In Search of Lehi’s Trail, Part 3

“In Search of Lehi’s Trail, Part 3,” Tambuli, Sept. 1977, 30

In Search of Lehi’s Trail, Part 3

Last of Three Parts

As we have discussed earlier (see TM, July 77, p. 5), Lehi bypassed Yemen and the Hadhramaut Valley, which were then and still are densely populated regions. The people of the ancient kingdom of Malanan, Saudi Arabia, as nearly as we can determine, were the first to establish a kingdom there—in 1200 B.C. The people of the kingdom of Saba (Shena) in Saudi Arabia who succeeded them were ruling in the days of Lehi.

There is other evidence to indicate that Lehi did not travel through Yemen and the Hadhramaut. Nephi records that during this part of the journey, they ate raw meat, built no fires, “waded” through “much affliction,” and finally arrived at a fertile land on the seacoast. (See 1 Ne. 17:1–5.) Had they traveled along the main frankincense trail that turns and goes further south through Yemen, they would have gone through fertile country much of the time.

Instead, Lehi and his party turned nearly eastward (See TM, July 77, p. 6–15) along a shorter but more difficult part of the frankincense trail that skirted the very fringe of the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert on earth. Stretching north and east of Najran, the frankincense trail runs along its southern border. We flew, not drove, over part of this area. It was a rocky area like the surface of the moon, barren and treeless except for an occasional bunch of grass or a small shrub. Broken rocks fissured by earthquakes and erosion covered the barren villages. We must have been following a thunderstorm, for there was water standing or running in many of the wadis.

We were greatly blessed in our effort to obtain visas into Salalah in Dhofar. (See illustration 7.) Our request for visas made months before in the United States had been politely but firmly refused; Dhofar was disputed territory between Oman and Yemen and not a safe place for tourists. When we reached Muscat, Oman, we called on the Minister of Information, a young man, fluent in English, and explained that we had come all the way from America to see the big trees at Salalah because we had an ancient book that reported a Semite family’s building a ship, perhaps from those trees, to sail to America where their descendants became the American Indians. He was astonished.

“Salalah is my home and there are large trees there, but I have never heard this story.” He agreed to give us passes into the war zone if we would bring letters of introduction from the U.S. Embassy in Muscat. We acquired the desired letter of introduction. Because of the tense military situation, we were asked to fly down one day and return the next. We were naturally disappointed to have only 24 hours in Salalah, but we agreed cheerfully. We discovered later that on the day before our arrival at Muscat, the commander of the rebel forces had surrendered to the Sultan of Oman, ending 13 years of hostilities. Thus, two days after our arrival in Oman, the Minister of Information was willing to issue a pass into the war zone.

“We were exceedingly rejoiced when we came to the seashore,” said Nephi. “We called [the land] Bountiful, because of its much fruit and also wild honey [which] were prepared of the Lord that we might not perish. And we beheld the sea, which we called Irreantum, which, being interpreted, is many waters.

“And it came to pass that we did pitch our tents by the seashore.” (1 Ne. 17:5–6.)

Nephi rejoiced to arrive in Bountiful; we rejoiced to arrive in Salalah. All of our research before we left the United States had led us to the conclusion that this little land, the one spot on the entire 2,200 km southern coastline with enough moisture to grow any kind of tree, was indeed the ancient Bountiful of Nephi’s account. (See illustration 10.) We felt all the impact of that old story—never so alive as now—as we walked on the beach where Nephi may have explained Old Testament scriptures to his brothers, relating miracles that had brought the children of Israel out of Egypt; where Nephi may have testified of his faith in the miracles that the Lord would perform to lead them, as descendants of Moses’ people, across the sea to the Promised Land. (1 Ne. 17:23–32, 49–51.)

SALALAH, OMAN (probable Bountiful)

Illustration 10
SALALAH, OMAN (probable Bountiful)

The old frankincense road comes through the sand and gravel plain, over the Qara Mountains to the north, and down to the moon-shaped coastal plain of Salalah which is 12 km deep at its greatest width. The Qara Mountains encircle this little plain, their southern slopes covered with vegetation watered by the monsoons which touch this place and no other on the entire southern coast of the Arabian peninsula.

