely out of human reach, invited the camera's eye; the forest of palms and other trees marched down to the water's edge and drew our minds to boat building and repairing for the purposes of shipping incense along the coast, and of Nephi preparing an oceangoing vessel.
When we arrived back at Dhalqut, Brian Wilcox and Justin Andrews drove hard from the seashore to the tops of the coastal mountains to catch the fading light of day across the seemingly endless, rolling mountain tops. I had learned that photographers try to stock their photographic cupboard with scenes that will appeal to viewers. That means long hours, filming at dawn and at sunset. On this day, when the sky finally went dark, we were still an hour and a half from our hotel and dinner.
The next day consisted of incense trees, the dry desert, and dunes. Abdullah Aqeel had arranged for us to meet an incense expert, by the name of Musallam Abdullah Al-Massali Al-Kathiri, west of Salalah where a number of frankincense trees were growing in a dry stream bed. He is an army officer and a pleasant gentleman. He not only showed us techniques of harvesting frankincense by scarring the bark of the trees, but he also sang a song that he had learned as a youth when working in the trees. We caught it all on camera.
Driving north brought us to the edge of the vegetation. It is here that the frankincense trees flourish. With the arrangement of the Ministry, we met a group of camel herders and another incense expert. They filled the camera lens with unforgettable images of camels on the move and of harvesting incense with chant and song.
The last stop of the day, a hundred miles north of Salalah, was at Shisur and its sandy environs. Shisur is a famous watering hole that has slaked the thirsts of countless caravan trains through the centuries. Modern pumps now carry water to surrounding fields that remain green in the midst of desert brown. Explorer and archaeologist Wendell Phillips once stood here and asked a Bedouin guide how far a person had to travel westward to the next water. Eight days was the reply. The water at Shisur would have been a lifesaver for anyone coming from that direction.
Shisur also was the scene of another incredible event. Looking for a restroom, I walked into an enclosure that serves as an outdoor café at the site. The proprietor graciously offered coffee, then tea, which I declined. At that point, on the edge of the Empty Quarter and eleven time zones east of Provo, Utah, one of our guides from the Ministry, Abdullah Rawas, asked the unaskable question, "Are you a Mormon?" We had learned when we first met him that Abdullah was a graduate of the University of Arkansas. But we did not know that he had lived with a Mormon family for three of his undergraduate years. Strange coincidence? I think not. His determination to help us meet our schedule thereafter increased, if that were possible, forming another gift.
Again, we came back to the hotel very late. Why? Because we lingered in the dunes to film the sunset and dying light of the day. I was beginning to appreciate the fellows who were serving as guides from the Ministry of Information. They were willing to keep our long hours. It would be the same the next day when we went to film at one of two sources of iron ore along the Oman coast.
BYU geologists had stumbled onto iron ore several years before when they were working as a part of our academic effort to learn more about the region. We all knew about the copper mines in northern Oman that had yielded ore for millennia. But no metallic ores had been documented for the south. Their discovery of substantial intrusions of iron ore into the surface rock, more or less at either end of the lush maritime plain that runs along that part of the Arabian coastline, meant that they had solved the question about the kind of ore that Nephi extracted for making tools.
We stopped at Khor Rori, ancient Sumhuram, one of the proposed candidates for the spot where Nephi constructed his ship, an archaeological site that my four colleagues and I had visited in 1998. On that occasion we had met members of the Italian and Russian team of excavators. Revell Phillips, our geologist, had made some observations that surprised them, mainly because they paid little attention to rocks at the site that had obviously been brought from far away, items that Revell's keen eye had noticed. Khor Rori is an attractive possibility for building Nephi's ship because of the deep lagoon where a person could learn to maneuver a small ship out of the heavy monsoon surf. All candidates for Nephi's shipbuilding activity—there are about a dozen inlet bays along Oman's south coast that could have served Nephi's perceived need for calm water near the construction zone—suffer from the same malady: lack of evidence that a party of Israelites had ever been in the area.
To find the iron ore was the next trick. Revell Phillips had not actually visited the spot. He was carrying a description and rough map from Jeffrey Keith, who was one of the party to make the discovery. He thus knew the range of low hills where we had to look, just to the west of the town of Mirbat. After scouring the landscape for forty-five minutes, we found the vein of iron ore. It was a thrill to think that Nephi might have come to this place as a first step in the process of building an oceangoing ship.
