In Search of Lehi’s Trail—Part 2: The Journey

After nearly four months of hurried preparations, we were ready for Arabia. Our friends in the Middle East were alerted. Our heads and briefcases were stuffed with information from ancient documents, modern explorers, and hints from the scriptures. Armed with a real sense of mission and the expectation of the thrill of adventure, we left Salt Lake City on January 15, 1976, to follow as much of our reconstruction of Lehi’s trail as possible. Jerry Silver, a superb photographer from Salt Lake City’s Deseret News, and our twenty-five-year-old daughter Cynthia, of Washington, D.C., accompanied us.

The U.S. State Department counseled us to make the journey in reverse, beginning in Salalah, Oman, on the Arabian Sea, and ending in the city of Jerusalem. This procedure would minimize our entry difficulties—which nevertheless were going to be numerous—in the four countries through which we needed to pass. Uncertain military conditions made it impossible for us to visit two areas: a stretch in Saudi Arabia along the Red Sea where we think Lehi traveled between the valley of Lemuel and Shazer, and the desert stretch from Abha east to the Arabian Sea which we think was Lehi’s route to the land Bountiful. But we flew over parts of that section and otherwise felt satisfied that we had covered the route which we think could be most reasonably constructed as Lehi’s trail. Although we traveled the route in reverse, we shall present our findings in the order Lehi would have encountered them.

We are very much aware that our conclusions about Lehi’s life-style in the desert are accurate only to the extent that the Bedouin life-styles we observed still resemble those of their ancestors 2,600 years ago. What we saw was most helpful and illuminating, but it cannot be taken as proven fact without a great deal of supplementary research in archaeology, anthropology, and linguistics.

We only had five weeks to spend in the Middle East on the project—another reason besides comfort for choosing air-conditioned automobiles over camels or donkeys for transportation. Paved highways now cover much of the route—locked onto the ancient frankincense trails by the powerful dictates of wells and topography.

After Lehi left Jerusalem, he could not have gone very far in a southerly or easterly direction before coming to the desert. As we looked at the contrasting terrain—steep, jagged, and rocky around Jerusalem, yet barren, sandy, and relatively smooth in the desert—we became convinced that Lehi must have acquired camels before he had gone too far into the desert and probably as soon as he approached it. No matter which route he might have used to leave Jerusalem, he would have run into camel markets where he could have traded his donkeys for camels. He may have even had money with him which he used—leaving his gold and silver behind does not mean that he departed penniless. Those camel markets are still there—large, dusty, and noisy with haggling buyers and sellers.

We knew from fifteen prior trips to the Holy Land that there are only two ways Lehi could have left the city of Jerusalem. The eastern way divides into two of the three main routes from Jerusalem to Aqaba. (See illustration 5 and p. 48 of the Sept. Ensign.) We explored all three routes. We did not follow the variant route, which is still only a footpath over the steep Salt Mountain. Sa’adi Fatafitah, our friend who accompanied us over much of the route, had himself made this crossing on foot and assured us that it was still passable, though difficult. After appraising all the routes, we found ourselves slightly favoring the central route that goes nearly to Jericho, and then turns south past bleak Qumran, west of the Dead Sea, although a good case can be made for Lehi’s use of the King’s Highway. A person following the Qumran route east from Jerusalem gets out of town quickly. The logic of the downhill terrain helps explain why Christians at the time of Titus chose it as their escape route.

The west side of the Dead Sea, which at 1,290 feet below sea level is the lowest spot on the face of the earth, is not an inviting place. We saw utter desolation there. The mineral-saturated water lies stagnant in the long geologic fault, but we were astonished to find many freshwater springs along that west shore. There is also an excellent beach which was regularly used as a trail in ancient days, according to Salim Saad, who had spent most of his life in the area.

It seemed to us that Lehi could well have chosen the west shore of the Dead Sea over the east because there he would still be in his native country, Judah, rather than the “foreign” nations of Amon, Moab, and Edom through which the King’s Highway passed. On the west shore he also would have avoided the Jewish population centers of Hebron and Beer-sheba, where he might be more easily recognized as one whose life had been threatened while living in Jerusalem.

Wadi al ‘Araba

We wondered about the geographical determinism that seemed to dictate that all roads lead to Aqaba. It was certainly easier for us to understand it once we entered the Wadi al ‘Araba, the geological extension of the low-lying valley in which are found the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea. It is part of the remarkable “rift valley” system, extending all the way from the Beka Valley in Lebanon to far below the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea in the south.

The northern portion of the Wadi al ‘Araba drains north into the Dead Sea. The southern end of the wadi flows south into the Red Sea. As we looked at it, we saw a wide, dusty sand plain, hot in the summer and chilly in the winter. High mountains jut up on both sides, from three to twelve miles away. Rainfall is slight, allowing the growth of only an occasional clump of grass or tamarisk tree. Other than the King’s Highway, this plain is the only way south from Jerusalem. It has been intermittently populated by nomadic Bedouins from early ages. We saw many Bedouin tents, and goats, sheep, and camels browsing in the wadi; irresistibly, images of the ancient past unrolled before our eyes.

The Greek historian Strabo, writing in the first century A.D., reports that “the camel-merchants travelled [through this area] only by night, looking to the stars for guidance, and, like the mariners, also carried water with them when they travelled.” (Strabo, p. 121.) Lehi may have done the same.

As our car passed over the beautiful modern highway, paralleling the ancient trail that is still occasionally visible, we tried to visualize the scene. With his whole family along and his animals laden with provisions, Lehi would have been no match for any pursuer if there were any; and desert-dwellers, expert trackers, could have been hired to track Lehi down had he tried to hide.

However, we learned from our friends of the unshakable rule of the Arabian peninsula that may have been put to good use by Lehi—that of asylum. Once a sheik agrees to accept a refugee, the tribe must protect him against any of his enemies. Of course, if the sheik refuses him, he may be killed on the spot. Lehi may have benefited from this ancient code as he traveled from one tribe’s jurisdiction to another.


We know that Lehi took “provisions” on his journey (1 Ne. 2:4); and we tried to reconstruct what they might be. We know that they included his tents, and probably such food as wheat, flour, barley, dried sour milk, olive or sesame oil, olives, dates, a few cooking utensils, bedding, and weapons such as bows, arrows, and knives. According to our research no spoons or forks were used in Lehi’s day among the Hebrews or the Arabs.

We had visited Bedouin camps on previous trips to the Middle East, and thus we warmly accepted the invitation of a young Bedouin boy we picked up on the highway near Beer-sheba. His family was moderately well-to-do by nomadic standards, but very limited in possessions by ours. As we approached the tent we could see everything they owned. There was a donkey feeding in the dooryard, a horse and camel in the distance, sheep and a turkey walking underfoot. Entering the flap of the stiff, black tent we saw handwoven baskets hung on the center poles filled with cooking pots, some half-filled with waterskins. There were rugs and pillows surrounding the fire pit, with saddles and bridles in the corner. We could see their entire wardrobe in an old corrugated cardboard box pushed into the other corner. There were no windows, the only light coming in at the tent door and from the live coals in the fire. We saw no toys; in fact, Hope remembers that one little girl shrank back in fright from a proffered stuffed animal. The heavy, black, goathair tent, with some white sections made from sheep wool, was anchored by ropes and tent stakes. The only water was in the waterskins. Graciously, they offered us drinks in cups rinsed by swishing them out with tea from their ever-present pot on the fire.

There was a women’s section of the tent and the women of our troop were invited to try on some of their clothes and jewelry. The women wear black dresses beautifully embroidered with multicolored flower and animal designs. Their heads are always covered with a shawl which varies in color according to tribal custom. Black veils cover their faces when they leave the security of the tent.

The men’s clothing was simple, a long white shirt and sash (an Arabic word!) in warm weather. In winter they add a dark-colored aba, or overcoat, made of coarse, handspun wool from sheep. It is very warm and sheds the dew and occasional rains. It also takes the place of a blanket. When our friends explained this to us, we understood why Moses had commanded the children of Israel, when they took raiment as a pledge for a loan, not to “sleep with his pledge: … thou shalt deliver him the pledge again when the sun goeth down, that he may sleep in his own raiment, and bless thee.” (Deut. 24:12–13.)

All of the foregoing is of interest because the living conditions of the Bedouin have changed little since 600 B.C. Thus the possessions of our friends may be similar to what Lehi’s group took with them on their journey.

Another reason why Lehi, despite his wealth, would certainly have been traveling light would have been as protection against marauding desert tribes who would naturally investigate a small caravan displaying many goods.

We were intrigued to discover that the one-piece Bedouin garment we saw in 1976 was clearly recognizable, essentially unchanged, in stone reliefs from Nineveh, now on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (See illustration 8.) Senna-cherib had this relief carved to celebrate his conquest of Lachish, a city of Judah only twenty-five miles from Jerusalem, in approximately 701 B.C., only a century earlier than Lehi’s flight into the desert. The captured men not only wore that distinctive one-piece garment but could be identified as Semites by their distinctive facial appearance, hairstyles, and beard styles. These were Lehi’s neighbors, both geographically and historically, and we inevitably wondered how much Lehi’s own dress and appearance resembled theirs.

Lehi probably carried his provisions in goatskin bags, which we found are still used all along the trail in the Arabian peninsula. Our friends corroborate our reading (see Whiting, p. 65) that goatskin bags were indeed the standard method of transporting water and provisions. In a market at Aqaba, we found a waterbag of venerable appearance made from the skin of a mature, large-sized goat. The front legs had been sewn together with a rawhide thong to form a handle, while the dorsal opening was also stitched together with rawhide. With the back legs tied off it became watertight. The animal’s neck was the opening of the waterbag.

This waterskin certainly looked old and well used, but we were still surprised when the man from whom we bought it informed us that it was at least ten generations old. Skeptical, we asked how a skin could be tanned so that it would be pliable and watertight for that long. The merchant replied that his people fill a new hide or bag with honey and camel milk and bury it for six months. When the skin is taken out of the soil at the end of this time, the hair drops away and the skin is thoroughly tanned. Our Arabian friends corroborated that this is indeed one of the known methods of tanning and that it was not impossible for a well-tanned bag to last a family for two or three hundred years or longer.

At another shop close to Yanbu about half-way down the peninsula, we found two small goatskins, one black with age. They were swollen with the weight of their contents, which the shopkeeper said was honey. We demanded proof, and he unfolded and untied one of the front legs and “milked” a drop of honey out on our fingers. The shopkeeper gave himself a treat by sticking the leg in his mouth and sucking out a mouthful of honey. We declined further purchase but were impressed with seeing proof of this ancient storage method in our day of plastic, cardboard, and glass.