Several wadis empty into the coastal plain. Ein Arzat, an ample spring, would have been a logical place for the two-to-three-year encampment that would have allowed the little colony time to prepare provisions and build a ship. Had Lehi chosen, he could have used spring water to irrigate crops; and, since Nephi specifically mentions “much fruits” and “seeds” among their provisions, they must have acquired them in Bountiful (1 Ne. 18:6.)

Of course, if our conclusion that Salalah is Bountiful is correct, Lehi’s colony was not alone there. This was the end of the frankincense trail where the frankincense trees grew, so there would also have been farmers, merchants, inns, businesses, etc. In addition to the trail caravaners, there would have been sailors and ships, for Salalah was also a port. It is believed that boats from the west, north, and east—even from Judea—sailed into this busy little port.

North of the Qara Mountains, not on the well-watered southern slopes, extend vast fields of frankincense trees. The actual coastal plain of Salalah has lush vegetation wherever water comes from the several wadis, but otherwise it is as barren as most places in the American Southwest. The slopes of the mountains were entirely covered with waist-high grass and clumps of the great jumaise-sycamore fig trees. Our rifle-toting guide assured us that during the monsoon season, the valleys are filled with mist and rain and the vegetation becomes luxuriantly tropical. Wild flowers and equally wild honeybees pursue their mutual duties over the hills. We saw honeycombs stacked almost carelessly in hollow trees.

An interesting confirmation that the weather has not changed much over the past 2,000 years in Dhofar comes from the writer of the Periplus, who said: “The Frankincense Country [(Dhofar) is] mountainous and forbidding, wrapped in thick clouds and fog, and yielding frankincense from the trees.” (The Periplus, p. 33.) Other explorers who had preceded us found similar conditions: Bertram Thomas in the 1920s described the “thickly wooded wadis” (Arabia Felix, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932, p. 100) and Wilfred Thesiger described “jungle trees … and on the hills great fig trees [which] rise above the wind-rippled grass like oaks in an English park.” (Thesiger, p. 47.)

We were puzzled by his calling them fig trees, because fig trees are relatively small and are an extremely soft wood—not suitable at all for shipbuilding. As we walked the hills ourselves, we saw that they were not fig trees but jumaise, or sycamore-figs, a hardwood that produces a sweet fruit. Some of the trees were so large that we could not encircle them with our arms, and most of them reach a height of 15 m. The wood is very strong, resilient to seawater, and almost free from knots. The jumaise lumber is used for ships to this very day.

If Salalah is indeed Bountiful, Nephi was not exaggerating when he called the land Bountiful because of its fruitfulness. It springs to life at the touch of water, and the local farmers assured us that they make 10 cuttings of alfalfa a year. We saw a whole potential market of fruits growing—citrons, limes, oranges, dates, bananas, grapes, apricots, coconuts, figs, and melons—and a profusion of wild flowers. White jasmine hung in garlands from the trees; we smelled flowers on the breeze. Cattle grazed on the mountains. In well-irrigated spots, the grass was above our heads—over 1.8 m tall.

If this place were to qualify as Bountiful, one of the additional features it would need would be cliffs, from which Nephi’s older brothers could have threatened to throw him “into the depths of the sea” (1 Ne. 17:48), an act you can hardly perform from a sandy beach. To the east, the shore curves away as far as you can see, but to the west, the Salalah beach terminates abruptly in magnificent cliffs that plummet about 30 m straight into the sea. We climbed to the top by an easy route and there found fortifications for a gun emplacement. The view straight down to the churning waves edged us nervously back. Our minds were thundering with the question, could Nephi have been threatened by his brothers on this spot or one like it nearby?

