As historians have told us, Lehi had no other choice but to have taken an authorized trail through Arabia, and with the exception of the incense trading route, there were no other trails.
Collectively, these trade routes were known as the Frankincense Trail. The incense trails started from places as diverse as the port at Gaza, the rich spice and incense markets of Damascus in present-day Syria, and ancient Babylon, in what is today Iraq.
These trails eventually ended at one of the major harbors in southern Arabia such as the frankincense harbor at Khor Rori on the coast of Oman. The Frankincense Trail got its name from the primary incense that was transported along it. Myrrh and other incenses and spices were also hauled by caravans along the same trail. In Lehi's time, frankincense grew only in the Dhofar region in southern Arabia; yet, vast amounts of it were used in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and the temple in Jerusalem. An estimated 3,000 tons were sent to Greece and Rome each year at the peak of the incense trade.
One of the branches of the trail led to Gaza on the Mediterranean and from there to Egypt by another caravan. where it was used to embalm mummies.
Frankincense was also exported from Gaza on ships to Greece and Rome, where it was burned in the houses of the nobility and in their temples.
The Gaza branch of the Frankincense Trail passed within 10 miles of the Valley of Lemuel, and we presume that it would have been known to Lehi.
This is the season of the year when Christians the world over celebrate the birth of Christ and speak of the visit from the three Wise Men who bore gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Frankincense and myrrh are probably the most famous incenses from the Middle East, yet are uncommon fragrances to most people who celebrate the birth of Christ.
Fortunately, frankincense and myrrh are still available for purchase from the perfume and incense shops in the Middle East.
During the 20 years I lived in Arabia, I acquired a portion of frankincense and myrrh.
Hence, my "Photograph of the Month" for December is a picture of these famous gifts-Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
The continuation of the question from last month, "Where was Nahom? Where did they turn east?"
After leaving Najran the family would have encountered the first hugh dune desert on their journey, the Rub' al Khali, the Empty Quarter.
The trail skirts to the west of the dunes, hugging the side of the mountains.
If the Liahona had directed them to head east through the terrible desert of the Rub' al Khali, the family would have undergone extreme hardship.
The sand dunes are huge and the soft sand quickly drains the strength of the traveler.
Dr. Hugh Nibley wrote that they "struck out almost due east through the worst desert of all, where they 'did wade through much affliction, ' to emerge in a state of almost complete exhaustion."
It is interesting that Nephi used the word wade to describe their journey after leaving Nahom (1 Ne. 17:7), just as one would wade through water or soft sand.
The Empty Quarter has sand dunes that reach seven to eight hundred feet in height and not traveled by the overland incense caravans, suggests that this could have been considered as passing through a "strange wilderness."
Nephi informs us that they tarried at a place that "was called Nahom" (1 Ne. 16:34)
There are a number of places in Yemen which bear the name "NHM."
In Arabic, vowels are not written down, and while NHM does not have the same emphasis on the second syllable that Nahom does, the word may have been pronounced differently 2,600 years ago.
In fact, one would be surprised if it weren't.
In 1978, Dr. Ross T. Christensen published a brief article pointing out that in Yemen a community named "Nahom" existed eighteen mile northeast of the modern capital of San'a.
In September 2000, a second alter bearing the name "Nah'm" was found in Marib in the Temple of the Moon Goddess, which dated to the "seventh or eight century B.C."
This seems to be solid evidence that a region or place called NHM (Nihm) existed at the time of Lehi.
These findings would also seem to support the idea that Nephi's "Nahom" may well have been close to present-day Wadi Naham.
It is possible that Ishmael may have died while the family was lost in the desert and his body carried to Nahom, where he was finally buried.
By reaching Nahom and the trail, the family was able to find help and food, an achievement that Nephi rightly recognizes could not have happened without the help of the Lord.
Nephi tells us that after Nahom, the family continued their journey in the wilderness traveling "nearly eastward from that time fourth" (1 Ne. 17:1).
Here again the text of the Book of Mormon is in total harmony with the route the Frankincense Trail took in 600 B.C.
My "Photograph of the Month" for November comes from Part Four, Discovering Nephi's Trail & His Bow Wood of our six-part series DVD, Discovering Lehi's Trail, showing a graphic of Yemen and the location of Wadi Naham and the trail eastward.
Continuing our questions from last month, "Where was Nahom? Where did they turn east?"
