“And we did come to the land which we called Bountiful, because of its much fruit and also wild honey; and all these things were prepared of the Lord that we might not perish. 1 Nephi 17:5
As the “keystone” of Mormonism, the Book of Mormon has drawn attacks by critics from the very beginning of the Restoration. One such person began publishing stolen pages of the manuscript even before it first appeared in print, using them to ridicule the new book and mock the young farmer who claimed he had translated it from gold plates. From that day until now, the book has been criticized on almost every point. Few of these attacks, however, have been as strident and sustained as those heaped upon Nephi’s story of his family arriving at a place of “much fruit and also wild honey” (1 Nephi 17: 5-6) and also timber suitable for building a ship (1 Nephi 18: 1-2).
That such a place could exist in the dry and inhospitable Arabian desert seemed impossible. “Arabia is bountiful in sunshine, petroleum, sand, heat, and fresh air,” wrote one critic as recently as 1985, “but certainly not in much fruit and also wild honey,‘ nor has it been since Pleistocene times.” The same article went on to claim that there has never been “ample timber“ in Arabia for building a ship. 1 Such statements were based on usually-authoritative sources such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Encyclopaedia of Islam which denied the existence of rivers and forests anywhere in Arabia. 2
They are, as it turns out, completely wrong.
This is the story of how actual exploration in Arabia trumped armchair critics, revealing one of the most profound vindications of the Book of Mormon yet and shedding new light on Nephi‘s account.
For over a century, believers in the Book of Mormon had to rely on their own spiritual witness and take, like so much else, Nephi‘s story about Bountiful on faith. There simply was no evidence to show that such a place on the Arabian coast was possible. Nor, until quite recently, was exploration even possible; the eastern Arabian coastline is shared by Oman and Yemen, two countries effectively closed to the outside world until recent decades. The handful of western explorers who did penetrate the mysteries of Arabia in the 19th and early 20th centuries, men such as Bertram Thomas, Wendelle Phillips, Harry Philby and Wilfred Thesiger, had other goals in mind than finding a coastal paradise. It did not help matters that in 1824 and 1833, a British survey ship, the Palinuris,‘ had charted the southern Arabian coastline, leading English geographer Andrew Crichton to write in 1833: “The whole southern coast [of the Arabian Peninsula] is a wall of naked rocks as dismal and barren as can well be conceived“ 3
LDS scholars, of whom Hugh Nibley was the most erudite, could only rely on the writings of those early explorers in dealing with the issue. In his foundational text, Lehi in the Desert, first published in 1950, Nibley primarily drew upon the 1932 description by Bertrand Thomas of the Qara hill‘s “rolling meadows” and “wooded valleys” inland from Salalah in southern Oman. 4
Most people, myself included, then assumed that Bountiful had been found. This did not stop, by the way, some ill-informed speculation suggesting other possibilities ranging from Aden, near the bottom of the Arabian peninsula, to the United Arab Emirates near the top and even Somalia on the Horn of Africa.
Surprisingly, what had not been done up to this point, by LDS and non-LDS writers alike, was to systematically evaluate what the Book of Mormon itself tells us about Bountiful. Asking ourselves, “what does the text actually tell us?“ has to be the starting point in any serious attempt to locate a location on today‘s map. The text of the Book of Mormon usually offers little or no insight as to geographical locations, but when the direct and implied references concerning “Bountiful“ are examined closely, a surprisingly detailed picture of the place emerges.
The first step toward that happening came when Lynn and Hope Hilton of Salt Lake City were invited by the ENSIGN magazine to attempt visiting the possible areas where the Lehi story had unfolded. In January 1976 they traveled to Oman and succeeded in visiting Salalah in the south of the country for just 24 hours. They then traveled in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. Their trip was reported in the September and October 1976 issues of the ENSIGN magazine, 5 and later published in book form. 6 Based on the limited evidence they could gather, the Hilton‘s work shed valuable light on cultural aspects of life in the Arabian Peninsula and they left Oman feeling that the Salalah area generally met Nephi‘s description of “Bountiful.”