Our questions about the seeds, fruit, wild honey, cliffs, and trees suitable for shipbuilding were thus satisfied, but one major question remained unsettled: where might Nephi have gone to find ore to make his tools? Conscious of our approaching deadline to leave Salalah, we had no time to ramble through the mountains; but local people told us of an iron mine in a neighboring province. Even if there had been nothing nearer in Nephi’s time, he would have been able to make the 10-day journey to Jabal Al Akhdar to obtain ore there. However, we felt that Nephi had probably found his own source under the inspiration of the Lord, rather than going to a working mine, for he states that he made fire by striking two stones together and that he had to make his own bellows of skins to blow the fire. (1 Ne. 17:10–11.) Surely, he would not have needed to improvise such basic equipment if the local people had an iron industry. We speculated on what he must have learned in the villages back along the seacoast and from the iron industry that was in full-swing at Aqaba when he passed through years earlier. We could not question that ironworking was a known skill to Nephi’s contemporaries. Isaiah 54:16 describes how the smith made steel from iron ore by using a charcoal fire. [Isa. 54:16] Adam’s grandson, Tubal Cain, was the first metalworker, recorded at the very dawn of earth’s history. (Gen. 4:22.) Six references in the Book of Mormon establish that the Nephites in America used iron and steel. (See 2 Ne. 5:15; Jarom 1:8; Mosiah 11:3, 8; Ether 7:9, Ether 10:23.) No doubt Nephi passed these useful skills on to his children and grandchildren.

We indulged in a few moments of reverie, imagining the ship that Nephi might have built. Accustomed to industrial methods as we were, we had been surprised repeatedly by the traditions of craftsmanship we met as we came down the coast, each generation inheriting the knowledge of the previous generations. In Yanbu, Saudi Arabia, we asked one shipbuilder where his plans were; he pointed to his head.

In his mind were plans sufficiently detailed for him to lay out the dimensions of the ship he was building, to fasten ribs to keel, and to join planks to ribs without reference to any written diagram.

We noticed two basic patterns of shipbuilding in the shipyards we visited in Jiddah and Salalah. In each case, the builder laid the keel and fastened the ribs to the keel. The ribs were always made out of tree limbs whose curve provided the desired angle for the ribs. Planks were fastened to the skeleton either by nailing or by “sewing.” In the first method, the builder drilled through the plank and rib with an iron-tipped hand-drill. Through the hole, he drove a large iron spike with oiled hemp packing wrapped around the shaft under the large head. The spike was then bent over on the inside to cinch the nail in place.

In the “sewing” method, the builder drilled a series of holes wherever the planks were joined together, then lashed them tightly together with hemp rope and waterproofed it. The planks were lashed to the ribs in much the same way. We were intrigued that this method of shipbuilding was used only in Yemen and in Oman and apparently dates far back in antiquity. The nailing method was used in Yanbu and Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.

Of course, Nephi did not build the ship “after the manner of men” but “after the manner which the Lord has shown unto” him. (1 Ne. 18:2.) This examination of ancient shipbuilding serves only to illustrate that for Nephi to have been acquainted with construction techniques was not extraordinary or unlikely. He built in an area where shipbuilding was known. Indeed, even though Nephi’s ship was not “after the manner of men,” Nephi likely used a number of the methods and elements of design or appearance that were known to the people of his time.

Nephi could have cut down his own trees and dragged them to the sandy beach using camel power; or he could have purchased dressed lumber from the local people. He does not tell us how he got his timbers, but he does comment that the completed ship “was good, and that the workmanship thereof was exceeding fine.” (1 Ne. 18:4.)

We estimated that, with the birth of children, Lehi’s colony may have numbered minimally 49 people at the time of embarkation, 17 adults and 32 children, estimating an average of four children from seven of the marriages in eight years, plus two more sons (Joseph and Jacob) born to Lehi and Sariah, plus children the two sons of Ishmael had prior to their departure from Jerusalem. (1 Ne. 7:6.) And, of course, the families may have had more children than this, even up to a group of 65 or so. To accommodate a group of this size, we figured that a ship would have to he at least 18 m long. We saw several vessels of this same size being built by hand and without written plans in the shipyards we visited. In addition to the people, the ship would also need to carry enough fruit, meat, honey, provisions, seeds, tents, and personal items to supply the colony. (1 Ne. 18:6.) A 60-foot-long ship would not have been excessively large; many of the dhows now sailing the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea are as large as 54 m all handmade. No doubt Nephi’s ship had a wide deck, since we are informed that the brothers and their wives made merry on the ship with their rude singing and dancing (1 Ne. 18:9.) Dancing would have been impossible if the ship had only ribs and planking. Nephi’s ship probably had sails and a rudder or some other way to steer it, because Nephi says he “did guide the ship.” (1 Ne. 18:22.)