Lehi’s Probable Itinerary



Approximate Distance in Miles


Aqaba (Ezion-geber)



Al Beda (probable Valley of Lemuel)


Al Beda

Qual‘at al Azlam (probable Shazer)


Qual‘at al Azlam

Umm Lajj (Leucê Comê)


Umm Lajj

Jiddah (possible broken bow camp)



Al Qunfudhah (probable Nahom)


Al Qunfudhah







Salalah (probable Bountiful)



2,156 miles

Aqaba and the Red Sea

Although the population of Aqaba, even in modern times, numbers fewer than 3,000 people, it is still the neck of the funnel southward. A look at the map will show that there is no way a traveler could go overland from Jerusalem to the east coast of the Red Sea without passing through Aqaba; there are certainly no modern roads that bypass it. Lehi may not have wanted his family to rest long in the city—and, in fact, they pushed on three days’ journey into the wilderness—but they would at least have replenished their water supply and maybe even stayed overnight. By this time they would have been traveling for ten days to two weeks and the oasis with its stately date palms and brightly flowering oleanders would have been a welcome sight for man and beast alike. We saw at least two dozen sweet water wells, some only seven feet deep.

Archaeologist Nelson Glueck, who, as Lehi, approached the Red Sea, said, “Suddenly, as the camels ambled along [going south through the Wadi al ‘Araba], new life seemed to spring into the group of weary animals. They quickened their pace, lengthened their stride, and, before we realized what had happened, the ungainly beasts had broken into a run.

“Mounting a rise, we saw what the camels had smelled. Before us were the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba, the eastern branch of the Sinai-split Red Sea.” (“On the Trail of King Solomon’s Mines,” National Geographic Magazine, Feb. 1944, p. 233.) Perhaps Lehi’s group had a similarly exciting moment.

The clean blue waters of this part of the Red Sea shimmer in the bright desert sunshine. We have been scuba diving here and have found that the underwater visibility is an astounding 132 feet. There are huge mounds of varicolored corals that fringe that beach for many miles, and the clear waters teem with thousands of beautifully colored tropical fish. This spot would be a delicious change for Lehi from his ten-day desert march from Jerusalem.

We knew from our research that an iron and steel manufacturing industry had been carried on here since at least the ninth century B.C., and so we were frustrated to find that King Solomon’s ancient smelters are in a war zone. However, what we could see from a distance corresponded with Glueck’s descriptions. Chemical analysis of the slag and ore taken from the old tailing piles he analyzed shows 59 percent iron and 10 percent copper. (Glueck, p. 237.) These are very rich.

Glueck pointed out that the huge mud-brick furnace faces into the ever-strong, prevailing northwest wind, a wind that has not changed in 3,000 years. These smelters are built of mud-dried bricks, with two rows of flues in a careful arrangement, through which flues the wind blew, acting as a bellows. (Glueck, p. 238.) Glueck says that the smelters were heated by charcoal, manufactured from the trees that wooded the hills near Aqaba. (Glueck, p. 237.) This controlled draft of air, provided by natural means, must not have been available to Nephi later during his shipbuilding days in Bountiful, because he mentions that he made a skin bellows to help smelt the ore. The idea for such may not have been his own invention, for his contemporary Jeremiah mentions the use of bellows in his writings. (Jer. 6:29.)

We were, therefore, interested to discover skin bellows in an old suk in Salalah, which we think is the land Bountiful. The bellows were hanging, blackened and neglected, on the wall of a blacksmith’s shop. The blacksmith told us that they had been used by his father, his father’s father, and so on back twenty-four generations (an estimated six hundred years). We had never seen a bellows like them before; they were not the pump type, like European bellows, but were more like an accordion. The neck of the tanned goatskin was tied around a wooden coupling tube that fit into an iron neck which would, naturally, have been placed under the fire. It reminded me of a clay pipe dated 1,000 B.C. that we had seen in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which had also been used to carry air from a bellows to the forge. The four legs of the skin of this bellows of Salalah had been folded back and tied off carefully. The entire back end was open, with the skin fastened to two parallel sticks so that it looked something like a woman’s purse that snaps shut at the top. The blacksmith showed us how to grasp these two sticks in one hand, holding them open while we pulled the skin up, drawing in air, then closing them as he pushed the bag down, forcing the air out the neck. We were impressed that it really worked well; and we mentally wondered how this bellows differed, if any, from Nephi’s.

Seeing how painfully and how carefully tools must be fashioned in the desert made us realize the heroic stature of Nephi in being able to find ore, smelt his own tools, and then construct his own ship. It brought to mind an old Hebrew legend dating three hundred years before Nephi’s day and recounted in The Epic of Steel by Douglas Allen Fisher.

“When the temple in Jerusalem was completed Solomon invited to a feast all the artificers who had been engaged in its construction. As the throne was unveiled, the guests were outraged to see that the seat of honor on the king’s right, as yet unawarded, had been usurped by the ironworker. Whereupon the people in one voice cried out against him and the guards rushed forward to cut him down.

“The king silenced their protests and turning to the stonecutter, said: ‘Who made the tools with which you carve?’

“‘The ironworker,’ was the reply.

“To the artificer of gold and silver, Solomon said: ‘Who made your instruments?’

“‘The ironworker,’ they answered.

“To the carpenter, Solomon said, ‘Who forged the tools with which you hewed the cedars of Lebanon?’

“‘The ironworker,’ was again the answer.

“Then Solomon turned to the ironworker: ‘Thou art all men’s father in art. Go, wash the sweat of the forge from thy face and sit at my right hand.’” (New York: Harper and Row, 1963, p. 5.)

Before our trip, we had read some interpretations that Lehi had traveled “three days in the wilderness” from Jerusalem. (1 Ne. 2:6.) However, verse five makes it fairly clear that they started counting the three days from the time the group arrived at the “borders near the shore of the Red Sea,” which must have been Aqaba. However, something puzzled us in the text: Nephi talks about coming down “by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea” and traveling “in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea.” (1 Ne. 2:5; italics added.) What distinction was he making? Once we arrived on the site it became more clear what Nephi might have meant.

The coastal plain is squeezed into the area lying between the Red Sea and the mountains on the Arabian peninsula. Its greatest width is forty-eight miles in the area close to Jiddah. (See illustrations 7 and 9.) Called Tihama by the local residents, it is the ancient route of the frankincense trail and the most logical route for Lehi’s party as well. We determined about how far Lehi might be able to travel in three days and made a sweep about that distance south of Aqaba to see if we might identify possible locales for the valley of Lemuel and the river Laman. Naturally, we examined every wadi system, shore, and mountain very closely. We could go straight south down the coast in the Tihama about eighteen miles to Wadi Umm Jurfayn, which comes down through the steep mountainside to an oasis on the Red Sea called al Humaydah. This oasis is, in one sense, the end of the Tihama since a little ways south steep cliffs fall precipitously straight into the sea, obviously blocking the trail farther down the coastline. The geographically logical thing to do—indeed, the only thing to do—is to turn away from the Red Sea and go east up the hills through the mountain chain in wide, sweeping bends. Former storms have filled in all of the rough places with a sand and gravel “roadbed” for twenty-five miles to the top (elevation 3,135 feet). People without animals could have traveled through these mountains by inching up the steep and rocky hillsides or by edging exhaustingly up and down the jagged summits, but obviously the wadi is a convenient superhighway—as the heavily laden camels passing our car in majestic disdain testified.

At the summit (see illustration 9), the wadi branches. One branch leads out to the desert in an easterly direction. But another wadi slopes many miles downhill to the south in leisurely sweeping curves all the way to the seashore. This wadi, El Afal, runs parallel to the east shore of the Gulf of Aqaba, but the mountains in between hid it from our view. We drove down this wadi, which we think represents the borders near the Red Sea, finally stopping at its oasis, a village called Al Beda, Saudi Arabia. There we were suddenly confronted with a military policeman who explained in emphatic tones that we were in a war area. Since we were very close to Sharm al-Sheikh where Israeli and Arabian soldiers faced each other over the narrow straits of Tiran, we could understand the tense situation and complied with his request to leave, but not before taking with us the images of springs of water and a luxuriant growth of figs and date palms.

Thus, we pieced these geographical clues together with the description that Nephi had given us. Of course, this reconstruction is tentative, one problem being that it doesn’t seem to follow Nephi’s sentence sequence, even though his meaning could fit what we discovered. The borders “nearer” the Red Sea could have been the eighteen miles between Aqaba and al Humaydah, where the trail and the beach are practically the same thing. Then the borders “near” would have been their turning aside to continue east and south through the fifty-eight miles in the Wadi Umm Jurfayn and Wadi El Afal to Al Beda. When Nephi later refers to “keeping in the borders near the Red Sea” (1 Ne. 16:14), he was probably designating the area about halfway down the seacoast near Jiddah when they were once again traveling on the coast itself. But to us, our discovery of what “near” and “nearer” meant suggested an equally exciting possibility: that Al Beda could have been Lehi’s camp in the valley of Lemuel. We had a couple of clues that supported this tentative conclusion. It seemed clear to us that the “borders near” the Red Sea was the higher wadi in which they spent the bulk of their time, and the borders “nearer” represented the close coastal plain stretching eastward to its first range of mountains. Suddenly, Nephi’s terms took on great meaning for us.

Probable Location of Lehi’s Tent in the Valley of Lemuel(click to view larger)

Illustration 9 Probable Location of Lehi’s Tent in the Valley of Lemuel (Also the route of an ancient frankincense trail)



Aqaba to Al Humaydah (traveling on the seashore)

18 miles

Al Humaydah to summit in Wadi Umm Jurfayn

25 miles

Summit to Al Beda in Wadi El Afal

33 miles

The “three days” journey (1 Ne. 2:6) could well be this total

76 miles

Al Beda (probable mouth of River Laman) to the Red Sea

21 miles

Father Lehi pitched his tent in a valley by a river of water that emptied into the Red Sea. (1 Ne. 2:8.) Nowadays, in all the Arabian peninsula there is not a single river of any significance which flows year round and reaches the sea. The annual rainfall in this area is between .4 and 6.0 inches. There is a little more in the mountains of Yemen on the southwest corner and in the Qara Mountains of Salalah, Dhofar, in Oman; but still they do not make running rivers. Hence, there are no real rivers that we can identify today with the river Laman. Nor do ancient records disclose one. Had there been one, people would have been living by it for generations. But this does not end the matter.

Old Testament Hebrew uses two words which in English are both translated as “river.” One word, nachalah, means “winter torrent” but is translated as “river” when it describes the Wadi al-‘Arish or the River Arnon. (James Strong, “Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary,” The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1890, p. 77.) In both cases, these rivers dry up in the summer. We have stood in the canyon of the Arnon and seen a trickle no bigger than a man’s arm at the very bottom of the streambed. But thunderstorms characteristic of the winter season result in a true torrent. Our archaeologist guide and friend, Salim Saad, says that wadis run for two or three days after a rainstorm, and that in the Arabian peninsula the rainy season is almost completely limited to January and February. When the water rushes off the bare hills into the sloping, wide-bottomed wadis, “it comes with much force,” he says, gesturing to emphasize his point. “I have seen an immense bulldozer washed down a wadi like a box of matches.”

