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Part 1 of this article described how a series of seemingly random and unexceptional events in 1984 led to a search to see if evidence still survived to connect a medieval map to Nephi‘s mention that his father-in-law, Ishmael, was buried at “Nahom.” With my wife I traveled to Yemen and located an additional map that lent support to the idea and, nudged onwards by an insistent impression, I began tracing the name back through history.
Unknown to me at the time, a major archaeological excavation commenced 5 years later in Marib in central Yemen. Some 3000 years ago, the local people there had built a huge dam that diverted the water from the mountains into their fields. Quickly the small desert town blossomed. Within a few years the dam allowed this corner of Arabia to prosper as no other, becoming the center of the powerful Kingdom of Saba. We know it today as Sheba, the birthplace of ancient South Arabian civilization. From here the Queen of Sheba journeyed to meet King Solomon in a Biblical story familiar to all of us.
The great kingdom of Saba ended quite suddenly in the sixth century AD after the dam collapsed. Most of the population migrated and the desert returned. Today, visitors to the ruins of the fabled dam and the city see a spectacular landscape scattered with the cores of long extinct volcanoes and fields of black volcanic glass. Indeed, Marib has long been Yemen’s chief tourist attraction. One of its best-known ruins was the Bar’an temple, the legendary temple of the Queen of Sheba. Its five and a half pillars projecting above the sand made it an iconic image of ancient South Arabia.
The Bar’an temple in Yemen before and after excavation.
It took 9 years for the archaeologists to uncover and restore the temple, in the process revealing more than 20 limestone altars. The altars had been donated to the temple by people seeking particular requests from the gods. The condition of the altars ranged from almost pristine to badly damaged, but all were inscribed in the ancient Sabaean script. From late 1997 onwards, one of the best-preserved altars became part of an exhibit of Yemeni artifacts touring museums in Europe. Its text was a dedication to the moon god Ilmaqah and named its donor as”Bi’athtar, grandson of Naw’um, the Nihmite.” (ie. of the tribe of Nihm).
In 1999, Professor S. Kent Brown at BYU read the museum catalog from the London exhibition that contained a photo of the altar and the full text. He alerted the LDS scholarly community through a short article published by FARMS in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. The article concluded that this was “very probably” the same Nahom mentioned by Nephi, seeing it as “dramatic new evidence” for Nephi’s “Nahom.” However, the photograph of the altar did not show the actual reference to Nihm and readers had to be content with the catalog’s caption and translation. At the time it seemed unlikely that more could be determined about this find.
New altar discoveries:
In September 2000 I was back in Yemen with two colleagues from Utah, Lynn Hilton and Gregory Witt, leading a large LDS tour group along Lehi’s Trail. Naturally, visiting Marib was on the itinerary and I looked forward to re-visiting the Bar’an site in particular to see where the altar had been found. My previous visits there were before the excavation and restoration were complete. Our coach pulled up at the site. As we gathered the group to give background information we suddenly realized that an altar, identical in appearance to the one shown in the catalog, sat in the courtyard of the temple just a short distance away!
The focus instantly shifted to it and several of us surrounded it. I quickly began examining the Sabaean text carved around it, copying the geometric characters down on my clipboard. With the help of our Yemeni guide we determined, to my amazement, that this text also mentioned NiHM. In fact, its text was identical to the catalog text. We were on a tight schedule, so we quickly measured it (26 inches/66 cm tall) and took many photographs. Then we gathered the entire group around to show the altar and explain why they were part of a significant moment.
On September 12, 2000 a second altar bearing the reference to NiHM was identified in situ at the Bar’an temple site in Yemen. The author is shown pointing to the NHM characters on the altar.
Our tour continued eastwards across the exotic landscapes of eastern Yemen and into Oman, but the implications of this second altar kept swirling around in my head. The idea that there might be duplicates of this altar had never entered anyone’s thinking until now; indeed, donating duplicate altars may be unparalleled in Arabian history.
Less than two months later I returned to Yemen alone and with the cooperation of the archaeological team, made a complete examination and photographic documentation of the Bar’an temple complex and its collection of altars. Eight altars were largely intact and several others lay in pieces. Another surprise awaited, for all bore differing inscriptions – except one. One of the damaged altars also had the same text by Bi’Athtar carved onto it, making a total of three altars bearing the same inscription mentioning NiHM.
How old are the 3 altars? And how does that relate to Nephi‘s Nahom?
Initially, the archaeologists dated the altars as between sixth and seventh centuries BC. Later, however, Bi’athtar’s three altars were more firmly assigned to an earlier period – between the eighth to the seventh centuries BC – than the other altars recovered. Since Naw’um of the tribe of Nihm was the grandfather of Bi’athtar, the Nihm name must be at least two generations – another fifty or more years – older still. In any event, the tribal name certainly predates the arrival of the Lehites and the burial of Ishmael around 600 BC.
Nephi implied in his record that Nahom, where Ishmael was buried (1 Nephi 16:34), was already known by that name, so this dating fits Nephi’s account perfectly.
But there is much more.In the first place, the name Nihm is unique. Unlike many other place names, it is not found anywhere else in Arabia. The name seems to have its origins in the cutting and dressing of stone, a fact that may be significant on several counts, not least in view of the fact that Bi’Athtar clearly had the means to present three altars cut from limestone.
