Sunday, February 5, 2017

Traveling in the More Fertile Parts – Part II

Continuing with a reader’s question regarding the course Lehi took once leaving the Valley of Lemuel and crossing the River of Laban and heading south south-east along the Red Sea.
     Nephi did not record how long they camped beside the River of Laban in the Valley of Lemuel, before they knew that they would never return to Jerusalem; however, it would appear that Lehi knew they would not be returning for he spoke of the pending destruction of the city. In any event, of this period Nephi wrote only that "all these things were said and done as my father dwelt in a tent in the valley of Lemuel" (1 Nephi 16:6). Nephi will say later in his record that they "did sojourn for the space of many years, yea, even eight years in the wilderness. And we did come to the land which we called Bountiful" (1 Nephi 17:4-5).
    Strabo, a Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian who was born in the Greek city of Amisea in the district of Pontus, in 64/63 B.C., and lived in Asia Minor (Turkey) during the transitional period of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, and whose geography is the only extant work covering the whole range of peoples and countries known to both Greeks and Romans during the reign of Augustus (27 B.C. to 14 A.D.)—his Geography was contained in 17 books—wrote that a caravan journey from "Minaea to Aelena" (Yemen to Aqabah) took seventy days.
    Nigel Groom, was a British Arabist (non Arab specializing in Arba culture), historian, author, soldier, counter-espionage officer in MI5 and perfume expert. He was also a noted expert on the pre-Islamic history of the Arab world, and an expert on the Frankincense trade. He estimates that a commercial camel caravan could travel from Gaza to the Frankincense growing area at Dhofar (Salalah) in southern Arabia in 69-88 days.
He estimates the entire distance as 2,110 miles. The difference between 88 days and 8 years suggests that Lehi might have lived in the fertile valley of Lemuel for some time. Very likely, awaiting for word from the Lord to move on.
    In any event, Lehi's family appears to have been comfortable in the valley of Lemuel and probably felt no urgency to move on. Lehi, after all, having these large Bedouin tents, which have several rooms separated by rugs and blankets, in his possession before he left the area of Jerusalem, must have been quite comfortable living in a tent as numerous Arab and Jewish sheiks have been and some do today. Nephi, himself, described the pleasant time when he wrote: “And thus my father had fulfilled all the commandments of the Lord which had been given unto him. And also, I, Nephi, had been blessed of the Lord exceedingly” (1 Nephi 16:8).
    It appears that they only awaited the Lord for further commands and direction of travel.
    If we accept the seventy-two miles from Aqaba to Al Beda as the three-day journey into the wilderness (twenty-four miles per day), then a four-day journey would cover about ninety-six miles from the area of Ezion-Geber at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba to the campsite in the Valley of Lemuel. This would bring the colony approximately to Wadi Al Azlan, long an important and large oasis on the Red Sea coastal plain, which may have been the location of Shazer. The area is now a stretch of sterile sand with gently rising mountains in the east and the brilliant Red Sea on the west—along which the ancient Frankincense Trail once ran.
Along this stretch of the coastal plain there is no opportunity for a caravan to go inland, since the chain of wells lies down the Red Sea coast. Along the entire coast there are water wells that had been laboriously dug by hand and walled with stones. In terms of the accessibility of the water, desert tradition regards water as the gift of God to man, not something to be possessed and hoarded, but something to enjoy, rejoice in, and share freely with guests. Water is life in the desert; Lehi could not have traveled far without water for his family and animals to drink.
    It might also be assumed that the eight years time in the desert (1 Nephi 17:4) was spent during the growing seasons in raising crops. Lehi would have had to obtain access to irrigation water. There are many ancient wells, springs, and cisterns on this route, today flanked by modern drilled wells. The hard limestone well curbs on the old wells are usually deeply grooved where the ropes pulling up the skin buckets have rubbed their marks into the stone. Along the old trail in Saudi Arabia there are primitive pulleys and scaffolds over some wells where donkeys had pulled to the top an endless succession of skin buckets overflowing with water. A wooden beam would tip the buckets upside-down where the water is channeled into a ditch. Then the donkey would back up, allowing the empty buckets to right themselves and return to the bottom of the well to be refilled. Today this is accomplished by gasoline engines pumping the water up thirty or forty feet to the surface. There are even some continuously flowing springs with the stream carefully trenched to best distribute the precious water, but nowhere is there water without people and animals in the vicinity.
Large-scale maps drawn by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Natural Resources showing the route today, which Lehi undoubtedly followed, show 118 old-type springs or wells over the entire distance. These maps distinguish between “dug” wells that date back, in some cases, for thousands of years and the “drilled” wells that have been brought into production within the past few decades. If we assume that the water available now from the old dug wells along the route is much the same as it was in Lehi’s time, we discover that the average distance between each of these water sources is eighteen miles, the longest waterless stretch being sixty-six miles.
    The map shows two sections from Aqaba to Salalah where water is so scarce that travel would be difficult. The first is the journey from Jiddah, in Saudi Arabia, to Al Qunfudhah, which is close enough to the nineteenth parallel that it may have been Lehi’s camp Nahom, where Ishmael died. Here water was spaced out an average of twenty-four miles apart. The second sandy stretch appears on the eastward leg of the journey, running from Najran (near Nahom) in Saudi Arabia to Salalah in Oman, where water was found every twenty-six miles on the average. Interestingly enough, these two segments of the trip seem to have caused Lehi’s party the most suffering, according to Nephi’s account (1 Nephi 16:20; 17:1).
    Today, you can linger around several waterholes to observe the parade of Bedouin life that has not changed within the memory of man. The men lead camels or sheep up to drink, while one man draws the water from the well and pours it into the trough, another allows only one or two animals at a time to come drink. It requires real effort to quench a camel’s thirst after a dry spell. One camel can drink up to twenty-five gallons at a time. No doubt Lehi and his colony watered their animals in much the same way as these Bedouins do today.
    Thus, in answering your questions, yes, I think Lehi went right along the coastal escarpment of the Red Sea, moving around in that width of many miles according to the Liahona’s writing of where the more fertile parts were located at any one time. Yet, they basically traveled south-southeast until about the 19th parallel, then headed up over the mountains and to the east, though not a direct line—something like traveling south on the I-215 past the Salt Lake City International Airport, with the intent of reaching Suicide Rock along Parley’s Creek. You turn east on I-80, then loop south on I-15 to I-80 then head east again.
As for “wilderness,” the entire Tihamah Plain along the Red Sea was wilderness—that is it was not an occupied area with permanent settlements, but basically a “path” or “road” where the Frankincense Trail was located that saw thousands of caravans during the heyday of the spice trade.


  1. Thanks again!

    Your map does not show their trail turning East at the 19th Latitude, but more like the 17-1/2th one. Right on the 19th Lat there is a river bed that goes East from the present city of Al Quoz-- somewhat South of Al Qunfudhah. They could have went East then and eventually arrived at Najran (which is not near any Nahom I know of, but straight West of Salalah.)

    Just my take on it.

  2. I'm not ignoring your question, I have mapped this out to show where the 19th N Latitude would run but I'm trying to figure out how to post the map in this comments section.

  3. ERichard: This answer will appear when the current series regarding David McKane's map an comments is concluded