The second Hebrew word, nahar, means a perennially “running stream.” The word is used in the Old Testament for the Euphrates River and the Nile, both of which are indeed ever-flowing. Thus, Hebrew takes account of variations in the meaning of “river” to which our language is deaf.

It is quite probable that after seeing a thunderstorm upon the watershed of Wadi El Afal, Lehi may have referred to a “winter torrent” or nachalah when he described the “river of water.” It is also possible that the spring at Al Beda formed a small stream that flowed south for twenty-one miles to empty into the Red Sea. What may have been a surplus of water at that time would now be absorbed by the more intensive cultivation in the oasis.

We were traveling through the wadi during the rainy season, but were disappointed that for over two days’ time not even one raincloud had appeared on the horizon. We stopped the car to talk to a Bedouin youth walking along the road and offered him a lift to Al Beda. When we asked him about rain and what happened in the wadi, he burst into excited speech, describing the runoff as moiya kebira, or “big water,” and added that sometimes the water raced through this wadi for three days after a storm. It was clear to us that Lehi could have appropriately used the “big water” as an object lesson for his son.

Of course, the Wadi El Afal and the Wadi Umm Jurfayn were not our private discoveries. They had formed a main part of the centuries-old frankincense road to Aqaba from the south along the Red Sea route; yet we saw few significant buildings or construction on the way. There were a few modern flood control structures but no Bedouin tents in the main stream of these two wadis. At the extreme lower ends of most of the small laterals that funneled into the main wadi, however, we could see tents and flocks. There was plenty of camel fodder in the form of bunch grass and tamarisk trees in the bottom of these wadis, their bounty being peacefully munched by donkeys, camels, sheep, and goats.

We were driving on a new asphalt road that, as nearly as our guides could determine, followed the old caravan route. That would make sense since centuries of camels would gravitate to the easiest gradients and the camel drivers would adjust their wanderings to the shortest distance between two points. If our deductions were correct, we were actually passing over the route that Lehi had taken in Wadi El Afal. It was difficult for us to express our feelings. If Al Beda had indeed been the camp in the valley of Lemuel, then this was the base from which Lehi’s sons had twice returned to Jerusalem. This was the place where Lehi read and studied the brass plates and told his family their own genealogy. Here Lehi offered up several burnt offerings. Here he dreamed of the iron rod and the coming of the Messiah. Here Nephi had his own vision: of Christ’s mortal life and mission with his apostles, of the sailing of Christopher Columbus, of his own people among the great gentile nation in the promised land, and of the ultimate restoration of the Church. Here Nephi explained the allegory of the tame and wild olive trees. Here the seasonal business of planting and harvesting crops may have taken place, along with the great celebration of five desert weddings. It was also here that, to the colony’s great astonishment, the Liahona appeared outside Lehi’s tent to give counsel and lead them to their unknown destination.

It might be noted here that simply because a centuries-old frankincense trail existed even in Lehi’s time does not mean that Lehi knew how far he was to go on it, or where he might break from the more traveled part of the trail to pursue the lesser traveled portion. Thus, Lehi truly needed the Liahona. Of course, the Liahona was used and given to Lehi’s family as much for spiritual guidance as for directional guidance in their travels. The Liahona worked only when they were righteous. Refusal to repent caused them to lose their way both physically and spiritually. The analogy is instructive.

There are many magnificent mountains close about Al Beda into which Nephi could have been caught away for his comprehensive and detailed vision of the Savior’s mission and the major historical events till the end of time. (See 1 Ne. 11–14.) The highest neighboring mountain is twenty-one miles northeast of Al Beda; called Jobal Al Lawz, it reaches 8,514 feet above sea level.

Father Lehi named the river of water running in their sight after his eldest son, Laman. Nephi makes a point of recording that Lehi drew the moral of the river for his son when he “saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea.” (1 Ne. 2:9.) Perhaps this implies that Lehi could not tell from his campsite that the waters emptied into the Red Sea. Al Beda is located twenty-one miles north from where the wadi empties into the Red Sea.

An examination of our maps and geography also suggested to us the meaning of the phrase “fountain of the Red Sea.” A fountain is the headwater, the spring, the source; and it is dear that the Gulf of Aqaba, serving as the northeast extension of the Red Sea, could be called the fountain of that larger body of water.

Father Lehi describes the valley of Lemuel as “firm and steadfast, and immovable.” (1 Ne. 2:10.) The modern appearance of Wadi El Afal is indeed that, its sandy bottom firmly delineated by solid mountains.

And so our hearts rejoiced. We had located a strong candidate for the site of the valley of Lemuel. We felt a special spirit in the Wadi El Afal near the oasis of Al Beda in Saudi Arabia.


Now we tried to visualize the details of that campsite, where, according to our time estimations, Lehi could have stayed as long as three years. The most distinctive feature about our mental reconstruction was the presence of tents. There may have been as many as nine after Ishmael’s family joined the group, one for each of the married families. If the tents we saw pitched throughout the Arabian peninsula were typical of those the inhabitants had used for centuries, we could get a pretty good idea of Lehi’s tents. Actually, this is not an unfair assumption to make, for historians say that the beit shaar (house of hair) has not substantially changed with the passing of time.

The Old Testament describes tents as “black” (Song 1:15), made of “goat’s hair” and containing partitions or “curtains” (Ex. 36:14), with a “hanging for the door of the tent” (Ex. 26:36).

The houses of hair we visited and studied were oblong and had a long pitched roof with drooping ends. The smallest tents had nine poles, the three tallest marching down the center with the three shorter running down each side. Guy ropes, also handwoven from goat hair, extended outward to stakes (also called nails anciently) driven in the ground. (See Judg. 4:21.) Each tent is divided laterally into two or more living sections by a curtain or curtains: at least one section for the men and one for women and children. (For a similar description, see Whiting, pp. 65–66.)

We have no way of knowing if Lehi’s tents befitted his economic status as a wealthy man or if he deliberately chose common black tents. We saw ancient but luxurious and beautiful tents in Cairo made of heavy, canvas-like material—probably wool or heavy cotton—on which careful artists had appliquéd flowers and geometric designs. The art of tent appliqúe, according to Egypt’s former deputy minister of state, Salah El Agamawi, has been handed down from generation to generation by women. The tent panels that we saw in Cairo were rectangular, hanging on square wooden frames that were set in the earth and lashed together overhead. These tents were like houses, with ceilings as high as twenty feet, and were richly furnished with rugs, carpets, mats, pillows, bolsters, and cushions. Of course, we also saw tents in Cairo furnished with modern tables and chairs, innocent anachronisms that cheerfully testified to the utter adaptability of the tents.

These tents reminded us of a description we had read by Ibn Jubayr, a famous traveler in the twelfth century A.D. who gave us one of the best descriptions extant of the Haj, or the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. He described one caravan encampment of an Amir of Iraq as “beautiful to look upon and superbly provided, with large handsome tents … and wonderful pavilions and awnings, for it was surrounded by a linen screen like a wall, in form of closed-in garden. … Within this were the pitched pavilions, all black on a white background and dappled and variegated as if they were flowers in a garden. … In these wall-like screens were tall doors, like those of lofty castles, through which one entered into vestibules and mazes.” (Paul Linde, “Caravans to Mecca,” Aramco World Magazine, Nov.–Dec. 1974, 25:9.) Would well-to-do Lehi have lived in such luxury in the wilderness?

We were already familiar with how Bedouin tents were constructed. Fifteen years earlier we had seen Bedouin women gather at Beer-sheba, bringing their annual accumulation of goat or camel hair. Together they wove panels for a new tent on an ancient loom that was owned by the entire tribe. They later presented the panels to a new bride in a custom much like our pioneer house-raisings.

A camel gives about ten pounds of hair a year; goats produce less. The hair is spun into strong threads by hand-held spindles. This thread makes a fabric as thick as carpet, very heavy and strong, but also very prickly and coarse. This is the “sack cloth” worn by mourners in Bible times (see, e.g., Isa. 32:11), and running a hand across it convinced us that wearing a shirt of it would have been true misery.

The “house of hair” provides cooling shade in the hot summer, yet with the side panels tied down, it is warm in the winter. The tents are heavy, and even though they are mobile, it was obvious that Father Lehi would need pack animals to transport them. The average Bedouin tent is about thirty feet long and half as wide. (Whiting, p. 66.) A camel could carry one small tent; another animal would bear the tent poles, some as thick as a baseball bat in diameter, usually with one end dragging in the sand. The tents of sheiks would correspond in size with their wealth, but they are built of the same material in the same way, in sections with lacings to fasten them together, each section designed as a load for a single animal.

Before we had left home we had concluded that Lehi must have stayed several seasons in some locations to make his journey in the wilderness last an entire eight years. It would seem that one of these extended camping places may have been the valley of Lemuel, where they may have planted crops. The Bible tells us that Midian 800 years before supported an animal population of over 800,000 head. (See Num. 31:32–34.) Consequently, it must have been more fertile than the eroded landscapes that we looked at as we drove through Midian. Lehi took “provisions” when he left Jerusalem, yet it is not likely that he took either a great amount or a wide variety. Nephi explains that after they had “dwelt in a tent” (1 Ne. 16:6) and had “tarried in the wilderness” in the valley of Lemuel (1 Ne. 8:2), they “gathered together all manner of seeds of every kind, both of grain of every kind, and also of the seeds of fruit of every kind” (1 Ne. 8:1; italics added). Both wheat and barley were well known among Nephi’s descendants (Mosiah 9:9), and rye was known before Lehi’s day in Palestine (Isa. 28:15). Perhaps these are the “grain of every kind” that Nephi refers to. The Book of Mormon talks of grapes, olives, and figs as fruits that its inhabitants knew. (1 Ne. 10:12; 3 Ne. 14:16.) Other fruits cultivated extensively in the Middle East in Lehi’s day, even though they are not mentioned in the Book of Mormon account, are dates, coconuts, and pomegranates. (“Arabia: Vegetation,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1971, 2:169.)

It would seem very likely that Lehi’s colony either grew or purchased as many of these plants as possible while they lived in the valley of Lemuel. Since they came from an agricultural area and since there was a “river of water” (which, even if intermittent, could irrigate some crops) available at the campsite, they very likely cultivated their own crops and probably enjoyed a relatively varied diet during this period.


In addition to these daily chores, we know of five joyful celebrations that took place in this valley—five marriages. No event in Semitic life is more celebrated by a family or more anticipated by a daughter than her marriage. It is the one day in her life when her importance overshadows that of the men. In the desert, preparations for these marriages are very elaborate, since not only the trousseau but a tent for the newlyweds must be made. Traditional customs demanded that the entire neighborhood population must be invited to the festivities. To do less would not have made a culturally acceptable marriage.