Our next stop was to meet another frankincense expert, but in a completely different setting. The frankincense trees that we had seen so far all grew in semidry, sandy soil in or near a streambed. We had begun to think that this soil was their only natural habitat. But we found ourselves perched on the edge of a rocky valley where hundreds of young frankincense trees were growing, though far apart from one another. Our expert was Ali Said Fargesh Al-Mushekhey, whom Abdullah Aqeel had arranged for and who came with a bundle of frankincense of various grades. The challenge in filming him was the wind. Four of us had to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, next to the camera, as a wall against the wind so that the camera would not jump around.
Before we came to Oman, I had contacted my friend Ali Ahmed Al-Shahri, an explorer and author. He had discovered cave drawings all over the Dhofar area and had learned that the closest parallels to these drawings were found in southeastern Colorado and Oklahoma, especially the apparent alphabetic symbols that accompany the drawings. Ali has published paintings of boats that he has discovered. We wanted to film at least one of those boats. Since our flight to Muscat was scheduled early that afternoon, we had limited time.
Ali came early to the hotel and we were off. Somehow, he and I had miscommunicated because he took us first to a cave with drawings of animals, a common theme in the region's ancient art. We packed the camera and other gear for almost a half a mile to the cave before, while looking for boats, we figured out that we were not on the proverbial same page. I was embarrassed. We then raced across the hills to the spot where the best representation of boats appears. One of the paintings shows a ship equipped with a tall mast and sail. Ali dates the painting to a time earlier than 500 BC. He is very articulate in English and Peter wanted him in the films.
When we flew into Muscat from Salalah, we were met by a group of officials from the Ministry of Information. They soon loaded our equipment into four vehicles, and we began the long drive to Sur, a boat-building town on the east coast of Oman. A crew in a shipyard was constructing a huge dhow for the Sultan, and the Ministry people had graciously set up a filming session.
We learned that no one else had been allowed to photograph the Sultan's boat, not even Oman's television channels. The dhow was more like a ship, which I estimated to be about 165 feet long. It is constructed of Indian teakwood. Near the end of our day of filming, the owner of the shipyard arrived and told us that he had built the ship without any plan or blueprint. Because he had learned his craft well as a youth while working with his father and grandfather, he said that he did not need even a sketch. Remarkably, the plan was all in his head.
A full day of travel—from Sur to Muscat to Amman—brought us to the pleasant country of Jordan. All of our filming was aimed at the southern part of the country where the incense road had run for centuries. Arriving in Amman at sundown, we hopped on our bus with our guide, Yousef Zreagat, and drove for Petra, the shimmering red sandstone city whose inhabitants have survived in one form or another through the centuries by drawing on its three springs. We couldn't see much, of course, because we arrived at the hotel after dark. But the anticipation among the crew was palpable.
At seven o'clock, the opening hour, we were at the gate that led into this famous monument. David Johnson of the Anthropology Department had joined us the previous day in Amman. He had excavated at Petra for the past twenty years and was therefore the most experienced guide with whom we could explore the ancient city which had flourished as an entrepot for the incense trade that eventually reached Damascus, Jerusalem, and the grand cities of the Mediterranean. I knew that because of David our time would be well spent. It was.
Finding a Bedouin tent was our next task. David had tried to contact friends who lived on the outskirts of the modern town of Petra and who owned such a tent. But we were disappointed to find that they were out when we visited. Serendipitously our failure to film at a Bedouin tent in Petra became a major gift the next day in Wadi Rum. Not only did we film in and around the tent, but we also filmed the sewing effort to make panels for new tents.
Our run to Aqaba was punctuated by filming at a couple of spots, including a wide desert valley, Wadi al-Gharid, that now appears in the films. As soon as we had put our bags and equipment into the hotel, we headed south of town toward the Saudi Arabia border. We wanted to catch the westering sun across the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba as it slid behind the Sinai mountains.
The next morning we were moving very early, by 4:30 a.m. We wanted to be at Wadi Rum before sunrise, a drive of an hour and a half. (Wadi Rum is one the places where the movie Lawrence of Arabia was filmed.) We arrived with time to spare. The sunrise was spectacular. It was as if the sun was given birth by black rocks and red sands. We then met our Bedouin guides at the entry of the monument. They were to be with us for rest of the morning. The guides were reasonably good drivers in the deep sand and were willing to go anywhere. We had to keep our hands on the equipment because the roads were rough and bouncy.
That afternoon saw us at the border crossing between Aqaba, Jordan, and Eilat, Israel. Securely in our new bus in Israel, we raced for Timna Park, a large Israeli national preserve which includes the oldest copper mines in the world. When we arrived at the gate, there were less than two hours of light for filming. We had made prior arrangement to film in the park, but the man at the gate seemed to know nothing about such an arrangement. When I stepped into the building, his supervisor called me into his office. He knew about the arrangement. But instead of talking about our filming effort, he wanted to talk about his training as a ranger in Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. His memories of his stay in Utah were vivid and warm. He said that we could stay in the park as long as the light lasted. We did not need to exit at the posted time. Another gift.