Beginning in 1984 I had been exploring in Yemen in connection with “Nahom,” the place where Ishmael was buried during the desert journey (1 Nephi 16:34) and it had occurred to me to try and see “Bountiful” in neighboring Oman. It took several years, but eventually I was granted a visa and traveled to Salalah, the southern capital in October 1987. Initially, I had no expectations other than simply seeing Nephi‘s Bountiful for myself. After my first full day exploring, however, something felt wrong.
I remember returning to my hotel room puzzled. I was certainly in a beautiful place, full of coconut and banana plantations, and I had seen the grass-covered hills that Nibley and Thomas had described. What perplexed me was that most of the area was actually barren, green only where modern irrigation was operating. I had visited the ancient port of Khor Rori and found impressive ruins and high cliffs, but it too was dry; only miles inland were there any trees and other natural vegetation. The specifics that Nephi described did not seem to appear in any one place, but were scattered over many miles. Some, in fact, were still missing.
Perhaps things had changed since Nephi‘s day. It was time to read First Nephi again.
As I re-read Nephi‘s account with greater intent than ever before it started to become apparent that it indeed contained a great deal more detail than previous readings showed. I began to write each aspect down and to analyze it. Over the next few days I revisited the entire Salalah area and began asking questions. I began to wonder what else may lie further along the coast both east and west. No-one seemed to know. There were no roads to go further.
A turning point came when I was conversing with a Pakistani man who had worked in Oman for many years. He told me that he had himself seen “large” trees further west, but maps then were so basic that I could not establish where the place was. But, once again, a door opened ever so slightly and I knew that it would be necessary to explore the coastline – all of it – until we knew what lay beyond. I began planning to return the following year and pursue that goal.
Meantime, my list of Nephi‘s criteria solidified as follows:
1. Bountiful is directionally linked to Nahom. It lay “nearly” eastward of Nahom (17:1), a location that is now identified with certainty in northern Yemen. Nephi used the same wording he had earlier used in describing the travel direction from the Valley of Lemuel (“nearly a south-southeast direction“ 16:13, 14, 33). Given his ability to accurately determine variations from the cardinal directions we should expect that Bountiful lies close to the 16th degree north latitude of Nahom.
2. Clearly, the terrain had to permit reasonable access from the interior deserts to the coast. At some places along the Arabian coast, the terrain is so rugged that overland travel from the interior is simply impossible.
3. Nephi‘s usage of the name “Bountiful“ suggests that a wider, general area (17:5, 7) may have enjoyed notable fertility in addition to the particular location where the Lehites initially camped (17:6), making any candidate location for Bountiful without a comparable surrounding fertile area less likely.
4. Bountiful, logically on the east coast of Arabia, was a coastal location (17:5), suitable for an initial seashore encampment in tents (17:6) but also with shelter available on higher ground in more substantial dwellings. It had to also offer a suitable place for the construction and launching of a sizable ship (18:8). Large vessels cannot easily be constructed over a year or more on a beach exposed to monsoon storms; anciently the most practical solution was the shores of a sheltered inlet or lagoon that protects from tides and storms while still allowing ready access to the ocean.
5. Bountiful was much more than just a suitable place to build and launch a ship; it derives its name from its fertility, especially its “much fruit“ and honey (17:5-6, 18:6) and perhaps also small game that could be hunted (18:6). As noted later in item 11, the strong likelihood is that Bountiful was uninhabited when Lehi arrived; this would require that the fruit mentioned was not cultivated but grew wild. The Hebrew term for “fruit“ normally refers to edible fruit and Nephi‘s use of the singular “fruit“ may imply that there was not necessarily a great variety of fruits. The apparent immediate availability of fruit upon arrival may explain the lack of any mention of the growing of crops at Bountiful by the group – unlike the description of their later arrival in the New World (18:24). However, some agricultural and fishing pursuits for addition food during the years of their stay at Bountiful are certain. The group‘s camels, of course, could still provide milk, hides, hair and meat throughout their time at Bountiful.