Lehi’s four sons and Zoram, the former bondsman of Laban, were all to be married. Fortunately, there were exactly the right number of daughters in Ishmael’s family. For Ishmael to have had five daughters old enough to be married is most unusual; many girls are betrothed while they are only children and are married at age thirteen. It is even more unusual that one of those daughters, the oldest one, would have been willing to marry a former bondsman, Zoram. Until she married, her four younger sisters had to patiently wait their turn. It may be that no man had been willing to ask for her hand and she could perhaps have been as old as twenty-five, a situation that could have been a great embarrassment to her father. All of these circumstances could indicate that she may have had some affliction, like Leah of old, and she may have considered it a great opportunity to be married, even to a former bondsman.

It was customary in ancient Israel for the father or kinsmen of a young man to choose his wife and arrange for the marriage. No doubt Lehi, acting on behalf of his four sons, negotiated with Ishmael, even though the “negotiations” may have been mere formalities based on prior arrangements. Zoram, without family, was probably included in the negotiations as a son by virtue of Nephi’s promise that he should “have place with us.” (1 Ne. 4:34.)

If Israelite customs were followed, the negotiations produced five betrothals. Usually a betrothal began when the groom paid the mohar to the bride’s father as a compensation for the loss of his daughter, and ended with the wedding, a period which seldom covered more than a year’s duration. During the betrothal period, the couple referred to each other as “husband” and “wife” and it was understood that betrothal included a covenant of faithfulness. The bride used this period to assemble her trousseau—and it would be interesting to know what arrangements those five daughters of Ishmael made, their possessions limited to what they had brought with them into the desert.

Marriage in Old Testament times required no state or religious sanction; it was a family affair consisting of a public covenant of faithfulness and acknowledgement of the marriage by the good wishes of family and friends. A fairly standard part of the wedding was a feast that sometimes lasted a week, enlivened with processions, music, and dancing. Considering the possibility that all five weddings were performed simultaneously, the celebration must have been lavish, perhaps including the local nomads as well in the festivities. (See J. S. Douglas, et. al., “Marriage,” The New Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973, pp. 788–89; and Madeleine S. Miller and J. Lane Miller, “Marriage,” Harper’s Bible Dictionary, 8th ed., New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973, pp. 421–22.)

Moving Southward

After Lehi had accomplished all that was necessary at camp Lemuel, he found a brass ball of “curious workmanship” at his tent door. It contained two spindles that pointed the way they should go into the wilderness. (See 1 Ne. 16:10.) The Liahona has been called a “compass” at least five different places in the Book of Mormon (Alma 37:38, 43, 44; 2 Ne. 5:12; 1 Ne. 18:12), but it only worked according to the attention and the faith they gave it (1 Ne. 16:28), not according to the magnetic lines of the earth. One of the points, from time to time, also had writing upon it. (See, e.g., 1 Ne. 16:26–27, 29.)

While we were poring over our maps in Salt Lake City, we had wondered why the Lord gave Lehi the Liahona at that point, when all they had to do was travel down the well-marked frankincense trail. Looking at the scriptures and the landscape together gave us some ideas:

1. For the Liahona to point “the way whither we should go into the wilderness” (1 Ne. 16:10) was an indication to Lehi’s party that they should keep going south-southeast rather than crossing the sea at that point or going east into the mountains. This direction coincided with the relatively safe frankincense trail.

2. However, the “trail” was as wide as the coastal plain—up to forty-eight miles at its widest point. Caravans seeking camel fodder would, of course, use its entire width. A little farther down the coast, after Shazer, Nephi specifies that the Liahona directed them “in the most fertile parts of the wilderness” (1 Ne. 16:14), possibly to patches of rain-fed grass as well as the more copious or less used waterholes.

3. The Liahona was the vital instrument when Nephi, with his newly fashioned wooden bow, asked where he should go to obtain food. The ball sent him “forth up into the top of the mountain” where, in fact, he did find game. (1 Ne. 16:30–31.)

4. Nephi does not mention the Liahona’s directions when they continued their trek, but surely it was the reason they traveled “nearly the same course as in the beginning.” (1 Ne. 16:33.)

5. Farther south and east, they had to make a decision of which route to take when the frankincense trail branches, one fork going south toward busy cities and the other fork going east on a more difficult route. Again, it was probably the Liahona that indicated that they should travel “eastward.”

Following the first directions given by the Liahona, Lehi gave instructions to break camp in the valley Lemuel. The group crossed the river Laman and then went in “nearly a south-southeast direction” for “the space of four days” to a place they named Shazer. (1 Ne. 16:13.) We calculated that this leg of their journey took them downstream to the shores of the Red Sea, where they continued down the Tihama. If we accept the seventy-two miles from Aqaba to Al Beda as the three-day journey into the wilderness (twenty-four miles per day), then a four-day journey would cover about ninety-six miles. This would bring the colony approximately to Wadi Al Azlan, long an important and large oasis on the Red Sea coastal plain, which may have been the locale of Shazer. The area is now a stretch of sterile sand with gently rising mountains in the east and the brilliant Red Sea on the west. This route, of course, is the ancient coastal frankincense trail and thus would have presented no problems for city-bred travelers to follow.

Along this stretch of the coastal plain there is no opportunity for a caravan to go inland, since the chain of wells lies down the Red Sea coast. Along the entire coast we saw water wells that had been laboriously dug by hand and walled with stones. In terms of the accessibility of the water, desert tradition regards water as the gift of God to man, not something to be possessed and hoarded, but something to enjoy, rejoice in, and share freely with guests. Water is life in the desert; Lehi could not have traveled far without water for his family and animals to drink.

If we are correct in assuming that the growing seasons of those eight years were spent in raising crops, he must also have had to obtain access to irrigation water. We saw many ancient wells, springs, and cisterns on the route, flanked by modern drilled wells. The hard limestone well curbs on the old wells are usually deeply grooved where the ropes pulling up the skin buckets have rubbed their marks into the stone. Along the old trail in Saudi Arabia we saw primitive pulleys and scaffolds over some wells where donkeys had pulled to the top an endless succession of skin buckets overflowing with water. A wooden beam would tip the buckets upside-down where the water is channeled into a ditch. Then the donkey would back up, allowing the empty buckets to right themselves and return to the bottom of the well to be refilled. Gasoline engines now pump the water up thirty or forty feet to the surface. Sometimes we saw continuously flowing springs with the stream carefully trenched to best distribute the precious water. But never once did we see a freshwater source without people and animals in the vicinity.

Large-scale maps of the route that Lehi may have followed, drawn by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Natural Resources, show 118 old-type springs or wells over the entire distance. These maps distinguish between “dug” wells that date back, in some cases, for thousands of years and the “drilled” wells that have been brought into production within the past few decades. If we assume that the water available now from the old dug wells along the route is much the same as it was in Lehi’s time, we discover that the average distance between each of these water sources is eighteen miles, the longest waterless stretch being sixty-six miles. The map shows us two sections from Aqaba to Salalah where water is so scarce that travel would be difficult. The first is the journey from Jiddah, in Saudi Arabia, to Al Qunfudhah, which is close enough to the nineteenth parallel that it may have been Lehi’s camp Nahom, where Ishmael died. Here water was spaced out an average of twenty-four miles apart. The second sandy stretch appears on the eastward leg of the journey, running from Najran (near Nahom) in Saudi Arabia to Salalah in Oman, where water was found every twenty-six miles on the average. Interestingly enough, these two segments of the trip seem to have caused Lehi’s party the most suffering, according to Nephi’s account. (1 Ne. 16:20, 1 Ne. 17:1.)

At various times we lingered by several waterholes to observe the parade of Bedouin life that our friends tell us has not changed within the memory of man. The men lead up camels or sheep to drink. While one man draws the water from the well and pours it into the trough, another allows only one or two animals at a time to come drink. It requires real effort to quench a camel’s thirst after a dry spell. One camel can drink up to twenty-five gallons at a time. No doubt Lehi and his colony watered their animals in much the same way as these Bedouins we saw.

Other Hebrews in Arabia

History and tradition tell of other Jewish and Israelitish families who settled in the Arabian peninsula, all the way from the time of Moses to the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar. Sir Richard F. Burton, the famous nineteenth-century English explorer, reports a fascinating tradition of an Israelite army sent by Moses to purge Mecca and Medina of all their “infidel” inhabitants. They saved a young man of the royal family and some women and children. “When the army returned [to the children of Israel], they found that Moses had died during the expedition, and they were received with reproaches by the people for having violated his express command. The soldiers, unwilling to live … under this reproach, returned to Al-Hijaz and settled there.” (Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Amadinah and Meccah, New York: Dover Publications, 1964, 1:345.)

Numerous traditions account for the origins of these Jewish families. One is that some came during the reign of David, with many more coming during the reign of King Hezekiah. It is well known in Islamic circles that much of the population in the Hijaz (a state in northwest Arabia) was Jewish when Mohammed rose to power in the seventh century A.D. (Cecil Roth and Geoffrey Wigoder, The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia, Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1970, p. 136.) His first converts to Islam in Medina in A.D. 622 were former Jews who had written in their own traditions that “a prophet would preach in Medina in the last days.” When they heard Mohammed’s message, they accepted him as the promised prophet. (Burton, pp. 346, 352.)

Thus Lehi and his family were apparently only one of many Hebraic families living in the Hijaz. The great difference was that Lehi was being guided by the Lord to continue his journey, to build a ship, and to sail to a promised land. The others remained behind, eventually to be completely absorbed into the surrounding Arab culture. This historical awareness deepened our appreciation of the close ties between all the children of Abraham. The Arab people are not only cousins to Israelites but are, in fact, brothers; and many of them are descendants from Jews converted to Islam.

The Broken Bow

The Book of Mormon tells us that Nephi and his brothers killed wild animals with bows, arrows, slings, and stones. (1 Ne. 16:23.) A local guide told us that he shot gazelles by the hundreds when he was a young man, just because he was “trigger happy.” He reported that in the hills are wild asses, gazelles, oryx, ibex, reem, pigeons, grouse, partridge, wild cows, hares, and such domesticated animals as goats, horses, donkeys, camels, and dogs. Usually the dogs are swift greyhounds, trained to catch hare. Called salukis, they are popular among the nomads and almost every family has one. There are many other animals that Lehi’s party probably would not have considered eating but which formed part of the local fauna: wolves, jackals, owls, and snakes. Locusts, permissible under Jewish dietary customs (Lev. 11:21–22), are also found in the area. Bedouins consider them a delicacy and dry them and store them to eat year round; even the dogs enjoy them. The “locust season,” which comes only once in several years, is a kind of minor thanksgiving time for the desert dwellers. (William Tracy, “A Talk with Violet Dickson,” Aramco World Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1972, 23:17.)

