Book of Mormon/Geography/Old World

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    Book of Mormon Old World Geography

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A discussion of the Arabian, or Old World, geography of the Book of Mormon enjoys many advantages over discussion of New World matters. Chief among these is the fact that we know we certainty where the story begins—in Old World Jerusalem.

The details of Lehi's desert travels had been extracted from the text by the 1970s.[1] It is important to note how early these models were developed; current-day critics sometimes charge that LDS scholars have "retrofitted" their models to accommodate chance discoveries like "Nahom," but this is false.[2]


By describing in such precise detail a fertile Arabian coastal location, as well as the route to get there from Jerusalem (complete with directions and even a place-name en route), Joseph Smith put his prophetic credibility very much on the line. Could this young, untraveled farmer in rural New York somehow have known about a fertile site on the coast of Arabia? Could a map or some writing other than the Nephite record have been a source for him? The answer is a clear no. Long after the 1830 publication of the Book of Mormon, maps of Arabia continued to show the eastern coastline and interior as unknown, unexplored territory. In fact, until the advent of satellite mapping in recent decades, even quite modern maps have misplaced toponyms and ignored or distorted major features of the terrain.[3]

There is simply no way that Joseph could have obtained enough information about Arabia to fabricate more than a minute fraction of the voyage described in First Nephi.


Book of Mormon geography in the Old World

Old World or Arabian, geography - this considers the journey from Jerusalem to Old World Bountiful, where Nephi constructed the ship. (Click here for full article)

  • Valley of Lemuel
    Brief Summary: Is there a viable real-world candidate in the Old World for the Valley of Lemuel described in the Book of Mormon? (Click here for full article)
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  • Shazer
    Brief Summary: Regarding the place name Shazer, Nigel Groom's Dictionary of Arabic Topography and Placenames contains an entry for a similar word, "shajir," giving the meaning: "A valley or area abounding with trees and shrubs." (Click here for full article)
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  • Nahom
    Brief Summary: How does the Book of Mormon name "Nahom" correlate with the Old World? (Click here for full article)
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  • Bountiful
    Brief Summary: Is there a real-world match in the Old World for the land "Bountiful" described in the Book of Mormon? (Click here for full article)
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  • Lehi's cave
    Brief Summary: I've heard about a place in the Arabian desert called "Lehi's cave." Does this provide evidence for the Book of Mormon? (Click here for full article)
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Detailed Analysis


Part(s) of this criticism are addressed in a FairMormon video segment. Click here to see video clips on other topics.

Old World Geography Jerusalem, Lehi, and the Book of Mormon

The Hilton model (1976)

Models developed by LDS researchers predicted geographic locations long before they were located. Therefore, geographical correlates discovered later are confirmed predictions made by the geographical model offered by the Book of Mormon.

Figure 1: Scan from Hilton and Hilton (1976), pp. 22–23 showing hypothesized route of Lehi's party. (Labels have been added to original graphic for clarity.)

In the scan pictured here, hypothesized sites for Lehi's journey include:

The Hilton's acknowledged their debt to the writings of Hugh Nibley, which pushes the essentials of their model back to 1950.[4]

The Hilton's model—like all such models constructed from a text that gives only approximate distances at many points—has been tweaked slightly, but the basic layout of the journey has been remarkably stable. Most importantly, the subsequent findings which support the authenticity of the Book of Mormon's account fit neatly into Nibley's schema and the Hilton's model.

The 1980s

In 1986, Eugene England summarized 23 details of Arabian geography predicted by the Book of Mormon, and concluded that Joseph Smith would have not had access to the necessary information to forge so many inter-related facts. England's list read:

Figure 2: BYU Geography Department map of the Lehi party's journey from Jerusalem to Old World Bountiful.
  1. The route south to Aqaba is an anciently primary way out of Jerusalem.
  2. The ancient route, the Frankincense Trail, leaves the beach coast at Aqaba, so it is "near" the Red Sea; then it returns to it, so it is "nearer."
  3. The location of a major oasis about three days' journey along the trail from Aqaba.
  4. The location there of an impressive valley that could be used for poetic metaphor and
  5. of a continually flowing river that
  6. flows into an arm of the Red Sea called anciently a "fountain" and
  7. is capable of supporting extended settlement and growth of crops.
  8. Four days from this oasis, in a south-southeast direction, is another major oasis where
  9. wild animals that can be hunted with bow and arrow begin to be available.
  10. Further in the same direction, still along the Frankincense Trail that is in this whole area the only tenable route, with anciently dug or natural water holes at regular intervals,
  11. the area (north and south of modern Jiddah) becomes more inhospitable, a source of "much affliction," with fewer water holes,
  12. many sand storms and metal-destroying salt air and humidity where a steel bow would break and wooden ones lose their spring but
  13. where there is excellent pomegranate wood for new bows and
  14. a mountain where wild game is plentiful.
  15. Many days further in the same direction is another major oasis capable of supporting a caravan through a growing season, and
  16. this is where the Frankincense Trail turns sharply to the east and then
  17. skirts the notorious "Empty Quarter," the worst desert in Arabia, another period of "much affliction" to the group and
  18. a place where danger from Bedouin raiders could require traveling without firebuilding.
  19. There is, exactly where the direct route east intercepts the southern Arabian coast, a unique fertile area of fruit and wild honey, with
  20. a gentle beach and yet nearby high cliffs dropping into deep water,
  21. mountains nearby with iron ore for toolmaking,
  22. sycamore-fig trees growing on the mountains that are excellent for shipbuilding and
  23. strong monsoon winds used anciently for sailing to India and out into the Pacific Ocean.[5]