When the family stopped at Nahom, the daughters of Ishmael complained that "we have wandered much in the wilderness, and we have suffered much affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue; and after all these sufferings we must perish in the wilderness with hunger." (1 Ne. 16:35)
Note that the women commented that they had suffered affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue prior to reaching Nahom. This implies that they were not in an inhabited location.
In verse 39, Nephi further states that if the Lord had not blessed them, they would have died of hunger.
"The Lord did bless us again with food, that we did not perish" (1 Ne 16:39).
While at Nahom, the older brothers complained that Nephi wanted to be their leader and teacher, and he wanted to "lead us away into some strange wilderness" (1 Ne. 16:38).
If they were already in the wilderness, what would be a strange wilderness?
They had essentially traveled the main Frankincense Trail for the length of Arabia and had described this as being in the wilderness.
What then could be different about this "strange" wilderness?
It seems that something was going wrong with the family.
In Alma we read concerning the Liahona: "They were slothful, and forgot to exercise their faith and diligence and then those marvelous works ceased, and they did not progress on their journey; Therefore, they tarried in the wilderness, or did not travel a direct course, and were afflicted with hunger and thirst, because of their transgressions" (Alma 37:41-42).
It is not difficult to see why their faith was insufficient to enable the Liahona to function, causing them to wander around in the wilderness.
Here, then, is the possible explanation for the "strange" wilderness of which Laman and Lemuel spoke.
As the family left what is today Saudi Arabia and approached the area where we believe Nahom was located, the family would have encountered the first huge dune desert on their journey, the Rub' al Khali, the Empty Quarter.
Next month, November, I will continue this adventure drama at Nahom.
My "Photograph of the Month" for October comes from Part Four, Discovering Nephi's Trail & His Bow Wood of our six-part series DVD, Discovering Lehi's Trail, showing the huge dune desert of the Empty Quarter the family would have encountered.
After some 1,400 miles traveling approximately south-southeast Lehi's family reached a place which Nephi informs us, "was called Nahom" (1 Ne. 16:34).
Here a great drama unfolded with the death of Ishmael and the direct intervention of the Lord to both chasten and save the travelers (1 Ne. 16:29).
As we consider the plight of the family in southern Arabia, the obvious question is "Where was Nahom? Where did they turn east?"
Unfortunately, we have only seven verses of scripture to guide us (1 Ne. 16:33-39), and we will probably never know the exact location where the family buried Ishmael.
But a comparison of these seven verses of the Book of Mormon with the history and geography of the area provides us with some interesting insights.
In next month's newsletter we will present a possible location for events that took place at Nahom and relate them to the topography and known history of the area.
My "Photograph of the Month" for September comes from Part Four, Discovering Nephi's Trail & His Bow Wood of our six-part series DVD, Discovering Lehi's Trail, showing an encampment in the Empty Quarter.
For over fifty years, the consensus among Book of Mormon scholars was that Lehi and his family either wandered southward into Arabia, hiding from Arabs as they journeyed, or forging an uncharted trail down the shoreline plain of the Red Sea.
We believe we have discovered the Valley of Lemuel, yet who would believe us?
We readily admit that we are not scholars of archaeology, nor do we masquerade as linguists. However, we have important resources that the armchair academics do not have.
First, we have ready access to Arabia. Together, we have lived in Arabia well over thirty years.
Second, we lived and worked among Arabs and heard first-hand their history and legends.
Third, we had available a rich pool of technical experts and resources to draw upon. The expat community in Arabia is a treasure chest of geologists, desert explorers, old map collectors, and Arabists.
Before each field trip, we spent what seemed to be endless hours in libraries and on the internet studying the history, geography, tribes, etc., of each area we were about to enter.
Often we would work separately, taking the same piece of text of First Nephi, independently contact leading experts on the subject via the internet, search racks of the libraries, then sit down together to discuss our independent conclusions.
Only then, with a set of thoroughly researched assumptive criteria, did we head to the desert to begin our field studies.
The five years of our work together proved fascinating and yielded numerous new evidences that Joseph Smith did truly translate an ancient record.
We believe that we have proven the Book of Mormon is a true history, and it has been a pleasure these past years showing you why.