It was while we were traveling along the coast of the Red Sea in the vicinity of modern Jiddah that we realized how Nephi’s steel bow might have broken and how the wooden bows of his brothers might have lost their springs. (For biblical references to steel bows see 2 Sam. 22:35, Ps. 18:34, Job 20:24.) The bow-breaking incident occurred after they had traveled “for the space of many days” (Nephi repeats that twice, both in 1 Ne. 16:15 and 1 Ne. 16:17) and had pitched camp to rest for a season. This would have been natural for a party traveling at a speed dictated by the presence of women and children. Since Nephi says that they again traveled “for the space of many days” (1 Ne. 16:33) to reach Nahom after leaving this camp of the broken bow, it may have been located half-way between Shazer and Nahom. This would locate the incident roughly in the vicinity of Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, where the weather is a merciless combination of heat, humidity, sand, and salt—a force strong enough to destroy steel! We were stunned to see holes that had rusted through car fenders in a few months’ time. Between March and November the heat is pitiless. Even in late January the temperature hovers around 85 degrees. Humidity averages about 60 percent year round, and in the moister part of a fifteen-year cycle the humidity rises to a year-long average of 92 percent. Unpainted metal simply cannot survive such conditions. We saw little metal used in either local building or the shipyards.

Could this have also happened to Nephi’s bow? Weakened by rust, it could have snapped in his hands when he drew it to its limits. The climate would also explain why his brothers’ bows lost their springs at or around the same time. If they were wooden bows, they would have remained tensile and strong in the dry area around Jerusalem; but several years in the humid climate along the Red Sea’s coastal plain would inevitably have caused them to absorb moisture until they became as limber as saplings. In fact, acquaintances of ours often reported similar experiences with some of their wood possessions.

This, then, was the problem facing Nephi, but he records that he found wood to build a new bow. (1 Ne. 16:23.) Our archaeologist friend Salim Saad enthusiastically pointed out that the pomegranate tree, which grows around Jiddah, would make a good bow. These trees grow throughout the Middle East, even in brackish water. Pomegranate is a relatively straight and close-grained fruitwood that is remarkably limber and tough.

As we traveled near Jiddah, suddenly, out of nowhere, a violent sandstorm assaulted the car, rocking it from side to side. Blowing sand pelted the car body and windshield with a ping like hail. The storm lasted about fifteen minutes, with visibility at zero. Driving was out of the question. We huddled humbly in the car, grateful for its protection. Salim Saad told us that this duststorm was typical; they are frequent and usually come up unexpectedly. Violet Dickson describes a sandstorm as looking like a brush fire. When Bedouins see that telltale sign, they rush to their tents and quickly take away the center poles, making the tents fall down on themselves and their families so that the storm can blow overhead without ripping the tents away from their moorings. (Tracy, p. 17.)

In Lehi’s time, Jiddah would probably have been only a tiny village; today it is a great city of half a million. However, Sheik Shakeeb Al-awami, in whose beautiful home we visited, told us that as recently as twenty-five years ago a letter was actually delivered in Jiddah addressed only “to the man with two trees.” Now, of course, there are many trees. Water has been piped in from the mountains many miles away. The coastal plain, the Tihama, spreads out here to its greatest width—about forty-eight miles wide. Through the haze, we could see mountains in the distance toward the east; but for the most part it is a perfectly flat and desolate plain. Today, there is a branch of about seventy-five members of the LDS Church in Jiddah, presided over by Las Vegas attorney DeVoe Heaton. He introduced us to some Arab business colleagues as “people from my tribe,” explaining, of course, that we were not blood kin. We felt increased appreciation for the brotherhood of the gospel and found it an excellent way to explain Latter-day Saint relationships.

President Heaton took us to a shipyard at Jiddah, where we saw men carving planks by hand, shaping the keel and bow with hand-operated drills, saws, adzes, and axes. We were successful in buying a hand-operated drill made of hardwood with a wrought-iron bit. It is rotated by a leather thong wrapped around it and attached to a bow. Although it looked primitive and awkward to our modern eyes, we saw it bore through hardwood planks three times in just seconds. We wondered about the wood for the ships and found that it had been imported from either East Africa or the Malabar coast of India, since there is no lumber industry in Arabia today.

In Yanbu, northward up the coast, we had been equally fascinated by the ancient-style saws used in another shipyard. The iron blade was stretched taut in a wooden frame, tightened by twisting a stick through a rope that connected the ends of the frame opposite from the blade. Again, despite its seeming primitiveness, it swished through thick planks with impressive ease.

We remembered Nephi’s explanation of his shipbuilding—that he “did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men.” (1 Ne. 18:2.) Apparently the shipyards on the coast had given him enough lessons that he knew, in following the Lord’s style of construction, that he was departing from “the manner of men.”

We marveled at the shipbuilders’ skill. When they shaped the ribs of their ship, they carefully chose a tree limb that bent naturally to the curve they wished and outlined the exact shape, chipping away with small hand-axes or adzes. They preserved the natural bends of the wood, using their feet and toes to hold the wood as they worked. As we gazed out at the Red Sea, we wished that Nephi had included a few more details. We wondered, for instance, what kinds of ships Nephi saw sailing the waters. Historians adequately document the shipping industry and ports strategically located around the entire coastline of Arabia. One ancient writer made a journey down Arabia’s western coast in a ship and left us a record, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, dated at A.D. 57, or about six hundred years after Lehi’s voyage. Its anonymous Greek author records visiting the village of Muza on the southeast end of the Red Sea, and comments, “The whole place is crowded with Arab shipowners and seafaring men, and is busy with the affairs of commerce.” (The Periplus, p. 30.)


Along the way, we accumulated more information about food. Desert-dwellers of antiquity apparently ate the same kind of food that modern Bedouins eat. In the Israel Museum we saw evidence of produce that was grown locally back to at least 1,000 B.C., including barley, wheat, garlic bulbs, date seeds, lentils, olives, nuts, and acorns. Obviously, all of these things would have been common staples in the time of Lehi. They are the staff of life not only now, but were in ancient times as well. Our Middle East historian friends consistently informed us that the major life-style of the desert has changed little over the centuries. All of the writers of antiquity who had first-hand experience with the Arabian peninsula describe a continuous succession of oases, villages, and drifting nomads all along the route Lehi would have taken.

While we were cataloging foodstuffs, we realized that we could not overlook the camel. To the desert-dweller, the camel is more than the “ship of the desert.” It represents a way of life, a special gift from God, an animal so important that over 700 Arabic names exist to describe the camel in its numerous varieties, breeds, conditions, and stages of growth. Camels have a life expectancy of forty to fifty years, and female camels will lactate as long as four years after giving birth. Bedouins can and do live for months and even years at a time with nothing but the camel’s milk and dates as the staples of their diet.

Camels in Arabia are not the two-humped Bactrian animals from Asia, but the single-humped dromedary. At first appearance, they seem strange, ill-tempered, and quarrelsome. They grunt and complain and will bite nearly anyone within reach, or spit their cuds. The milk of the camel is so precious a commodity that Bedouins allow the calf to suckle uninterruptedly for only about six weeks. Then they cover the mother’s udder with a leather bag and allow the calf to nurse only once or twice a day. The calf is soon weaned. (Thesiger, p. 231.)

Sheik Helwan Habtar of Abha, Saudi Arabia, explained that it takes about four camels to support one man on the desert; thus, if Lehi had tried to live exclusively from his camels’ products, he must have required a large herd to supply his group of at least twenty people. However, it is not likely that they followed this Bedouin practice completely, since they also hunted wild animals and probably cultivated crops at various stopping points.

Nephi’s mention of eating “raw meat” (1 Ne. 17:2) intrigued—and repelled—us, so we were surprised to find ourselves eating it in Cairo when our friend Angie Chukri served us this local delicacy. It was not dripping with blood as we had imagined it, but spicy with garlic and other flavorings. It had been allowed to dry in the sun until it was dark brown on the outside. But it was pinkish-red on the inside and soft to chew, not tough like jerky. Garlic was the dominant flavor, of course, but it left a sweet taste that changed our impression of the hardship of eating raw meat. Later we saw raw meat for sale in Egyptian, Jordanian, and Saudi Arabian markets; it was formed in large loaves like bologna and spiced much like the pieces served us by Angie. Of special interest to us was the name the Arabs gave it—basterma, meaning “raw meat”—suggesting that Nephi’s terminology was not merely descriptive but the proper name. Was this process, or something similar, the method the Lord showed Nephi to make their food “sweet” so that they would not need a fire in the perilous passage overland from the Red Sea coast to Bountiful?


Nephi reports that the Lehi colony continued southward near the Red Sea, eventually pitching their tents in a “place which was called Nahom.” (1 Ne. 16:34.) When the colony moved again, “we did … take our journey in the wilderness … nearly eastward from that time forth.” (1 Ne. 17:1.) The frankincense trail turns east at the nineteenth parallel; it is there that Nahom may have been located.

The modern village that is located near the nineteenth parallel is Al Qunfudhah in Saudi Arabia. We had special interest, of course, in observing their funeral practices and burial customs, for it was near here that Ishmael may have been buried. The Bedouin women express their grief in a high-pitched wail, drumming their fingers back and forth on their lips. When a whole group of women are thus engaged in zaghreed, as it is called, the peculiar sound can be heard for a great distance.

The Archaeological Museum at Amman, Jordan, housed examples of huge clay-pottery, anthropoid coffins in which ancient Semites buried their dead. This custom, dating from the Iron Age, was practiced between 900 and 500 B.C. Each ceramic sarcophagus, big enough to contain a man’s body, has a face, eyes, nose, mouth, beard, and long arms molded into the clay surface before it is fired, so that it looks much like an Egyptian wooden mummy case.

Of course, we have no information on Ishmael’s burial, but a photograph developed after our return shed an interesting light on our suppositions. On the barren hills thirty miles outside Al Qunfudhah, we took some photographs to show representative landscapes. Some ruins on one of the hills across from us provided a natural target for the camera. When we developed these particular slides and examined them under the enlarger, we found that they were not ruins, but regular rows of graves, their edges outlined with stones in Semite custom. We were about thirty miles from any village, in a desolate area. No doubt these graves were from more recent centuries, but their existence so far from civilization was another indication that rituals of burial were still maintained as they had been many centuries earlier.

If you turn east from this possible site of Nahom, the shore of the Red Sea ends in one high, rugged mountain range after another, jutting up from the sea to a height of about 10,000 feet. One of the ancient frankincense trails leaves the seacoast at approximately this same point and winds east through Wadi Ababish (see illustration 2), over the crest of the mountains to the village of Suda, joining the other trails at the caravan city of Abha, which is now a regional capital in Saudi Arabia perched 6,000 feet high. It is an inspiring sight to see the mountains drop away in a cascade of stones and wadis clear to the sea. We saw eagles and buzzards wheeling and soaring in the gusty winds that blew over this high mountain plateau.

The terrain also convinced us that Lehi might indeed have turned east near this point; the lack of other trails practically guaranteed it. The weathered carvings on the exposed rocks testified again that caravaneers for hundreds of years had passed this way. Strings of surefooted donkeys were at that moment climbing the trail before our eyes, and the local Bedouins described for us the recurring sight of great camel caravans, loaded with bags of charcoal, coming up from the seacoast village of Jizan to the weekly market at Abha.

Our guide, Abdel Rahman, a forty-one-year-old Moslem farmer with three wives, took us over the old road in a lumbering truck past hills wooded with small scrub cedar trees. We could see that the mountainsides had been terraced to catch the sparse rainwater; more rain falls here than anywhere else in Saudi Arabia, but there’s still none to spare.