6. Enough shipbuilding timber of types and sizes to permit building a vessel able to carry several dozen persons and remain seaworthy for at least a year was available (18:1, 2). While teak was imported from India for shipbuilding in northern Oman since about the third millennium BC, there is no evidence for shipbuilding in southern Oman. The clear implication is that this place “prepared of the Lord“ had all the materials needed for the ship without recourse to obtaining timber from elsewhere. The wording of 18:1 conveys the impression that the timber was at hand. It is also worth noting that Nephi uses the plural whenever timber is mentioned, suggesting that more than one type of wood was involved, as is usual in shipbuilding.
7. Year-round freshwater at the site is required by the flora described and necessary for the extended stay required by the group to construct the ship without diverting significant energy and time to carrying it in from elsewhere.
8. A mountain, distinctive enough to justify Nephi‘s references to it as “the mount“ (17:7, 18:3) must be near enough to the coastal encampment to allow him to go there to “pray oft“ (18:3).
9. The incident of Nephi‘s brothers attempting to take his life by throwing him into the depths of the sea (17:48) makes little sense unless there were substantial cliffs overlooking the ocean from which to throw him. Cliffs also typically have rocks at their base from erosion and would constitute a real danger to anyone falling on them from a height, whereas a sand beach would not, especially for a young man who is described as being “large in stature“ (2:16) and “having much strength“ (4:31), regardless of any lack of swimming ability.
10. Ore, from which metal could be smelted to construct tools, was available in the vicinity (17:9-11, 16), perhaps with some type of flint (verse 11), seemingly near the ore source. While it remains possible that he carried some type of flint with him to make fire, his wording implies that it was available at, or near, the location of the ore source. Nephi does not specify the metal he used to make the hatchets, adzes, chisels, twist-drills, hammers and so on needed, but an iron alloy seems the most likely.
11. Despite the attractiveness of the place, the 17th chapter of First Nephi is full of clues indicating that Bountiful likely had little or no resident population at that time that could contribute tools and manpower to the ship building process.
After all, it required a specific revelation to show Nephi where ore could be found (17:9-10), then he expended great effort to locate the ore, fashion his own bellows, smelt it and then manufacture the tools he would need. Such basic items could surely have been easily obtained by anyone living in or near a populated sea-port.
It is also clear from the record that Nephi needed the labor of his brothers and Zoram; a populated location would offer other sources of labor. The continually dissenting Laman and Lemuel seem to have left Bountiful readily when the time came; living in a populated location would have given them an easy opportunity to return to their beloved Jerusalem on the next trade caravan, a journey of only about 4 months.
12. Coastal conditions obviously had to allow a ship access to the open ocean and to suitable winds and currents (18:8, 9) which could carry the vessel in, probably, an easterly direction toward the Pacific coast of the Americas, as Alma 22:28 seems to stipulate when it mentions that the west coast of the land was the place of “first inheritance.“
By the following October it was time to begin the exploration!
TO BE CONTINUED
1. Thomas Key, A Biologist Looks at the Book of Mormon (Issaquah, WA: Saints Alive in Jesus, 1985), 1-2. This quote originates in a longer article cataloging supposed scientific problems in the Book of Mormon; see “A Biologist Examines the Book of Mormon,” in Journal of American Scientific Affiliation 37 (Wheaton, IL: The Affiliation, June 1985), 96-99. I am unaware of any later claims ridiculing the concept of the Old World Bountiful.
2. See the entry “Arabia“ in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 14th ed. (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc, 1959) and the Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed. vol.1 (Leiden: Brill, 1960), 538.
3. For the Palinuris account, see Rev. Charles Forster, The Historical Geography of Arabia, vol. 2 (London: Duncan & Malcolm, 1844), 82, 85, 185, 194. Wendell Phillips, Unknown Oman (New York: David McKay Co, 1966), 168 carries the Crichton report.
4. Hugh W Nibley, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, vol. 5 (Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 109-113.
5. Lynn and Hope Hilton, “In Search of Lehi‘s Trail,“ Ensign (September and October, 1976).
6. Lynn and Hope Hilton, In Search of Lehi‘s Trail (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976) and Discovering Lehi: New Evidence of Lehi and Nephi in Arabia (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 1996).