The Semitic roots of the name have multiple, significant, links to Nephi’s account, linking it to mourning, hunger, sorrow and complaining. These links in the etymology of the name carry strong echoes of what happened after Ishmael’s death:
And it came to pass that the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father, and because of their afflictions in the wilderness; and they did murmur against my father, because he had brought them out of the land of Jerusalem, saying: Our father is dead; yea, and we have wandered much in the wilderness, and we have suffered much affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue; and after all these sufferings we must perish in the wilderness with hunger. (1 Nephi 16: 35)
Since Nahom was a burial place, is it just coincidence that the largest burial site on the Arabian peninsula, the vast Alam and Ruwaik necropolis, lies here in the desert of Nihm? And there is still more.
I Nephi 17:1 describes that when the family group resumed their journey, they traveled ” nearly eastwards from that time forth.” Having now left the incense trade routes, this was the most difficult stage of the entire journey. It ended in the remarkably fertile place that they called “Bountiful.” We now know that if one travels “eastwards” from the Nihm region in Yemen, it leads some 500 miles across the most desolate part of Yemen, the southern edge of the great Empty Quarter desert. Even today, this region has no water sources, no settlements and no roads.
Most significantly, traveling eastwards of Nihm brings one eventually to the Dhofar coast of Oman, which we now know is the only fertile area in thousands of miles of Arabian coastline. These facts were not known in 1830 when the Book of Mormon was published; in fact, they were not known until just 3 decades ago. How did Joseph Smith get so many specifics right?
The stunning conjunction of all these interlinking facts probably has no parallel. Its significance can be most clearly seen in two ways: how it has been viewed by LDS historians and scholars, and in the attempts of anti-Mormon and cultural-Mormon critics to dismiss it all as coincidence.
The significance of the altar discoveries:
The discovery of the second altar was brought to the attention of the general church membership in a news release November 17, 2000 in the BYU daily newspaper The Daily Universe and on the official LDS Church website as “News of the Church.” A photograph of the second altar accompanied a short article published in the news section of the February 2001 ENSIGN magazine. Soon after, the altar find was mentioned in a talk in the April 2001 General Conference.
In 2002, the most significant book in many years dealing with the role of the Book of Mormon in the establishment of the church was published by Oxford University Press. LDS historian Terryl Given’s book By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion gave the following assessments (emphasis added) of the altar discoveries:
Found in the very area where Nephi’s record locates Nahom, these altars may thus be said to constitute the first actual archaeological evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
The most impressive find to date corroborating Book of Mormon historicity, this is one of two known altars with inscriptions referring to the tribe of NHM, corresponding to the place name referred to by Nephi (“Nahom”) when his party passed through what would become modern-day Yemen.
Though they are Old World artifacts, they do represent the first confirmation of a Book of Mormon site and place-name lost to the modern age.
Another landmark publication was Grant Hardy’s The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition, published in 2005 by the University of Illinois. This work reformatted the scriptural text for improved readability and added commentary. A simple map situating Old World Book of Mormon places in the modern world commented (emphasis added):
Perhaps the most direct archaeological confirmation of anything in the Book of Mormon is the discovery in the early 1990s of evidence for an ancient people named Nihm in the approximate area where Lehi’s family came upon “Nahom.“
In a conference sponsored by the Library of Congress and held in Washington DC on May 6-7, 2005 in recognition of the bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s birth, the altar discovery as a tangible confirmation of the Book of Mormon “Nahom” formed part of two presentations. Likewise, in his definitive 2005 biography of Mormonism’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, historian Richard L. Bushman mentions the discovery of “Nhm” among the discoveries that offer credence to the Book of Mormon account.
Unsurprisingly, the response to this discovery by anti-Mormon and cultural-Mormon critics has been quite different. Although several years have now passed, most have not responded to the development at all, moving on to attack other aspects. But, of those who have responded, all have failed so far to engage with the facts; none have yet offered a coherent response.1
Nephi implied that a place in southern Arabia named Nahom already existed in his day; three chiseled blocks of stone from a tribe whose name may have originated from the cutting and shaping of stone now provide incontrovertible evidence that, in fact, it did.
More detailed information on Nahom is available at Warren P. Aston, “Newly Found Altars from Nahom” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/2 (May 2002), 56-61 accessible online from http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu under “publications” or “authors.”
More recently, Warren P. Aston, “A History of NaHoM,” BYU Studies Quarterly 51/2 (Summer 2012), 78-98 updates the data that links Nephi’s Nahom with the Yemeni tribal territory of Nihm and LDS scholarship on the subject.
1. See, for example, Neal Rappleye and Stephen O. Smoot, “Book of Mormon Minimalists and the NHM Inscriptions: A Response to Dan Vogel,” <a target="_self" href="http://www.
<hr class=’system-pagebreak’ /><hr class=’system-pagebreak’ /><hr class=’system-pagebreak’ /><hr class=’system-pagebreak’ />mormoninterpreter.com/book-of-mormon-minimalists-and-the-nhm-inscriptions-a-response-to-dan-vogel”>Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 8 (2014), 157-185.