As we traveled up the mountainside, the time came at which all orthodox Moslems pray, a custom observed since the local Bedouins were converted to Islam thirteen centuries ago. Five times daily, the muezzin (caller) repeats each line and, lingering over the music of the words, cries out:

“God is most great.
I testify that there is no god but God.
I testify that Muhammad is the Prophet of God.
Come to prayer!
Come to salvation!
Prayer is better than sleep.
God is most great.
There is no god but God.”

(Thesiger, p. 54.)

Our driver and his accompanying friend invited us to join them in prayer; we asked if it would be proper for us to repeat a Christian prayer and they willingly assented. We stood in a line facing Mecca; they knelt down, touching their foreheads to the ground. Then they arose and began again, repeating it a second and a third time. They were very sincere and solemn in their devotions. With all our heart, we petitioned the Lord for continued success in our quest and expressed our gratitude for the assistance we had received from such people as these. And at least part of their prayer we could join reverently. In great phrases that rolled like poetry, they prayed: “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Praise be to god, Lord of the worlds!” (Thesiger, p. 55.)

At Abha we met an extraordinary man at precisely the time we needed him. Helwan Habtar, a graduate of American schools with masters degrees in both political science and economics, took us to his home where he recited for us his family genealogy back twenty-two generations. Intrigued, three other men who had come by for the evening also recited their genealogies back as far as thirteen generations. They were delighted that we would make tape recordings of them.

We were fortunate to be in Abha on a Tuesday, market day for so many hundreds of years that Mr. Habtar could not tell us when the custom began. There is a market for honey, one for frankincense, others for myrrh, fruits, vegetables, cloth, clothing, donkeys, sheep, and camels.

The Bedouins came walking into town from all directions before sunrise. The women were dressed in bright material, their heads covered with black shawls and their faces hidden behind gauzy black veils. This covering prevents “strange men” from seeing a woman’s face after she is married, although the veil does not obstruct the woman’s eyesight. We purchased a veil for Hope, and the Bedouin women laughed and nodded in approval.

Squatting on the ground Indian-fashion, each woman displayed her wares in front of her—gold and silver jewelry, vegetables, fruit, and fabric. Our attention centered first on those selling frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense comes in golden lumps about as big as the end of a finger while myrrh is reddish-brown and comes in rock-shaped chunks or as grated shavings. The frankincense was relatively inexpensive (a couple of dollars a pound), but myrrh is still costly because it is used for “medicinal” purposes: every newborn baby is given a taste of myrrh in water to warn him of life’s bitterness; burning myrrh in a censer near a child’s sickbed is supposed to guarantee a quick recovery. A forty-five-year-old Arab in Jerusalem related how his mother had made him jump over a dish of burning myrrh in Jack-be-nimble fashion when he was sick as a child. Now we understood one possible reason why the Wise Men brought myrrh to the baby Jesus: it was to help Mary keep him well.

The biggest surprise in the market was a group of women selling woven baskets and hemp hats which looked as if they had been imported from Mexico. The shape of the hats and the baskets colored with bright blue, red, and purple dyes made us wonder if American Indians had been to Abha. Our friend and guide, Sheik Habtar, told us that when he was going to college in the United States, he drove through many of the western states and felt corresponding astonishment at the sombreros and baskets he saw in the Southwest. The story of Lehi’s group coming slowly through these areas (eight years) and taking much with them to the promised land was, he said, the first logical explanation that he had heard for the resemblances. He mentioned that one particular tribe of Bedouins came to Abha weekly from the west, down by the Red Sea, over the frankincense trail, the very way Lehi and his family likely crossed in order to reach the Abha plateau.

However, there is at least one thing that has changed since Lehi’s time: the barter system has given way to purchase with coined money, Saudi ryals. We bought a kilo of frankincense, a tangy gum that leaves a soapy taste in your mouth when you chew it, and some bitter myrrh. The piles of vegetables and goods reminded us of descriptions by the author of The Periplus and by Strabo, both of whom wrote within a century of Christ’s birth. They told of the markets, merchants, and hucksters in seaport towns all the way down the coast. (See The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, pp. 22–54; and Strabo, Geography, 7:353–63.)

We were now in the country described by Strabo, who drew on the firsthand accounts of Aelius Gallus, Prefect of Egypt, who was sent by Augustus Caesar in 24 B.C. to capture the incense country. Gallus left Egypt with 10,000 soldiers, made ships on the west shore of the Red Sea, and crossed over to Leucê Comê, present-day Umm Lajj (see illustration 5), where he intersected the frankincense trails. He was furious to discover that he had wasted his labor in building ships when he could easily have gone around the head of the Red Sea and down the established trail. A supposed ally treacherously told him “that there was no way for an army to go to Leucê Comê by land”; yet Gallus learned that “camel-traders travel back and forth from Petra to this place [Leucê Comê] in safety and ease, and in such numbers of men and camels that they differ in no respect from an army.” (Strabo, 7:357.)

Gallus started his march southward along the seacoast. They had to carry water by camels, and the country began to take its toll: Hunger, disease, and fatigue decimated the army. Gallus captured Negrani (Najran), a neighboring city to Abha, and went into Yemen where he beseiged Marsiaba (Marib), the capital. The lack of water and his army’s increasing weakness persuaded him to lift the siege and retreat. It had taken him six months to come down the peninsula. They were back at Leucê Comê in two months.

Strabo reports that the rocky shore of the Red Sea was completely desolate and that the local Arabs “are not very good warriors even on land, rather being hucksters and merchants, to say nothing of fighting by sea.” (Strabo, 7:355.) But Gallus built not less than “one hundred and thirty vessels of burden.” (Strabo, 7:357.)

Very few of his 10,000 men survived the long march, although only seven men perished in actual combat. The majority died “from sickness and fatigue and hunger” (Strabo, 7:363) on the trail south of Leucê Comê, complicated by the treachery of their Nabatean “ally.” This account gives us an understanding of what conditions were like along Lehi’s route 500 years after his journey; it clearly suggests that parts of the frankincense trail were deadly to inexperienced travelers, and that the trail had enough traffic that some thought it could accommodate an army of 10,000.

As we have discussed earlier (see Ensign, Sept. 1976, p. 52), Lehi bypassed Yemen and the Hadhramaut Valley, which were then and still are densely populated regions. The Mineaens, as nearly as we can determine, were the first to establish a kingdom there—in 1200 B.C. The Sabaeans who succeeded them were ruling in the days of Lehi.

There is other evidence to indicate that Lehi did not travel through Yemen and the Hadhramaut. Nephi records that during this part of the journey, they ate raw meat, built no fires, “waded” through “much affliction,” and finally arrived at a fertile land on the seacoast. (See 1 Ne. 17:1–5.) Had they traveled along the main frankincense trail that turns and goes further south through Yemen, they would have gone through fertile country much of the time.

Instead, Lehi and his party turned nearly eastward (see Ensign, Sept. 1976, pp. 52–54) along a shorter but more difficult part of the frankincense trail that skirted the very fringe of the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert on earth. Stretching north and east of Najran, the Empty Quarter had never been crossed by western man until Bertram Thomas succeeded in 1928. The frankincense trail runs along its southern border. We flew, not drove, over part of this area. It was a rocky moonscape, barren and treeless except for an occasional bunch of grass or a small shrub. Broken rocks fissured by earthquakes and erosion covered the wadi-raked landscape. We must have been following a thunderstorm, for there was water standing or running in many of the wadis.

But even this portion of the frankincense trail was marked with desert graffiti like that found along the seacoast route from Petra to Najran and beyond. Helwan Habtar drove us far into the desert near Abha where he had explored as a boy and found petroglyphs and names in undecipherable Thamudic, Nabatean, and even Greek carved into the rocks.


We were greatly blessed in our effort to obtain visas into Salalah in Dhofar. (See illustration 7.) Our request for visas made months before in the United States had been politely but firmly refused; Dhofar was disputed territory between Oman and Yemen and not a safe place for tourists. When we reached Muscat, Oman, we called on the Minister of Information, a young man, fluent in English, and explained that we had come all the way from America to see the big trees at Salalah because we had an ancient book that reported a Semite family’s building a ship, perhaps from those trees, to sail to America where their descendants became the American Indians. He was astonished.

“Salalah is my home and there are large trees there, but I have never heard this story.” He agreed to give us passes into the war zone if we would bring letters of introduction from the U.S. Embassy in Muscat. We acquired the desired letter of introduction. Because of the tense military situation, we were asked to fly down one day and return the next. We were naturally disappointed to have only twenty-four hours in Salalah, but we agreed cheerfully. We discovered later that on the day before our arrival at Muscat, the commander of the rebel forces had surrendered to the Sultan of Oman, ending thirteen years of hostilities. Thus, two days after our arrival in Oman, the Minister of Information was willing to issue a pass into the war zone.

“We were exceedingly rejoiced when we came to the seashore,” said Nephi. “We called [the land] Bountiful, because of its much fruit and also wild honey [which] were prepared of the Lord that we might not perish. And we beheld the sea, which we called Irreantum, which, being interpreted, is many waters.

“And it came to pass that we did pitch our tents by the seashore.” (1 Ne. 17:5–6.)

Nephi rejoiced to arrive in Bountiful; we rejoiced to arrive in Salalah. All of our research before we left the United States had led us to the conclusion that this little land, the one spot on the entire 1,400-mile southern coastline with enough moisture to grow any kind of tree, was indeed the ancient Bountiful of Nephi’s account. (See illustration 10.) We felt all the impact of that old story—never so alive as now—as we walked on the beach where Nephi may have explained Old Testament scriptures to his brothers, relating miracles that had brought the children of Israel out of Egypt; where Nephi may have testified of his faith in the miracles that the Lord would perform to lead them, as descendants of Moses’ people, across the sea to the Promised Land. (1 Ne. 17:23–32, 49–51.)

SALALAH, OMAN (probable Bountiful)(click to view larger)

Illustration 10 SALALAH, OMAN (probable Bountiful)

The old frankincense road comes through the sand and gravel plain, over the Qara Mountains to the north, and down to the moon-shaped coastal plain of Salalah which is seven miles deep at its greatest width. The Qara Mountains encircle this little plain, their southern slopes covered with vegetation watered by the monsoons which touch this place and no other on the entire southern coast of the Arabian peninsula.

Several wadis empty into the coastal plain. Ein Arzat, an ample spring, would have been a logical place for the two-to-three-year encampment that would have allowed the little colony time to prepare provisions and build a ship. Had Lehi chosen, he could have used spring water to irrigate crops; and, since Nephi specifically mentions “much fruits” and “seeds” among their provisions, they must have acquired them in Bountiful. (1 Ne. 18:6.)