My "Photograph of the Month" for August comes from the cover of our six-part series DVD, Discovering Lehi's Trail, showing the reflection of the sun on the sheer cliff wall and a team member waving in the lower valley as the sun was setting over the Sinai Peninsula across the Gulf of Aqaba. (28mm - f2.8, Kodak 5247)
Of the entire twenty-four-mile length of the wadi Tayyib al-Ism, it is only the last four miles that the Nephi Project identified as the place where Lehi's family camped next to the River of Laman and where the edible vegetation described in the Book of Mormon is found.
In January 1999 we reached the canyon, well after the time grain would have been harvested in the Middle East. Fortunately, no hard rains had fallen in the valley that during that rainy season. To our delight we had discovered grain growing in five places in the canyon. The grasses still had large amounts of grain hanging from them.
Nephi wrote that "it came to pass that we had gathered together" seeds of every fruit while they lived in the valley. (1 Ne. 8:1). It is safe to assume that Nephi's seeds of fruit were dates. The date, constituted of the sweet outer flesh and the pit, is the seed of the palm. Undoubtedly, dates probably account for the seeds they took with them when they left the valley. (1 Ne. 16:14)
Dates were the traditional food provisions used by travelers in Arabia.
An Arab colleague whose great-grandfather marketed camels from central Arabia to Palestine, Cairo, and Baghdad and as far as India, claims that his great-grandfather and his crew ate only dates and drank tea during the days they traveled. Historians tell us that caravaners took with them large quantities of dates to consume on their journeys.
Along with the camel, the Arabs consider the date to be one of God's greatest gifts to them. Without the camel, travel across the desert would have been impossible. Without the date, one of the few foodstuffs that do not perish in the heat of the desert, they would have had nothing to eat.
In the upper valley dates are found in abundance. We found examples of each of the three varieties of date palm that grow in Arabia growing in the wadi Tayyib al-Ism (The Valley of the Good Name).
My "Photograph of the Month" for July comes from Part1, Discovering the Valley of Lemuel, of the six-part series of the DVD, Discovering Lehi's Trail, showing a portion of the date palms that grace the upper valley of the wadi Tayyib al-Ism, the Nephi Project's candidate for the Valley of Lemuel.
The Arab tribes fiercely protected their lands. They patrolled their lands and guarded their wells. Every Bedu herdsmen was responsible for being an informer to the local emir.
To this day, they still receive rewards for notifying officials of strangers traveling in their lands.
In 1999, we encountered the vestiges of this ancient system of having to acquire permission to travel through the tribal lands.
While attempting to drive what we believe was Lehi's trail from Port of Aqaba to what we conclude is the Valley of Lemuel, we were stopped by the interior police.
We were told we needed to go to al-Bada'a to receive permission from the Emir to use this remote trail. We spent that evening sitting with the Emir of al-Bada'a seeking his authorization. Finally, we received permission to travel in the areas under his control, but we were told that the part of the trail located on the other side of a mountain was not under his jurisdiction.
In order to travel on the other side of the mountain, we would have to see the Emir in Haql to get his authorization. Even though we had "travel authorization letters" from the central office of the Ministry of Interior of Saudi Arabia, in certain cases we still needed to acquire the permission of each of the local emirs in order to travel the unpaved roads of their territory.
Since it was only possible for Lehi's family to travel safely through Arabia using an authorized trail, we needed to establish what trails were in existence in Lehi's time that led from northern Arabia and ran south-southeast. Finally, the trail had to turn east at the place called Nahom [1 Ne. 16:34] and lead to the Indian Ocean ("Irreantum" or "many waters" [1 Ne. 17:5]). Fortunately, this task was made easy, since only one trail existed from the Mediterranean Sea to southern Arabia.
One might ask, "If they traveled along a trail why did they need the Liahona to show them the way? They could have just walked along the road." One needs to understand that the Frankincense Trail was not a road in the sense that we are used to. There was no delineated trail along which to walk. It was simply a general course that would take one to the next caravan halt and water.
Lehi would have needed a guide, and for those times that the family was traveling alone, the Liahona was capable of taking a guide's place.
Some have suggested that Lehi was in the caravan business, because he had tents (1 Ne. 2:4) and camels. This is a false assumption, because caravans did not use tents.
My "Photograph of the Month" for June comes from Part 4, Discovering Nephi's Trail & His Bow Wood, of the six-part series of the DVD, Discovering Lehi's Trail, showing the typical landscape of the Frankincense Trail.