Present Day

Valley of Lemuel

  • Valley of Lemuel
    Brief Summary: The valley of Lemuel requires several characteristics. In 1995, Potter and colleagues found a hitherto unrecognized wadi[6] which has parallels to the requirements of the Book of Mormon text, including a river of water which is "continually running," which they interpret as requiring a year-round water flow. Although Saudi and US geological surveys have concluded that Saudi Arabia " without any perennial rivers or streams," visits to the area in April, May, July, August, November, December, and January have all found flowing water in the candidate valley which Potter's team identified. (Click here for full article)
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The Frankincense Trail

Hilton and Hilton noted that Lehi's journey paralleled the ancient "Frankincense trail," a trade route used in ancient Arabia:

The much traveled [Frankincense] trail begins at the coast of modern Oman. From there it goes from ancient waterhole to waterhole throughout the Middle East. We should note that the word trail does not refer to a well-defined, narrow path or roadway, but to a more general route that followed a valley or canyon. The width of the route varied with the geography, ranging from a half mile to up to fifty miles at one point.[7]

Hugh Nibley had already sketched the essentials of the route in the 1950s, pointing out Joseph Smith's uncanny accuracy in identifying the only plausible route for Nephi, decades before the truth became generally known in the west:

It is obvious that the party went down the eastern and not the western shore of the Red Sea (as some have suggested) from the fact that they changed their course and turned east at the nineteenth parallel of latitude, and "did travel nearly eastward from that time forth," passing through the worst desert of all, where they "did travel and wade through much affliction," and "did live upon raw meat in the wilderness" (1 Nephi 17:1-2). Had the party journeyed on the west coast of the Red Sea, they would have had only water to the east of them at the nineteenth parallel and for hundreds of miles to come. But why the nineteenth parallel? Because Joseph Smith may have made an inspired statement to that effect. He did not know, of course, and nobody knew until the 1930s, that only by taking a "nearly eastward" direction from that point could Lehi have reached the one place where he could find the rest and the materials necessary to prepare for his long sea voyage...
The best western authority on Arabia was thus completely wrong about the whole nature of the great southeast quarter a generation after the Book of Mormon appeared, and it was not until 1930 that the world knew that the country in which Lehi's people were said to have suffered the most is actually the worst and most repelling desert on earth.
In Nephi's picture of the desert everything checks perfectly. There is not one single slip amid a wealth of detail, the more significant because it is so casually conveyed.[8]


  • Shazer
    Brief Summary: Regarding the place name Shazer, Nigel Groom's Dictionary of Arabic Topography and Placenames contains an entry for a similar word, "shajir," giving the meaning: "A valley or area abounding with trees and shrubs." (Click here for full article)
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  • Nahom
    Brief Summary: Nephi's party reaches an area "which was called Nahom" (1 Nephi 16:34) near the time that they make an eastward turn in their journey. NHM [the root for naham] appears twenty-five times in the narrative books of the Bible, and in every case it is associated with death. Strikingly, altars dating from the time of Lehi have been found with the inscription "NHM." As one travels south-southeast of Jerusalem along the major trunk of the ancient Arabian trade route, the route branches east toward the southeastern coast at only one point: in the Jawf valley (Wadi Jawf) just a few miles from Nehem. From thence the eastern branch of the trade route goes toward the ancient port of Qana--modern Bir Ali—on the Hadhramaut coast, where most of the incense was shipped. This eastern branch was the major route—the pathways to the south were less used. (Click here for full article)
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  • Bountiful
    Brief Summary: If Nehem is the Book of Mormon site Nahom, then is there a Bountiful to the east of it on the coast? Amazingly, we have the luxury of two excellent candidate sites that are roughly due east of Nehem on the Oman coast. The Astons propose Wadi Sayq as the best candidate for Bountiful, and it impressively fits the criteria that one can derive from the Book of Mormon. Potter and Sedor propose the area of Salalah and the nearby ancient port of Khor Rori as the general site for Bountiful. (Click here for full article)
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  1. See Lynn M. Hilton and Hope Hilton, In Search of Lehi's Trail (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976). ISBN 0877476306. Also published in Ensign 6 (September 1976): off-site and (October 1976): off-site.
  2. On-line resource which explores Jerald and Sandra Tanner's efforts to dismiss Book of Mormon old world geography "hits" is available here.
  3. Warren P. Aston and Michaela Knoth Aston, In the Footsteps of Lehi: New Evidence for Lehi's Journey across Arabia to Bountiful (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994), 29. ISBN 0875798470
  4. Lynn M. Hilton and Hope Hilton, In Search of Lehi's Trail (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 21. ISBN 0877476306. Also published in Ensign 6 (September 1976): off-site and (October 1976): off-site. The Hiltons cite Nibley's 1950 Improvement Era articles.
  5. Eugene England, "Through the Arabian Desert to a Bountiful Land: Could Joseph Smith Have Known the Way?," in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds and Charles D. Tate (eds.), (Provo, Utah : Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University ; Salt Lake City, Utah : Distributed by Bookcraft, 1996 [1982]), 152. ISBN 0884944697 GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  6. George Potter, "A New Candidate in Arabia for the "Valley of Lemuel"," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999): 54–63. wiki
  7. Lynn M. Hilton and Hope Hilton, In Search of Lehi's Trail (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 21, (italics in original). ISBN 0877476306. Also published in Ensign 6 (September 1976): off-site and (October 1976): off-site.
  8. Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd edition, (Vol. 6 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988),234–235.

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