Of course, if our conclusion that Salalah is Bountiful is correct, Lehi’s colony was not alone there. This was the end of the frankincense trail where the frankincense trees grew, so there would also have been farmers, merchants, inns, businesses, etc. In addition to the trail caravaneers, there would have been sailors and ships, for Salalah was also a port. It is believed that boats from the west, north, and east—even from Judea—sailed into this busy little port.

North of the Qara Mountains, not on the well-watered southern slopes, extend vast fields of frankincense trees. The actual coastal plain of Salalah has lush vegetation wherever water comes from the several wadis, but otherwise it is as barren as most places in the American Southwest. The slopes of the mountains were entirely covered with waist-high grass and clumps of the great jumaise-sycamore fig trees. Our rifle-toting guide assured us that during the monsoon season the valleys are filled with mist and rain and the vegetation becomes luxuriantly tropical. Wild flowers and equally wild honeybees pursue their mutual duties over the hills. We saw honeycombs stacked almost carelessly in hollow trees.

An interesting confirmation that the weather has not changed much over the past 2,000 years in Dhofar comes from the writer of the Periplus, who said: “The Frankincense Country [(Dhofar) is] mountainous and forbidding, wrapped in thick clouds and fog, and yielding frankincense from the trees.” (The Periplus, p. 33.) Other explorers who had preceded us found similar conditions: Bertram Thomas in the 1920s described the “thickly wooded wadis” (Arabia Felix, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932, p. 100) and Wilfred Thesiger described “jungle trees … and on the downs great fig-trees [which] rise above the wind-rippled grass like oaks in an English park.” (Thesiger, p. 47.)

We were puzzled by his calling them fig trees, because fig trees are relatively small and are an extremely soft wood—not suitable at all for shipbuilding. As we walked the hills ourselves, we saw that they were not fig trees but jumaise, or sycamore-figs, a hardwood that produces a sweet fruit. Some of the trees were so large that we could not encircle them with our arms, and most of them reach a height of fifty feet. The wood is very strong, resilient to seawater, and almost free from knots. The jumaise lumber is used for ships to this very day.

If Salalah is indeed Bountiful, Nephi was not exaggerating when he called the land Bountiful because of its fruitfulness. It springs to life at the touch of water, and the local farmers assured us that they make ten cuttings of alfalfa a year. We saw a whole potential market of fruits growing—citrons, limes, oranges, dates, bananas, grapes, apricots, coconuts, figs, and melons—and a profusion of wild flowers. White jasmine hung in garlands from the trees; we smelled flowers on the breeze. Cattle grazed on the mountains. In well-irrigated spots, the grass was above our heads—over six-feet tall.

If this place were to qualify as Bountiful, one of the additional features it would need would be cliffs, from which Nephi’s older brothers could have threatened to throw him “into the depths of the sea” (1 Ne. 17:48), an act you can hardly perform from a sandy beach. To the east, the shore curves away as far as you can see, but to the west, the Salalah beach terminates abruptly in magnificent cliffs that plummet about 100 feet straight into the sea. We climbed to the top by an easy route and there found fortifications for a gun emplacement. The view straight down to the churning waves edged us nervously back. Our minds were thundering with the question, could Nephi have been threatened by his brothers on this spot or one like it nearby?

Our questions about the seeds, fruit, wild honey, cliffs, and trees suitable for shipbuilding were thus satisfied, but one major question remained unsettled: where might Nephi have gone to find ore to make his tools? Conscious of our approaching deadline to leave Salalah, we had no time to ramble through the mountains; but local people told us of an iron mine in a neighboring province. Even if there had been nothing nearer in Nephi’s time, he would have been able to make the ten-day journey to Jabal Al Akhdar to obtain ore there. However, we felt that Nephi had probably found his own source under the inspiration of the Lord, rather than going to a working mine, for he states that he made fire by striking two stones together and that he had to make his own bellows of skins to blow the fire. (1 Ne. 17:10–11.) Surely he would not have needed to improvise such basic equipment if the local people had an iron industry. We speculated on what he must have learned in the villages back along the seacoast and from the iron industry that was in full-swing at Aqaba when he passed through years earlier. We could not question that ironworking was a known skill to Nephi’s contemporaries. Isaiah 54:16 describes how the smith made steel from iron ore by using a charcoal fire. [Isa. 54:16] Adam’s grandson, Tubal Cain, was the first metalworker, recorded at the very dawn of earth’s history. (Gen. 4:22.) Six references in the Book of Mormon establish that the Nephites in America used iron and steel. (See 2 Ne. 5:15; Jarom 1:8; Mosiah 11:3, 8; Ether 7:9, Ether 10:23.) No doubt Nephi passed these useful skills on to his children and grandchildren.

We indulged in a few moments of reverie, imagining the ship that Nephi might have built. Accustomed to industrial methods as we were, we had been surprised repeatedly by the traditions of craftsmanship we met as we came down the coast, each generation inheriting the knowledge of the previous generations. In Yanbu, Saudi Arabia, we asked one shipbuilder where his plans were; he pointed to his head. (For an account of a similar incident, see Clifford W. Hawkins, “Ghost Ships in the Gulf,” Aramco World Magazine, Mar.-Apr. 1974, 25:29.) In his mind were plans sufficiently detailed for him to lay out the dimensions of the ship he was building, to fasten ribs to keel, and to join planks to ribs without reference to any written diagram.

We noticed two basic patterns of shipbuilding in the shipyards we visited in Jiddah and Salalah. In each case, the builder laid the keel and fastened the ribs to the keel. The ribs were always made out of tree limbs whose curve provided the desired angle for the ribs. Planks were fastened to the skeleton either by nailing or by “sewing.” In the first method, the builder drilled through the plank and rib with an iron-tipped hand-drill. Through the hole, he drove a large iron spike with oiled hemp packing wrapped around the shaft under the large head. The spike was then bent over on the inside to cinch the nail in place.

In the “sewing” method, the builder drilled a series of holes wherever the planks were joined together, then lashed them tightly together with hemp rope and waterproofed it. The planks were lashed to the ribs in much the same way. We were intrigued that this method of shipbuilding was used only in Yemen and in Oman and apparently dates far back in antiquity. The nailing method was used in Yanbu and Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.

Of course, Nephi did not build the ship “after the manner of men” but “after the manner which the Lord had shown unto” him. (1 Ne. 18:2.) This examination of ancient shipbuilding serves only to illustrate that for Nephi to have been acquainted with construction techniques was not extraordinary or unlikely. He built in an area where shipbuilding was known. Indeed, even though Nephi’s ship was not “after the manner of men,” Nephi likely used a number of the methods and elements of design or appearance that were known to the people of his time.

Nephi could have cut down his own and dragged them to the sandy beach using camel power; or he could have purchased dressed lumber from the local people. He does not tell us how he got his timbers, but he does comment that the completed ship “was good, and that the workmanship thereof was exceeding fine.” (1 Ne. 18:4.)

We estimated that, with the birth of children, Lehi’s colony may have numbered minimally forty-nine people at the time of embarkation, seventeen adults and thirty-two children, estimating an average of four children from seven of the marriages in eight years, plus two more sons (Joseph and Jacob) born to Lehi and Sariah, plus children the two sons of Ishmael had prior to their departure from Jerusalem. (1 Ne. 7:6.) And, of course, the families may have had more children than this, even up to a group of sixty-five or so. To accommodate a group of this size, we figured that a ship would have to be at least sixty feet long. We saw several vessels of this same size being built by hand and without written plans in the shipyards we visited. In addition to the people, the ship would also need to carry enough fruit, meat, honey, provisions, seeds, tents, and personal items to supply the colony. (1 Ne. 18:6.) A sixty-foot-long ship would not have been excessively large; many of the dhows now sailing the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea are as large as 180 feet, all handmade. No doubt Nephi’s ship had a wide deck, since we are informed that the brothers and their wives made merry on the ship with their rude singing and dancing. (1 Ne. 18:9.) Dancing would have been impossible if the ship had only ribs and planking. Nephi’s ship probably had sails and a rudder or some other way to steer it, because Nephi says he “did guide the ship.” (1 Ne. 18:22.)

We asked a shipwright how many working days would be required to build a sixty-foot-long vessel. He estimated that the thirty-five men working in his shipyard could do it in forty-five days, or a total of 1,575 mandays. Nephi, at least part of the time, had the labor of eight men in his father’s colony, and possibly some of the children—particularly those of Ishmael’s married sons who were likely in their early teens. Working together, they could perhaps have built such a ship in approximately 197 working days. Of course, if the ship were bigger, and it could well have been, more time would have been needed. Nonworking days would include Sabbath days, Jewish festival days, and the days that Nephi worked alone before the others started to help him. It is thus easy to see that it may have taken a minimum of ten to twelve months to build the ship. Assuming that all the men could not be working on the boat all of the time—because of sickness, family concerns, hunting, planting, harvesting, etc.—a more likely time span for building the ship would be well over a year. In addition, since Nephi also had to smelt the iron, make the tools, and probably cut and dress his own lumber, it is likely that the shipbuilding project easily occupied more than two years.

Truly it was a miracle for Nephi, probably born and raised at Jerusalem, to construct a ship that would take so many people safely on such a long voyage. His nation had experimented with a navy during the time of Solomon, but Hiram of Tyre had provided the experienced seamen. (1 Kgs. 9:26–27.) Judges 5:17 alludes to some seagoing experience of the tribes of Dan and Asher, but the Phoenicians and Philistines held most of the seacoast—naturally curtailing Hebrew experience. [Judg. 5:17] When King Jehoshaphat of Judah attempted to revive the shipping industry at Aqaba, seventy years after Solomon, the ships were destroyed before they could even set sail. (2 Chr. 20:35–36; 1 Kgs. 22:48–49.) The Hebrews were very limited in their understanding of the sea.

While in Salalah we also confirmed the very important fact that the monsoons, which fill the Qara Mountains with life-giving moisture during the summer, also provide Salalah with a trading route. As shipping records clearly indicate, from October to May the trade winds come from the northeast; from June to September, the winds come from the southwest. (See illustration 11.)

Ancient Arab Sea Route and Possible Route of Nephi’s Ship(click to view larger)

Illustration 11 Ancient Arab Sea Route and Possible Route of Nephi’s Ship

Ships had existed for centuries before Lehi along the coast of southern Arabia, and it is indisputable that Arabians had explored for hundreds of miles along the coastline. But the first record we were able to find of anyone sailing on the open sea is from the first century A.D., when a Roman navigator, Hippalus, learned of the seasonal winds from the Arabs and opened a new trade route across the open sea between the Red Sea and India. (“Geography: Romans,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1971, 10:146.) “It was a sensational discovery and soon the peoples of the area were voyaging down the Arabian coast, through the Straits of Hormuz, across the Indian Ocean, along the Hadhramaut, up into the Red Sea or down the coast of East Africa” on the strength of these steady winds. (“Ghost Ships,” p. 26: see also Oman in Colour, England: Ministry of Information and Tourism, Sultanate of Oman, 1974, p. iv.)

