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MormanityShazer on Lehi's Trail: Perhaps More Interesting Than You Thought
by Jeff Lindsay
Book of Mormon critics and skeptics strive to downplay the significance of evidence from the Arabian Peninsula that appears to weigh strongly in favor of the plausibility of Nephi's account. Those things that are most impressive are said to be either lucky guesses or something that could be easily done with resources that were theoretically available to Joseph.
Some claim that the Arabian Peninsula evidence can be accounted for by simply looking at a map of Arabia made before 1830, such as the map of D'Anville that does indeed show the name Nehem. So far, my requests to explain how that could be done, even with the best available map in hand, have resulted in extremely weak responses.
Apparently all Joseph had to do was find Nehem on the map, send Nephi there, have him turn east, and voila, the voyage is done. Piece of cake. But even with a top-notch map that Joseph probably never saw and with all the advantages of hindsight, it's still hard for me to see how anyone could look at the available maps and come up with the many plausible, evidence-laden details we can extract from First Nephi 16-17.
Those details include the finding of plausible candidates for the River of Laman and the Valley of Lemuel, the ability to turn east near Nahom and survive (that's the only place where the south-southeast trails do offer an eastward turn — who would you know that from the map that people imagine Joseph must have had?), and outstanding candidates for Bountiful that are, as Nephi described, nearly due east of Nahom.
For some of the details related to Bountiful, you can see a list in Warren Aston's 1998 article at the Maxwell Institute, but please see the PDF version of that article to see some images as well (6.3 Mb). Few of the evidences for authenticity related to Bountiful can be extrapolated from any map in Joseph's day, and even modern maps won't help much.
One more detail involves the place Shazer along Lehi's trail. There's more to Shazer than just a name. The Book of Mormon provides details that are usually overlooked by critics. Shazer is introduced as Nephi's group leaves the Valley of Lemuel (1 Nephi 16:11–14):
11 And it came to pass that we did gather together whatsoever things we
should carry into the wilderness, and all the remainder of our
provisions which the Lord had given unto us; and we did take seed of
every kind that we might carry into the wilderness.
12 And it came to pass that we did take our tents and depart into the wilderness, across the river Laman.
13 And it came to pass that we traveled for the space of four days, nearly a south-southeast direction, and we did pitch our tents again; and we did call the name of the place Shazer.
14 And it came to pass that we did take our bows and our arrows, and go forth into the wilderness to slay food for our families; and after we had slain food for our families we did return again to our families in the wilderness, to the place of Shazer. And we did go forth again in the wilderness, following the same direction, keeping in the most fertile parts of the wilderness, which were in the borders near the Red Sea.
Nephi's use of borders, as had been pointed out by Kent Brown, may refer to mountains in the area. See S. Kent Brown, "New Light from Arabia on Lehi's Trail," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch, (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002).
George Potter and Richard Wellington in Lehi in the Wilderness says that he learned from local Arabs that the name of the mountains in northwest Arabia, the Hejaz, means "borders." He notes that the Hebrew word for borders, gebul, is cognate with Arabic jabal (jebel, djebel) meaning mountain (p. 3). So references to the borders near the Red Sea could logically refer to mountains. Strong's Concordance for gebul also notes that one meaning can be a concrete object marking a limit.
Starting with the proposed location of the Valley of Lemuel, the place Shazer needs to be within a four-day journey along a south-southeast direction.
Regarding the place name Shazer, Nigel Groom's Dictionary of Arabic Topography and Placenames (Beirut: Libraire du Liban; London: Longman, 1983; cited by Potter and Wellington, p. 73) provides an entry for a similar word, shajir: "A valley or area abounding with trees and shrubs."
Regarding Shazer, Hugh Nibley wrote:
The first important stop after Lehi's party had left their base camp was at a place they called Shazer. The name is intriguing. The combination shajer is quite common in Palestinian place names; it is a collective meaning "trees," and many Arabs (especially in Egypt) pronounce it shazher.
It appears in Thoghret-as-Sajur (the Pass of Trees), which is the ancient Shaghur, written Segor in the sixth century. It may be confused with Shaghur "seepage," which is held to be identical with Shihor, the "black water" of Josh. 19:36.
This last takes in western Palestine the form Sozura, suggesting the name of a famous water hole in South Arabia, called Shisur by Thomas and Shisar by Philby. ... So we have Shihor, Shaghur, Sajur, Saghir, Segor (even Zoar), Shajar, Sozura, Shisur, and Shisar, all connected somehow or other and denoting either seepage — a weak but reliable water supply — or a clump of trees.
Whichever one prefers, Lehi's people could hardly have picked a better name for their first suitable stopping place than Shazer. (Lehi in the Desert [Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1952], p. 90.)
In a brief article in the 1992 Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Nibley simply suggested that Shazer is derived from the Arabic shajer, meaning trees or place of trees ("Book of Mormon Near Eastern Background," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), p. 188).