Lehi did not pass through Arabia in one winter traveling season. His journey took a total of eight years. Since it is impossible to travel in Arabia during the hot months of May through October, Lehi would have stopped for the summer to rest. With the arrival of the hellish summer temperatures, travel would have been very dangerous, and the trade business along the frankincense route would have ground to a halt.
By late spring, the temperatures along the trail are consistently over 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, which made the caravan business in Arabia winter-seasonal activity. The most likely reason Lehi stopped was that he had no choice. He was probably faced with the onslaught of the summer. Waiting out the hot season provided them with an opportunity to hunt and rest from a journey through difficult terrain.
We became interested in the Bishah area for two reasons. First was Bishah's proximity to the mountains. Between this huge section of the trail, from Madina to Najran, Bishah is the closest trail oasis to the mountains, and thus a logical place to leave the trail to find a refuge from the heat in the mountains. In the mountains just west of Bishah, the temperatures are relatively pleasant during the summer (ninety degrees Fahrenheit).
Second, we became interested because of Bishah's general location on the trail. Bishah is deep into southern Arabia, but is still a considerable distance from Yemen where Nephi recorded that they turned east. After they left the camp where Nephi broke his bow, he wrote that they continued "traveling nearly the same course" (south-south-east) for a "space of many days" before they reached the place where they turned east (1 Ne. 16:33, 34; 17:1). This suggests that Nephi's bow broke somewhere in southern Saudi Arabia, so we concentrated our search for bow wood in the flora in the mountains above Bishah. We were not surprised then to find than in a small 150 miles range in the mountains above Bishah, Alim trees grow which provided not only one of the rare bows woods in Arabia, but the best wood for that purpose.
When we were in Bishah, we met an old man and asked him about the traditions of the town. He told us that before air conditioners, those who could leave the town would migrate into the mountains during the hot months. In Lehi's days, the inhabitants of the frankincense staging towns, like Bishah, prospered by selling provisions to the caravans, These included dates, other food stuffs, fresh camels, and other provisions.
The question begs asking-how did the family manage to get into the mountains with their camels when we said that camels cannot travel in the mountains? The most likely answer to this question seems to lie in the geography of the area. A series of large wadis drain rain run-off from the eastern side of the mountain out into the desert. Two of these, wadi Tabalah and wadi Bishah, pass through or near the town of Bishah. Either of these wadis would have provided a ready-made path into the mountains for camels. Surrounded by mountain peaks, the wadis end at an elevation of approximately 6,000 feet or more.
My "Photograph of the Month" for May comes from Part 4, Discovering Nephi's Trail & His Bow Wood, of the six-part series of the DVD, Discovering Lehi's Trail, showing on a map of the Arabian Peninsula of the area where Bishah is located.
We can only guess how Lehi and his family felt when from the mountains above the Salalah plain they gazed for the first time upon the vast emerald waters of the Indian Ocean-Irreantum. Below them the coast plain stretched out to the white sandy beaches where they could see thin white lines of breakers tumbling onto the shore. There may have been huge groves of coconut palms near the beaches, just as there are today.
As they descended the pass leading from the mountains, they would have seen tree-lined slopes -- quite the opposite of what they had seen as they ascended the desert inland side of the mountains.
Frankincense, acacia, wild cherry, olive, sycamore, fig, and baobab trees still flourish there on these same slopes watered by the annual monsoon rains. After the rains, the hills become awash with green, and waterfalls cascade from the limestone cliffs.
In contrast to the dissolute silence of the Empty Quarter Desert, sweet songs of birds would have filled the cool mountain air. As we walked the slopes of these mountains, Richard Wellington, our ornithologist, observed cinnamon-breasted buntings calling to each other from the tree tops, and African paradise flycatchers sitting lazily on the overhanging branches before darting after insects.
In the distant past, it is not difficult to imagine the same kind of birds being startled into flight by a dusty and weary party of travelers as they made their way along the well worn trail. After eight years in the desert, Nephi tells us they "were exceedingly rejoiced." (1 Nephi 17:6)
By the time the party of travelers reached the shore, the rich bounty of this land had become obvious. Nephi repeats that they called the place Bountiful because of its abundant fruit.
My "Photograph of the Month" for April comes from Part 5, Discovering the Land Bountiful, of the six-part series of the DVD, Discovering Lehi's Trail, showing the vista from the mountains above the Salalah Coastal Plain to the shores of the Indian Ocean.