By the sixth century A.D., Arab entrepreneurs were sailing their dhows all the way from the Arabian peninsula to China. Arab ships rode the monsoons to the Malabar coast of India, then on to Ceylon in time to catch the summer monsoon (June to September) and speed across the often treacherous Bay of Bengali, past the Nicobar Islands, through the Malacca Straits, and into the South China Sea. (See illustration 11.) From here they were able to make a quick, if risky, thirty-day run up to the main trading station at Canton in China. The trip from the Arabian peninsula to China took approximately 120 days of straight sailing, or six months counting provisioning stops along the way. (Nancy Jenkins, “The China Trade,” Aramco World Magazine, July-Aug. 1975, 26:24, 26–27.)

Once they emerged from the Malacca Straits, the dhows would sometimes be blown completely off course and would end up in the Pacific “where, the Chinese believed, the drain spout of the world’s ocean sucked the unwary sailor into oblivion.” (“The China Trade,” p. 27.)

All of these records date from at least five hundred years after Lehi’s party left Arabia; but the existence of coastal shipping and the monsoons may have been the combination of events that enabled Nephi, inspired of the Lord, to push off into the deep, charting a course that may not have been followed again until five centuries had elapsed. And if it took later sailors 120 days to Sail from Arabia to China, it would probably have taken Nephi a year to fifteen months to cover the three-times longer distance between Arabia and America. That voyage is a great testament of faith and courage, and a great tribute to Nephi’s ship. What a story remains to be told!


On the coast of Salalah, we believe that we found the end of Lehi’s route from Jerusalem to Bountiful. We discovered no contradictions, no absurdities in the record that Nephi had left behind him. Nothing that we discovered in the volumes on geography and history contradicted that ancient prophet. On the contrary, corroboration of Nephi’s account came from dozens of sources, showing that only someone who had been there in person and had experienced the rigors of the trip could have given the amazing details that, even 2,600 years later, seemed to harmonize with what we saw.

Although they are by nature tentative and only highly probable, here are a few of our conclusions.

1. The Arabian peninsula, through which Lehi’s route in 600 B.C. went, was not an unpopulated wilderness but a land where many people had worked out a precise and precarious relationship to their water-poor land.

2. Frankincense produced in Salalah, Oman, on the Arabian Sea since at least 1,500 B.C. was in such demand in the ancient world that tremendous trade routes had been established. The constant travel of men, camels, news, and wealth kept the Arabian peninsula from being isolated from the rest of the Middle East.

3. Thousands of people made nearly the same journey to Salalah as Lehi probably made. Their experiences recorded in ancient documents and in the less comprehensible evidence of pictographs, hand-dug wells, and well-preserved traditions confirm that the trip was not an easy one. The protection of the Lord was a necessary element in the success of Lehi’s little colony.

4. We felt that we had found reasonable evidence for suggesting Wadi El Afal in Saudi Arabia as the valley of Lemuel, and Salalah in Oman as Bountiful.

5. The weather and geography have changed little, if any, since Lehi’s day.

6. Lehi very likely adopted the life-style of the nomadic Arabian tribes for the years of his Arabian journey, including the custom of living in tents and the methods of finding water, food, and transportation.

7. Some North and South American Indian art forms likely originated among the Semitic peoples of Arabia; or possibly both cultures derived their art forms from some common source.

8. Nephi was probably exposed to both iron-making and shipbuilding while traveling southward.

9. There is much yet to be learned from the accumulated records and traditions of the Arabs that Latter-day Saints will find helpful.

Through our experience, we felt, as never before, the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon account. We felt the Lord’s protection and guidance in our travels and look forward with faith and excitement to future discoveries that will testify to Joseph Smith’s great work.

MONSOONS (In the eighth century A.D., under Caliph Mausur, Arab dhows rode the monsoons from Basra, Iraq, across the Indian Ocean to the Malacca Straits, then up to Canton, China, in 120 days sailing time. They left in June when the western winds came in. Nephi’s trip to America was three times the distance of the Basra-Canton trip; hence Nephi’s trip from Bountiful to America could have taken as much as a year.)

[photos] Photography by Gerald W. Silver

[photo] Looking south across the Gulf of Aqaba, we see the mountains of Saudi Arabia behind the merchant ships. When Lehi left Jerusalem he probably came through Aqaba and saw this arm of the Red Sea.

[photo] Nuts, grains, beans, and condiments for sale in a Jerusalem market. Though many things have changed in the Middle East since Lehi’s time, most basic food products today are the ones Lehi’s family would have used.

[photo] This Arab merchant stores honey in a goatskin bag. Goatskin bags have been used for thousands of years, not only for honey, but also for grain, water, frankincense, and many other things.

[photo] This goatskin bellows is said to be hundreds of years old. When Nephi made “a bellows wherewith to blow the fire, of the skins of beasts” (1 Ne. 17:11), it may well have looked like this.

[illustration] Illustration 8: Appearance of Lehi’s Neighbors. This stone relief from the Palace of Sennacherib in ancient Nineveh illustrates the 701 B.C. (probable date) Assyrian capture of the city of Lachish in Judah. The Assyrian soldier is taking two Jewish men captive: the common one-piece seamless garment, the haircut, and the beard style of the captives are clearly shown. We can obtain clues to Lehi’s appearance from this relief because he was a near neighbor to these men in time (within a century) and distance (Lachish is twenty-five miles from Jerusalem). (Photo by Israel Museum at Jerusalem.)

[photos] Top: When he left Aqaba, Lehi probably traveled up the Wadi Umm Jurfayn. Because there is no other practical route south into Arabia, the present-day highway also comes this way. The sea in the distance is the Gulf of Aqaba, probably the “fountain of the Red Sea.” (1 Ne. 2:9.) Bottom: The head of the Wadi Umm Jurfayn joins the head of another, longer wadi—the Wadi El Afal. Not far from here Lehi probably turned south and followed the Wadi El Afal to the Red Sea itself.

[photos] Top: The Wadi El Afal, which may well have been the “Valley of Lemuel” (see 1 Ne. 2:10), descends gradually for 100 miles from the summit to the sea. The smooth, gentle grade is ideal for travel by camel. Bottom: Closer to the Red Sea, the Wadi El Afal is flanked by high and rugged cliffs. It might have been just such a mountain where Nephi “was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord.” (1 Ne. 11:1.)

[photo] One of the many oases on the ancient frankincense trail along the west coast of Arabia. No traveler can survive long in this country without water; Lehi undoubtedly stopped at many such oases during his journey.

[photos] Top: A Bedouin tent. A cloth partition separates the men’s section from the women’s. The tent’s fabric, handwoven from black goat hair, is as heavy as carpet. Bottom: An elaborately decorated panel in a funeral tent in Cairo, Egypt. Such tents may have been used since ancient times.

[photos] Top: The Saudi Arabian seaport of Yanbu has long been a center of water traffic on the Red Sea. Arab dhows like this may have become familiar sights to Nephi, so that when he built a ship he knew it was not “after the manner of men.” (1 Ne. 18:2.) Bottom: The modern highway, like the ancient trail, winds beside the mountains near the Red Sea. This bleak country near Jiddah has changed little since Lehi passed through this area.

[photos] Left: Here in the Abha area, where Lehi probably turned eastward, the traveler encounters high mountains like these—difficult country that could have caused “much affliction in the wilderness.” (1 Ne. 17:1.) This narrow wadi is one of the ancient trails winding up from the Red Sea to the Abha Plateau. Right: Arab dress and Bedouin way of life have changed little in the last two thousand years. The authors were struck by the similarity of Arab attire to the costume of some Mexican and South American Indians.

[photos] Left: This market in the village of Abha has been held for thousands of years. If Lehi passed through here on his trek east, he would have seen much the same things being sold. The authors sensed a similarity between these Arab wares and their Mexican counterparts. Right: “Abou ben Kilroy was here.” Graffiti mark many rocks on the old frankincense trail. This pastime of tired camel drivers over the centuries left a clear trail that has helped modern archaeologists trace the ancient trade routes.

[photos] Top: The vast Empty Quarter is the most desolate, hostile region of the Arabian peninsula. Today a hiding place for guerrillas in the Yemeni civil war, in Lehi’s time it was probably infested with robbers, which may explain why Lehi’s party could not light fires to cook their meat when they passed by here. (1 Ne. 17:2.) Bottom: A stone-lined well in Saudi Arabia. Water is the basic element of desert life: where water is, people settle. Where it is not, settlement is impossible and travel is dangerous. Bedouins move from well to well, as Lehi probably did.

[photos] Top: The shipyards at Jiddah. This large dhow is being built of planks fastened to wooden ribs. Only hand tools are used, and the shipwright carries the blueprints in his head. Ships this size made historic voyages to China, Zanzibar, and India. Lower Left: Boats or dhows have been built like this at Salalah for centuries; hand-lashed construction holds up very well, even on the open sea. In most other parts of Arabia, however, iron nails are used. Lower Right: Unlike the hemp rope lashings of Salalah boats, ordinary Arab dhows are built with nails, like this one. Nephi’s boat was not built “after the manner of men.” Did he mean, perhaps, that he used no metal in the construction of the ship? Do Salalah’s shipbuilders owe their unique methods to the Lord’s revelations to Nephi? We do not know. (See 1 Ne. 18:1–4.)

[photos] Top: Tools of an Arab shipbuilder. The hammer is modern, but the drill is of an ancient pattern. The string of the bow is looped around the wooden handle of the drill. Then the bow is pulled, turning the metal bit rapidly. Such hand drills can cut holes accurately from one-eighth inch to one inch in diameter. Lower Left: Small boats drawn up on the beach at Salalah. The authors think that this is the beach where Nephi built his boat and launched it into the Arabian Sea. Lower Right: The shipwright is shaping lumber with an adz, a rough but widely used carpentry tool in ancient times. An adz probably was one of the tools Nephi forged to “work the timbers of the ship.” (1 Ne. 18:1; see also 1 Ne. 17:16.)

[photos] Top: Along the entire south coast of Arabia, only Salalah receives the heavy monsoon rains, allowing palm trees and other tropical vegetation to grow thickly to the height of these palms. Bottom: The middle-eastern sycamore tree is not the spreading deciduous tree found in Europe and America. Instead it is a hardy fig-bearing tree like this one, able to survive and bear fruit with limited water and a great deal of sun and heat.

[photos] Top: Bees are plentiful at Salalah, often making hives in the hollow ends of sawed-off date palm trees. Nephi wrote that Lehi’s group named their last stop in Arabia “Bountiful” because of its “much fruit and wild honey.” (1 Ne. 17:5.) Bottom: Myrrh—the large dark object—is the dried gum of the myrrh tree, and the lighter-colored frankincense is the gum of the frankincense tree. For millennia, both were burned as incense in temples throughout the Middle East, including the Israelite temple at Jerusalem.

[photo] The cliffs at the western end of the bay of Salalah overlook the sea. This may be where Nephi’s brothers thought to throw him “into the depths of the sea.” (1 Ne. 17:48.) And it was probably from this bay that Lehi’s party set sail for the promised land.