The Book of Mormon description of Shazer as a place where Lehi's group would stop and go hunting — obviously a place with water and wildlife where one could stay for a while on a long journey — agrees well with the meaning of the word Shazer.
Again, the Book of Mormon text provides a highly plausible name that accurately corresponds to the place described. But is there such a place in the area required by the Book of Mormon?
Before going any further, let us note that Shazer is introduced in a classic Hebraism: "we did call the name of the place Shazer" (1 Nephi 16:13). In normal English we would say that we called the place Shazer or named the place Shazer, but in Hebrew one would say that he called the name of the place, for it is the name that is called, not the place itself.
This point is made by John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne, eds., Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991), p. 89.
But what of the place itself?
It turns out that there is a reasonable fit for Shazer, a large, extensive oasis region with what is said to be the best hunting in all of Arabia, and it is in the right location to have been a four-days' journey south-southeast of the established location for the Valley of Lemuel, near a branch of the ancient frankincense trail and in the region of Arabia near the Red Sea called the Hijaz. This oasis is in the wadi Agharr. It's in the right place.
But my guess is that you aren't going to come up with this location and its context by glancing at an old map of Arabia.
In Lehi in the Wilderness, Potter and Wellington explain that they initially thought it would be easy to find Shazer, knowing that Nephi's group traveled 75 miles (almost certainly with camels) from the Gulf of Aqaba to the proposed site of the Valley of Lemuel in three days (p. 73). They concluded that the four-day journey from the Valley of Lemuel to Shazer required simply finding an oasis within 100 miles south-southeast of the Valley of Lemuel.
However, many challenges stood in their way, and it would require three more field trips in their spare time over the next two years before they knew for sure that they had found Shazer. The following passage from Potter and Wellington describes how they located a candidate for Shazer (pages 74,76-78):
Our first attempts at finding Shazer took us to the wells of Bani Murr and an-na'mi, to the east of the valley. Our second trip through the Khuraybah pass proved no more successful. These sites did not fit the description of a valley with trees. In fact, they were downright inhospitable. . . .
It wasn't until the summer of 2000 that the whereabouts of Shazer became apparent. We realized that Lehi's first camp after the valley had to have been at an authorized halt along the Gaza branch of the Frankincense Trail [the Valley of Lemuel was along this branch]. He would not have been allowed to stop anywhere else, and it had to be at a well site.
That spring Richard had been reading the works of Alois Musil, a Bohemian academic and explorer who doubled up as a German spy before World War I.... One piece of his record stood out to Richard. Musil recorded, "We ... crossed the old Pilgrim Road of ar-Rasifijje leading southward to the hills of Kos al-Hnane, where spirits abide. Date palms were still growing in parts of the valley, so that the oasis of Sarma could be extended a full twenty-five kilometers to the east."
Musil described a fertile valley with an oasis over fifteen miles long which was approximately south-southeast from the Valley of Lemuel and was crossed by the old pilgrim route that followed the Gaza arm of the old Frankincense Trail that was an active trade route in Nephi's time.
We found Musil's description of Agharr most interesting because on a prior trip to Midian we had been told by the Police General at al-Bada that the best hunting in the entire area was in the mountains of Agharr.
Here at last was the solid clue we had been looking for....
[The authors then discuss evidence from old Arab geographers that the first rest stop after al-Bada'a, also known as Midian, was Al-Aghra', which appears to be the wadi Agharr.] Nephi recorded that their first halting place after leaving the Valley of Lemuel was a place of trees where they stopped to hunt.
Now we had evidence from independent sources that the first rest stop after Midian on the ancient Gaza branch of the Frankincense Trail was in a fertile valley with trees, wadi Agharr, and the surrounding mountains presented the best hunting opportunities along the trail. The next step was to visit Al-Agharr....
From al Bada'a we headed the sixty miles south southeast to wadi Agharr and our potential location for Shazer. To our right the Red Sea glittered in the bright noon light, to our left the mountains of the Hijaz towered over us, purple in the midday sun. Between al Bada'a and wadi Agharr we found a few small scattered farms and a few old wells.
Here, where the water table was higher, there may well have been halts anciently where the families could have rested each evening as they headed southeast. As we reached wadi Agharr ... [t]here was a gap in the mountains where the trail led.
Through the gap we could see some palm trees in the wadi. Entering the wadi we were amazed to find an oasis that ran as far as the eye could see both to our left and to our right.
Wadi Agharr was exactly as Musil had described--fields of vegetables and plantations of palms stretching for miles. It is a narrow valley, perhaps one hundred yards across, bounded on each side by high walls stretching up a few hundred feet.
"Shazer" was certainly an apt description for this location — a valley with trees, set amid the barren landscape of Midian. Here, after three years of fruitless searching, systematically visiting all the wells in a seventy-five mile radius of wadi Tayyab al Ism, we had finally found Shazer.
[The authors then discuss the presence of "Midianite" archaeological sites in the region, dating to the late second to mid-first millennium B.C., suggesting that the valley was fertile anciently.]