Some might argue that the Liahona could have directed Lehi through the desert without a trail. Even so, the party needed to rejoin the trail at the wells. They had no other choice. The need to find water in the desert made it relatively easy for the desert emirs to control passage through their lands.
The course of the Frankincense Trail can be explained in one word -water- the most precious commodity of all to the desert traveler.
Water was not a free resource for all, but rather a jealously guarded commodity. When Charles Doughty traveled the Pilgrim route at the end of the nineteenth century, it was under the control of the Turks who placed garrisons to protect the wells and the cisterns that collected rainwater.
He noted that the "cisterns are jealously guarded, as in them is the life of the great caravan." He went on to say that if the Arab nomads tried to draw water, the soldiers would open fire on them.
Some believe that Lehi tiptoed through the desert of Arabia undetected by the local inhabitants. That is not possible, for every few days the family would have needed water, and then they would have had to deal with the owners of the wells in order to obtain it.
To attempt to steal it would have been a punishable crime.
The Frankincense Trail also provided the other important elements needed to survive the trip through the desert: food, fodder, other supplies, and fresh camels.
At the caravanserais, halts, or camps along the trail, the traveler could also share news and companionship with other travelers as well as inquire about the trail ahead.
In the March "Photograph of the Month," we can see what other "desert travelers" may have looked like at the caravan halts, the desert version of today's truck stops, selected from Part 2: Discovering Lehi's Trail & Shazer of our 6-part film DVD, Discovering Lehi's Trail.
As I noted last month (January), to qualify as a candidate for the Valley of Lemuel we needed to discover possible artifacts for Lehi's altar.
One need not speculate on this point. Nephi wrote that his father built an altar of stones (1 Ne 2:7).
We dedicated much of our time to the search for possible remains of altars and were rewarded by finding several.
The one altar candidate that caught our attention was the remains discovered by Michael Bellersen and Satya Nand just above the ruins of the ancient campsite that has been dated to the time of Lehi.
The site had been disturbed by unknown individuals who had dug several holes at the site-apparently searching for buried treasure.
What makes this site unique were the black slate stones that covered the top of the site. The black stones were not "native" to the sandstone hill. As Michael explained, "Someone had to bring them up here."
Whoever disturbed this site swept away a good portion of the stones. They were scattered just below the top of the hill. Michael made a compelling argument for why the site qualified as Nephi's altar.
The February "Photograph of the Month" is of Michael Bellersen at his altar candidate delivering his argument for it being an ancient altar. It is selected fromPart 1:Discovering the Valley of Lemuel of our 6-part film DVD, Discovering Lehi's Trail.
The wadi Tayyib al-Ism appears to have the natural attributes of the valley described by Nephi.
However, a key structure crafted by the hands of man-an altar of stones-must still be located in the wadi if it is to have all the features of the Valley of Lemuel. One need not speculate on this point. Nephi wrote that his father built an altar of stones (1 Ne 2:7).
The hills surrounding the canyon and upper valley at the wadi Tayyib al-Ism cover a large area. There are dozens of peaks on which an altar could be found.
After attempting several hikes into the mountains in search of an altar, we spotted a pile of uncut stones, fourteen by eight feet at its base. The top of the pile had collapsed somewhat, but it was apparent that the top had been approximately seven feet long by four feet wide and was approximately waist high. It has the correct shape, rectangular, and it is positioned at a high place, a flat area at the top of a hill where the first light of the sunrise and the last light of sunset could be seen.
"Only the people sacrificed in high places, because there was no house built unto the name of the LORD, until those days" (1 Kgs. 3.2). According to Mosaic laws, altars consisted of either raised up earth or a pile of unhewn stones (Ex. 20:25; Deut. 27:5; Josh. 8:31).
As we started down the mountain, we noticed pieces of broken pottery embedded in the ground approximately 15 feet down from the altar candidate. We have found other structures in the valley that we believe could also have been altars.
Another example was a small pile of black slate stones discovered by Michael Bellersen and Satya Nand just above the ruins of an ancient campsite.
The January "Photograph of the Month" is of Michael Bellersen and Satya Nand standing at their altar discovery site just above the ruins of the ancient campsite, selected from Part 1: Discovering the Valley of Lemuel of our 6-part film DVD, Discovering Lehi's Trail.