Saturday, February 4, 2017

Traveling in the More Fertile Parts – Part I

One of our readers asked a question about Lehi’s travel along the Red Sea, and its answer involved more than a simple “comment” type response, so we are writing this lengthy article to answer his two questions more fully. 
    Questions: “Do you believe Lehi and his group went right along the coast of the Red sea, or did they go along the trails over the mountains from the Red Sea as Potter describes? You seem to be saying they were traveling south-south east until the 19th N Latitude and then they turn east over the mountains—but it was not a continual east, but a path that followed along the bottom of the desert until they reached the Salalah area” ERichard.
    I re-read the text and after the valley of Lemuel the party goes in the "wilderness", not along the red sea. The "more fertile parts" seem to be over the coastal mountains and not along the red sea.
At Nahom they turn east. So if they turned east at the 19th N latitude, then that place would be Nahom or near Nahom
” ERichard.

Response: On the east shore of the Red Sea, or the western boundary of Saudia Arabia, which runs about 1118 miles from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Yemen border, around Jizan, just south of al Qunfudhah, and follows a mountain ridge of about 200 miles to the vicinity of Najran on the south coast. This Red Sea coastal plain, called Tihamah (Tihamat Al-Hejaz (northern part) and Tihamat Asir (southern part). This plain reaches its widest part, about 40 to 50 miles below Medina and Mecca. The temperatures along this sandy, coastal plain of Tihamah—a term in Arabic that means “severe heat and lack of wind,” are some of the hottest on eartha most inhospitable area.
    The extensive sandy, though relatively flat coastal plain (the Tihamah) is a hot and hostile area parallel to the Red Sea, and most of it is devoid of trees, with just few a few places of dense shrub composed almost exclusively of Acacia (ehrenbergiana) and it may be assumed that this was originally the dominant natural vegetation of the Tihamah. Salvadora occurs in thickets, and there are odd trees of Balanites aegyptiaca and colonies of wild doum. Thus, it would be understood that the Liahona showed Lehi where “the more fertile parts of the wilderness” were located (1 Nephi 16:16).
Since the Greek historian Strabo, writing in the first century A.D., reported that “the camel-merchants traveled through this area only by night, looking to the stars for guidance, and, like the mariners, also carried water with them when they traveled,” it is likely that Lehi would have done the same. Also, since we are told that Lehi took provisions with him, and after the marriages and they headed down the Red Sea coast, they still had “the remainder of our provisions” (1 Nephi 16:11), they were not subject to stopping or foraging for food and could well have traveled by night for a time. When they stopped for a restful period (typically seven to ten days), they went hunting and Nephi broke his bow, causing the party to suffer greatly from lack of food (1 Nephi 16:19)—Obviously, this travel along the Red Sea was burdensome and not without great difficulty.
    Now along this coastal escarpment, called the Tihamah Plain, which was many miles wide, there were numerous wadis where some plants continued to grow, and provided some moisture and relief along the way. It might be noted here that simply because a centuries-old frankincense trail existed even in Lehi’s time does not mean that Lehi knew how far he was to go on it, or where he might break from the more traveled part of the trail to pursue the lesser traveled portion. Thus, Lehi truly needed the Liahona. Of course, the Liahona was used and given to Lehi’s family as much for spiritual guidance as for directional guidance in their travels, and worked only when they were righteous. Refusal to repent caused them to lose their way both physically and spiritually. The analogy is instructive.
    At what is now al-Qunfudhah (Kunfuda, an ocean-going port on the Red Sea), and bay with its 15 to 20 feet high white sand hills standing at its head, and rocky beach, which is more diverse than sandy ones, and high coral patchy Sawle Reef awash at low tide, cover the reefs that are world renowned in the shallow waters off Saudi Arabia. At this point, the old Frankincense Trail heads up over the Asir (meaning “difficult”) mountains, the southern continuation of the Hejaz (meaning “the barrier”) mountains, from the sea inland and onto the plateau that covers much of the Arabian Peninsula. With its flat relief broken by mesas, steep-sided rock plateaus and cuestasridges with one steep and the gentle slope, the Trail edges along the back side of those mountains in the foothills southward and curving with the foothills of the Jabal an Nabi Shu’ayb along the outskirts of the desert (Empty Quarter – “The Rub,” or Rub’ al Khali) and across the towering sand dunes.
Looking at the scriptures and the landscape together give one a clue to the course taken:
1. For the Liahona to point “the way whither we should go into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:10 was an indication to Lehi’s party that they should keep going south-southeast rather than crossing the sea at that point or going east into the mountains. This direction coincided with the relatively safe frankincense trail—meaning its survival with water holes.
2. However, the “trail” was as wide as the coastal plain—up to forty-eight miles at its widest point. Caravans seeking camel fodder would, of course, use its entire width. A little farther down the coast, after Shazer, Nephi specifies that the Liahona directed them “in the most fertile parts of the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:14), possibly to patches of rain-fed grass as well as the more copious or less used waterholes found along the wadis.
3. The Liahona was the vital instrument when Nephi, with his newly fashioned wooden bow, asked where he should go to obtain food. The ball sent him “forth up into the top of the mountain” where, in fact, he did find game (1 Nephi 16:30-31).
4. Nephi does not mention the Liahona’s directions when they continued their trek, but surely it was the reason they traveled “nearly the same course as in the beginning” (1 Nephi 16:33).
5. Farther south and east, they had to make a decision of which route to take when the frankincense trail branches, one fork going south toward busy cities and the other fork going east on a more difficult route. Again, it was probably the Liahona that indicated that they should travel “eastward.”
    Following the first directions given by the Liahona, Lehi gave instructions to break camp in the valley Lemuel. The group crossed the river Laman and then went in “nearly a south-southeast direction” for “the space of four days” to a place they named Shazer (1 Nephi 16:13). This leg of their journey took them downstream to the shores of the Red Sea, where they continued down the Tihamah.
(See the next post, “Traveling in the More Fertile Parts – Part II,” for more regarding Lehi’s course along the Red Sea and turning eastward into the desert)


  1. Thank you for this.

    Have you seen Potter's version of where they went, called "DISCOVERING LEHI'S TRAIL"?

  2. Yes. I am inclined to accept that movement from Jerusalem to the Red Sea. Beyond that there are some reservations.