The next day we had to make choices about where and what to film. We had planned to go to four sites that were far apart from one another in southern Israel. It soon became apparent that we could not cover the ground. So we prioritized. We first met a Jeep party that took us into Maktesh Ramon, a large natural crater through which the incense trail passed on its way from Petra to Gaza. There we filmed not only trail markers but also the remnants of a caravanserai that had served as both a hotel for travelers and a market for local tribesmen. The early afternoon saw us at the Ein Avdat National Park, our second stop, where we wanted to photograph a large desert pool. But the pool was a mile away from the parking lot, a long distance to carry the 40-pound camera and other equipment in the afternoon heat. By good fortune, less than 100 yards from the parking lot we found a small pool of water surrounded by trees and green vegetation where ibex and other desert animals would come for water. Several ibex were grazing and resting nearby, and they allowed us to take their pictures.
Then we drove hard to the third spot, Tel Arad, the southern capital of ancient Israel, whose ruins sit atop a prominent tel which is a man-made hill. Within the town had stood a small temple dating from the days of Solomon to an era just before Lehi and Sariah. When ancient authorities decommissioned the temple, they covered it with soil rather than destroying it, treating the spot with reverential respect. Their actions preserved the courtyard, the holy place, and the holy of holies. In excavating the site, modern archaeologists found two stone incense altars, which they set up at the entry to the sanctuary itself. The existence of the Arad temple outside of Jerusalem shows that ancient worship and sacrifice were allowed away from the central sanctuary, as is implicit in Nephi's accounts of his father's sacrifices in the wilderness.
The sunlight died before we could reach our fourth destination, Wadi Arugot, through which, some have thought, Lehi and Sariah may have descended to the western shore of the Dead Sea before turning south to the Red Sea. But before the sun set, we found a perch high above the Dead Sea and filmed the broad and deep Arava Valley. We reached the BYU Jerusalem Center after dark but were welcomed there as if we belonged. We had now entered our last twenty-four hours of filming.
In our press to finish, we were filming across Jerusalem before the first fingers of light began to caress the golden hue of the stone buildings. For those in our team who had never visited this place, it was unlike any other experience. The city is laden with a long history, both glorious and inglorious. Its charm hides the harsh currents of competing factions and the difficulties of carving out a life of dignity. But it beckons to all, both resident and visitor.
We had arranged for someone at the BYU Center to bring Dr. Jacob Milgrom early so that we could interview him on film about the sacred uses of incense in ancient temples. He is the world's expert on this topic, and it was most important that we capture his knowledge. He is a gracious man and was willing to join us at an early hour to accommodate our hectic schedule.
We wanted to photograph the picturesque walls of the Old City that the Ottomans built in the sixteenth century. We intended to film from the rooftop of the Schmidt's Girls School that stands opposite Damascus Gate, one of seven gates that pierce the walls. (Schmidt's Girls School has sent a number of its graduates to BYU.) Damascus Gate sees the most foot traffic in and out of the Old City. But the light was not inviting. The wall stood in shadow. So the camera crew left the compound and went looking for other angles and a different light.
As a capstone of sorts to our trip, we went to the Garden Tomb, which was only a few steps away from the girls school. Instead of taking our equipment, we went as a group of ordinary people. It became clear to me that the members of the team saw this as an opportunity for worship and quiet meditation in the midst of our breakneck pace. It was just the thing to restore our spirits before going to the pool of Siloam, the scene of one of Jesus's most famous healings.
The pool had existed from the days of Hezekiah and Isaiah, more than a hundred years before the time of Lehi and Sariah. By their day, it would have been one of the main hubs of activity in the city, a place where women especially came for water and for conversation, a place where, nearby, merchants would have offered their wares for sale. The pool catches the water that flows from the Gihon Spring a quarter of a mile away through the rock of Hezekiah's Tunnel. The water from the pool drains away into the King's Vale, a garden area known from the Old Testament, and eventually to the Dead Sea via the lower Kidron Valley. Very little of the water escapes to the Dead Sea, however, because it serves agricultural needs within the environs of Jerusalem.
There was one more filming session, late in the day in Amman. After that, we assessed how we had done during the past two weeks. We judged that we had filmed about 90 percent of what we had written on our wish list. For the Middle East, or for any area where a person hopes to accomplish something of importance, we had done the impossible. Our first response was to congratulate ourselves and slap ourselves on the back. But a little reflection told us that much had come to us as a gift and that we should think not of coincidence but of purposeful events that came together at the right time and in the right place.