We asked a shipwright how many working days would be required to build a 60-foot-long vessel. He estimated that the 35 men working in his shipyard could do it in 45 days, or a total of 1,575 mandays. Nephi, at least part of the time, had the labor of eight men in his father’s colony, and possibly some of the children—particularly those of Ishmael’s married sons who were likely in their early teens. Working together, they could perhaps have built such a ship in approximately 197 working days. Of course, if the ship were bigger, and it could well have been, more time would have been needed. Nonworking days would include Sabbath days, Jewish festival days, and the days that Nephi worked alone before the others started to help him. It is thus easy to see that it may have taken a minimum of 10 to 12 months to build the ship. Assuming that all the men could not be working on the boat all of the time—because of sickness, family concerns, hunting, planting, harvesting, etc.—a more likely time span for building the ship would be well over a year. In addition, since Nephi also had to smelt the iron, make the tools, and probably cut and dress his own lumber, it is likely that the shipbuilding project easily occupied more than two years.

Truly it was a miracle for Nephi, probably born and raised at Jerusalem, to construct a ship that would take so many people safely on such a long voyage. His nation had experimented with a navy during the time of Solomon, but Hiram of Tyre had provided the experienced seamen. (1 Kgs. 9:26–27.) Judges 5:17 alludes to some seagoing experience of the tribes of Dan and Asher, but the Phoenicians and Philistines held most of the seacoast—naturally curtailing Hebrew experience. [Judg. 5:17] When King Jehoshaphat of Judah attempted to revive the shipping industry at Aqaba, 70 years after Solomon, the ships were destroyed before they could even set sail. (2 Chr. 20:35–36, 1 Kgs. 22:48–49.) The Hebrews were very limited in their understanding of the sea.

While in Salalah, we also confirmed the very important fact that the monsoons, which fill the Qara Mountains with life-giving moisture during the summer, also provide Salalah with a trading route. As shipping records clearly indicate, from October to May the trade winds come from the northeast; from June to September, the winds come from the southwest. (See illustration 11.)

Ancient Arab Sea Route and Possible Route of Nephi’s Ship

Illustration 11
Ancient Arab Sea Route and Possible Route of Nephi’s Ship

Ships had existed for centuries before Lehi along the coast of southern Arabia, and it is indisputable that Arabians had explored for hundreds of kilometers along the coastline. But the first record we were able to find of anyone sailing on the open sea is from the first century A.D., when a Roman navigator, Hippalus, learned of the seasonal winds from the Arabs and opened a new trade route across the open sea between the Red Sea and India. (“Geography: Romans,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1971, 10:146.) “It was a sensational discovery and soon the peoples of the area were voyaging down the Arabian coast, through the Straits of Hormuz, across the Indian Ocean, along the Hadhramaut, up into the Red Sea or down the coast of East Africa” on the strength of these steady winds. (“Ghost Ships,” p. 26; see also Oman in Colour, England: Ministry of Information and Tourism, Sultanate of Oman, 1974, p. iv.)

By the sixth century A.D., Arab entrepreneurs were sailing their dhows all the way from the Arabian peninsula to China. Arab ships rode the monsoons to the Malabar coast of India, then on to Ceylon in time to catch the summer monsoon (June to September) and speed across the often treacherous Bay of Bengal, past the Nicobar Islands, through the Malacca Straits, and into the South China Sea. (See illustration 11.) From here, they were able to make a quick, if risky, 30-day run up to the main trading station at Canton in China. The trip from the Arabian peninsula to China took approximately 120 days of straight sailing, or six months counting provisioning stops along the way. (Nancy Jenkins, “The China Trade,” Aramco World Magazine, July–Aug. 1975, 26:24, 26–27.)

Once they emerged from the Malacca Straits, the dhows would sometimes be blown completely off course and would end up in the Pacific “where, the Chinese believed, the drain spout of the world’s ocean sucked the unwary sailor into oblivion.” (“The China Trade,” p. 27.)