On a later expedition we returned to Shazer and drove up into the mountains in the area we thought the men of Lehi's party would have gone to hunt. We spoke with Bedouins who lived in the upper end of wadi Agharr who told us that Ibex lived in the mountains and they still hunted them there.
We were reminded of the words of the Greek Agatharkides of Cnidos who called this area anciently the territory of Bythemani. According to Agatharkides, "The country is full of wild camels, as well as of flocks of deer, gazelles, sheep, mules, and oxen ... and by it dwell the Batmizomaneis who hunt land animals." [Alois Musil, Northern Hijaz — A Topographical Itinerary, published under the patronage of the Czech Academy of Arts and Sciences and of Charles R. Crane, 1926, p. 303]
It may have been these very animals that Lehi and his sons went out to hunt.
Here at wadi Agharr is a site that perfectly matches Nephi's Shazer. It probably has the best hunting along the entire Frankincense Trail. It is the first place travelers would have been allowed to stop and pitch tents south of Midian, and as the Book of Mormon states, it is a four days' journey from the Valley of Lemuel (1 Ne. 16:13).
Their candidate for Shazer is a plausible four days' journey away from their stunning candidate for the Valley Lemuel and River Laman. One skeptic, on the other hand, proposes that Joseph got the name Shazer from a tiny town called Hazire along the incense trail, but it is located far too far south to fit the Book of Mormon.
And if Joseph's purpose was to add "local color" and evidence, as he implies, why make the name relatively unrecognizable, why pick a tiny town whose name nobody will ever hear of, why not use any major names and features from the map, and why did Joseph and his peers never bring up the potential evidences obtained from the map to buttress Book of Mormon credibility?
The many evidences from Arabia were unknown to members in the first 150 years of the Church. The "Joseph used a map to create Book of Mormon evidence" theory makes no sense.
To better appreciate Shazer, a few small photos of the candidate for Shazer are available on the photo page at NephiProject.com, but a much more impressive photo of the many palm trees at Shazer is on page 77 of Potter's and Wellington's book, which I urge you to see for yourself.
Potter and Wellington offer much more as they retrace Nephi's journey. For example, after Shazer, Nephi writes that they traveled through the "most fertile parts" (1 Nephi 16:14) and then subsequently through "more fertile parts" that can be understood to be less fertile than the "most fertile" parts.
These fertile regions were encountered before they turned due east, which began the most difficult part of their journey. Along the ancient incense trail, continuing just after Shazer until Medina, one encounters a region of the Hijaz called Qura Arabiyyah or "the Arab Villages" which are described by Arabs as the "fertile parts" of the land.
It is the part of the trail with the highest concentration of farms and rest stops for caravans, and truly fits the Book of Mormon description. After Medina, there are fewer farms, but still enough fertile places to be called "the more fertile parts." (See pages 82-92 of Potter and Wellington, including excellent photos and a satellite map.)
Knowledge of these many fertile regions in the midst of the barren Arabian Peninsula was largely hidden from the west until recently. These are rare and unusual places in the Arabian Peninsula, and Joseph simply could not have known of them.
Consider what we have here, with the finding of a plausible candidate for Shazer, and the many other "direct hits" regarding the Arabian Peninsula. Now take a look at a map of Arabia and tell me how young Joseph Smith, even with the aid of mystery scholars, would have placed Shazer so plausibly.
Is it just luck that the "most fertile parts" come right after Shazer, followed by the "more fertile parts," after which things become much more difficult and presumably a lot less fertile?
"Fertile parts" in Arabia is not part of basic common knowledge. If Joseph understood what "Arabia Foelix" meant on the map and knew of reports of that fertile region, he would have placed the most fertile parts way south on the journey, but those fertile parts were not along Nephi's route.
Nothing available to Joseph in 1829, in my opinion, could have guided him in providing so many correct details of Nephi's voyage to the sea through the Arabian Peninsula. Nothing would have enabled him to describe the Valley of Lemuel, the River of Laman, or the place Shazer, a four-day journey (by camel) south-southeast of the Valley of Lemuel, with the best hunting in the entire area and an abundance of trees, corresponding well with the Semitic meaning of the name Shazer.
Joseph knew nothing of Hebrew or Arabic at the time, and the western world knew precious little about the Arabian Peninsula. Attempting to describe details of the voyage would have been foolhardy in the extreme.
If Joseph or anyone else had made up the story, it would have been important to be as vague as possible, not giving specific directions, distances, and descriptions. The only way such an account could be done with any hope of being plausible would be if the account were written by someone who actually made the trip.
To me, a more reasonable explanation is that whoever wrote First Nephi 16 and 17 had firsthand knowledge of the region, knowledge going far beyond what anyone in the States could glean from a map. So the real mystery here is not whether or not Joseph sneaked off to a remote library to gaze at a map, only to not use any of the detailed "local color" he could pull from it to impress people in his day (only to wait for over a century to be noticed).
The real question we need to be asking, if we are looking for answers, is who knew of these places, apparently from firsthand observation, and how that information was transmitted to Joseph. Better questions lead to better answers.
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