Wednesday, December 10, 2014

In the More Fertile Parts

Once Lehi left the Valley of Lemuel, he and his party crossed the River Laman and traveled in a south-southeast direction for four days. Nephi writes: “And we did pitch our tents again; and we did call the name of the place Shazer” (1 Nephi 16:13). Here they rested for a time while Nephi and his brothers went hunting. 
The area of Shazer in the Wadi Agharr, full of trees and water between the mountains and the Red Sea
    This area Lehi called Shazer was likely the Wadi Agharr, an extensive oasis valley near both the Red Sea and the branch of the Frankincense Trail. The wadi lies in a narrow valley, perhaps a hundred yards across, bounded on each side by high walls stretching up a few hundred feet and filled with trees. The name Shazer (valley with trees) is aptly given to this valley set amid the barren landscape of Midian. There is a gap in the mountains that allows entrance to the valley that is filled with palm trees and runs for miles in each direction. Fields of potatoes and a few old wells dot the landscape and archaeological sites suggest the valley was fertile anciently.
The Hijaz, and the mountains around are filled with the Ibex, a wild goat (left), that frequented the rough dry terrain of the high mountains along the coastal range, as well as certain areas of the peninsula and throughout Israel. Standing about two to three feet high at the shoulder, and weighing 110 pounds, they were hunted anciently as well as today. In addition, wild camels, flocks of deer, gazelles, sheep, mules and oxen roam the area and have since before the first millennium B.C.
    After leaving Shazer along the Red Sea, Nephi writes: “And we did follow the directions of the ball, which led us in the more fertile parts of the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:16).
The more fertile parts of the desert are those areas that are watered from underground channels or the aquifer, which can run for many miles, though they shift from year to year
    The more fertile parts of the desert down the coastal Frankincense Route along the Red Sea. These spots of fertility shift with the seasons, and it took the Liahona to point out to Lehi where they were located (1 Nephi 16:16). These fertile parts are where bushes and vegetation grow over the underground water channels or aquifers, which sometimes run for hundreds of miles. In the area Lehi traveled, of course, there are no permanent rivers or lakes and very little rainfall. Water is scarce and aquifers are a major source of water. These vast underground reservoirs of water have always existed, yet as late as the 1970s, were relatively unknown until the Saudi government undertook a major effort to locate and map them and estimate their capacity. As a result, tens of thousands of deep tube wells were dug in the most promising areas for both urban and agricultural use. But in Lehi’s time, where these aquifers and channels were located was not always known, even to those who lived in the desert all their lives.
    However, many uninformed writers and historians have scoffed at “fertile parts” of this barren desert strip between the sea and the Mountains. In fact, the famous explorer Richard Burton described the Hijaz in these words: “Nowhere had I seen a land in which the earth’s anatomy lies so barren, or one richer in volcanic or primary formations.”
    If Joseph Smith, or anyone else, had made up the Book of Mormon, one has to wonder what could have possessed him to state that there were “fertile parts” in this type of landscape. Here would be an obvious place to show that the Book of Mormon was a fraud. Yet what might at first seem to be a great flaw in Nephi’s text is actually one of the most compelling witnesses for its historical accuracy, for not only were the large oasis towns mostly located on the Frankincense Trail (al-Bada a, al-Aghra at Wadi Agharr, Shuwaq, Shagbh, Dedan, Medina, etc.), but also each of these oases had a farming community associated with it.
    In fact, the slopes of these hills are strewn with wadis, the courses of ancient rivers, where underground aquifer channels continue to be fed by rains that are channeled into them. As a result, some of these wadis are actually fertile. In the Hijaz, wells are abundant, and springs are common in the mountainous areas. Elsewhere, in the Wasai, the largest aquifer in Arabia, there is more water than contained in the entire Persian Gulf. It is not that there is no water, but knowing where to find it. Obviously, when Nephi tells us the ball showed them the more fertile parts, the Lord was guiding them through these areas that would not actually be known that well until one or two thousand years later.
Some of the more fertile parts of the desert through which Lehi traveled along the Frankincense Trail
    Yet there is a second, equally compelling argument supporting the veracity of Joseph Smith’s translation. In pre-Islamic times there was a series of villages along a 215-mile section of the Frankincense Trail, incorporating the 12 halt settlements between Dedan and Medina. They were known anciently as the Qura Arabiyyah or the “Arab Villages.” These villages with their cultivated lands were linked together by the Frankincense Trail. Surrounded by thousands of square miles of barren terrain, the cultivated lands stood out from the surrounding desert like pearls adorning a chain along the south-southeast course of the trail. The old name for this area is interesting in light of the fact that Nephi refers to it as “the most fertile parts.” According to the Saudi Arabian Department of Antiquities and Museums, Wadi Ula (Qura) at the northern end of the Qura Arabiyyah, where the ruins of Dedan were, was called Hijr in antiquity (alternatively spelled Hājir or Mahājir), which means, among other things, “a fertile piece of land.”
    In his book Tahdhib, the Islamic geographer al-Azhar explains that the Arabs who lived in the Qura Arabiyyah (the villages along the Frankincense Trail) were called the Muhājirun, meaning “the fertile pieces of land” (the plural form of Hājir or Mahājir). Thus when Nephi describes that the family traveled in the most “fertile parts,” it is quite probable that he was using a real name for this area. It is interesting that the name Muhājirun, or “fertile parts,” occurs nowhere else in Arabia and is situated only on the Frankincense Trail, after the two locations that would appear to perfectly fit Nephi’s descriptions of both the Valley of Lemuel and of Shazer—quite a coincidence!
    Obviously, Nephi’s narrative supports that of a person who had an eyewitness account of the area, which is borne out in three descriptive events:
    1. Nephi’s description of the trail depicts declining fertility, from “the most fertile parts” (1 Nephi 16:14) to “more fertile parts” (16:16) to an area where the party had to pitch their tents and go into the mountains to hunt for food—the camp where Nephi broke his bow (1 Nephi 16:17, 30)—and finally to an area of presumably no fertility where the family was starving and near perishing (1 Nephi 16:35). This is exactly what is found along this branch of the Frankincense Trail. This change is borne out today by seeing that there are an average of one cultivated area every eleven miles, but beyond the point mentioned, there is only one every 50 miles, showing the change from most fertile to fertile to little, if any fertility, and the latter part of that route to where it turned east, with a cultivated area every 160 miles!
    2. As already mentioned, the wood necessary to construct a bow (after Nephi broke his steel bow and his brother’s bows lost their spring), is found along this trail at the appropriate point—an area which is high in the mountains just west of the trail near the halt of Bishah.
    3. After some 1,400 miles traveling about a “south-southeast direction,” the family reached a place that, as Nephi informs us, “was called Nahom” (1 Nephi 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 Nephi 16:39). Numerous researchers have placed this area, matching all the information in the seven verses covering this stop where Ishmael was buried (1 Nephi 16:33–39).

No comments:

Post a Comment