All of these records date from at least five hundred years after Lehi’s party left Arabia; but the existence of coastal shipping and the monsoons may have been the combination of events that enabled Nephi, inspired of the Lord, to push off into the deep, charting a course that may not have been followed again until five centuries had elapsed. And if it took later sailors 120 days to sail from Arabia to China, it would probably have taken Nephi a year to 15 months to cover the three-times longer distance between Arabia and America. That voyage is a great testament of faith and courage, and a great tribute to Nephi’s ship. What a story remains to be told!


On the coast of Salalah, we believe that we found the end of Lehi’s route from Jerusalem to Bountiful. We discovered no contradictions, no absurdities in the record that Nephi had left behind him. Nothing that we discovered in the volumes on geography and history contradicted that ancient prophet. On the contrary, corroboration of Nephi’s account came from dozens of sources, showing that only someone who had been there in person and had experienced the rigors of the trip could have given the amazing details that, even 2,600 years later, seemed to harmonize with what we saw.

Although they are by nature tentative and only highly probable, here are a few of our conclusions.

1. The Arabian peninsula, through which Lehi’s route in 600 B.C. went, was not an unpopulated wilderness but a land where many people had worked out a precise and precarious relationship to their water-poor land.

2. Frankincense produced in Salalah, Oman, on the Arabian Sea since at least 1,500 B.C. was in such demand in the ancient world that tremendous trade routes had been established. The constant travel of men, camels, news, and wealth kept the Arabian peninsula from being isolated from the rest of the Middle East.

3. Thousands of people made nearly the same journey to Salalah as Lehi probably made. Their experiences recorded in ancient documents and in the less comprehensible evidence of pictographs, hand-dug wells, and well-preserved traditions confirm that the trip was not an easy one. The protection of the Lord was a necessary element in the success of Lehi’s little colony.

4. We felt that we had found reasonable evidence for suggesting Wadi E1 Afal in Saudi Arabia as the valley of Lemuel, and Salalah in Oman as Bountiful.

5. The weather and geography have changed little, if any, since Lehi’s day.

6. Lehi very likely adopted the life-style of the nomadic Arabian tribes for the years of his Arabian journey, including the custom of living in tents and the methods of finding water, food, and transportation.

7. Some North and South American Indian art forms likely originated among the Semitic peoples of Arabia; or possibly both cultures derived their art forms from some common source.

8. Nephi was probably exposed to both iron-making and shipbuilding while traveling southward.

9. There is much yet to be learned from the accumulated records and traditions of the Arabs that Latter-day Saints will find helpful.

Through our experience, we felt, as never before, the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon account. We felt the Lord’s protection and guidance in our travels and look forward with faith and excitement to future discoveries that will testify to Joseph Smith’s great work.

MONSOONS (In the eighth century A.D., under Caliph Mausur, Arab dhows rode the monsoons from Basra, Iraq, across the Indian Ocean to the Malacca Straits, then up to Canton, China, in 120 days sailing time. They left in June when the western winds came in. Nephi’s trip to America was three times the distance of the Basra-Canton trip; hence Nephi’s trip from Bountiful to America could have taken as much as a year.)

Photography by Gerald W. Silver

Sunset at the beach at Salalah. Fishing boats still sail from this bay, where Nephi may have built his ship.

Left: Sycamore fig trees grow in Salalah, the only place on the southern Arabian coast where trees grow large enough to be used for lumber. Upper right: Myrrh—the large dark object—is a dried gum of the myrrh tree, and the lighter-colored objects are the gum of the frankincense tree. For millennia, both were burned as incense in temples throughout the Middle East, including the Israelite temple at Jerusalem. Lower right: Along the entire south coast of Arabia, only Salalah receives the heavy monsoon rains, allowing palm trees and other tropical vegetation to grow thickly to the height of these palms.

Upper right: The shipyards at Jiddah. This large dhow is being built of planks fastened to wooden ribs. Only hand tools are used, and the shipwright carries the blueprints in his head. Ships this size made historic voyages to China, Zanzibar, and India. Lower right: Boats or dhows have been built like this in Salalah for centuries; hand lashed construction holds up very well, even on the open sea. In most parts of Arabia, however, iron nails are used.

The cliffs at the western end of the bay of Salalah overlook the sea. This may be where Nephi’s brothers thought to throw him “into the depths of the sea.” (1 Ne. 17:48.) And it was probably from this bay that Lehi’s party set sail for the promised land.