Nahom and Lehi’s Journey through Arabia: A Historical Perspective, Part 3


Our investigations so far in Part  1 and Part 2 have concluded that the reference to Nahom in 1 Nephi 16:34 does not provide compelling evidence for the antiquity of the BoM and a number of aspects relating to the presentation of the name point to its inauthentic and artificial character. So how do we explain the accuracy with which the BoM places Nahom near the tribal area of Nihm in Yemen, showing knowledge of its general location in southwest Arabia and that it was a pre-existing name?


Among critical historians who accept that the BoM arose as a modern production of Joseph Smith, two main theories have been offered to explain the presence of Nahom in the narrative. The first is that the correspondence of Nahom with Nihm is accidental, having resulted from Smith borrowing/inventing a name whose consonantal stem just happened to overlap with NHM when translated into English. According to Dan Vogel, one of the most vocal proponents for accidental correspondence, the tri-consonantal stem NHM in South Arabian is an inadequate basis upon which to identify it with BoM Nahom, since it is unclear whether the two words are in fact related. We have already mentioned that Nahom looks distinctly similar to Hebrew naḥum, and so Vogel suggests that because many BoM names were apparently adapted by Smith from the KJV Bible, a simpler explanation of the word is that it is “a variant of Naham (1 Chron. 4:19), Nehum (Ne. 7:7), or Nahum (Na. 1:1).”[1]


However, we have already seen above that the case for linking Nahom with South Arabian Nihm is reasonably strong. Even if Nahom reflects an incorrect voweling of Nihm, a number of interlocking details suggest that the appearance of Nahom in the BoM rises to a level beyond what could be explained as mere coincidence, including 1) the fact that there appears to be only one major tribe in this part of South Arabia attested from ancient to modern times with a name built from the consonants NHM; 2) the BoM places Nahom in the general vicinity of central Yemen where Nihm is located, at a point where a route following southeast from northern Arabia could at least theoretically turn eastward and reach the coast of southern Oman; and 3) Nahom is portrayed as a pre-existing name, which is unique in the context of the journey of Lehi’s party from Jerusalem to Bountiful.


The alternative theory has been to suppose that Smith had access at some point to a map of Arabia containing a reference to Nihm that he used to construct his narrative about the origin of Native Americans. The possibility that Nahom originated from a map has increasingly been acknowledged by both apologists and critics of the BoM and recently Philip Jenkins in his blog post “Nahom Follies” has sketched a brief outline of the argument:


“Evidence for an actual place called something like Nahom in Yemen/Southern Arabia appears in European maps from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, so that, unlike the altar inscriptions, these were clearly known in Smith’s lifetime. A form of NHM (Nehhm) shows up for instance in the travel narrative and maps of Carsten Niebuhr, of the 1761 Danish Arabia Expedition, marking a location in Yemen. An English translation of his writings appeared in 1792, and copies were available in US libraries in the early nineteenth century…. Other European maps also show a related place-name in the area…. The map evidence makes it virtually certain that Smith encountered and appropriated such a reference, and added the name as local color in the Book of Mormon.”[2]


Jenkins later goes on to clarify that Smith may have been exposed to a map of Arabia through any number of means, whether from bookstore, traveling salesman, or neighbor, and that there were probably far more maps or map copies of the Middle East/biblical lands circulating in the US during this time period than we have record.[3]


Of course, believers in the historicity of the BoM have balked at this proposed explanation for Nahom, asserting that there is no evidence that Smith ever had access to these European maps or more importantly that he used them.[4] S. Kent Brown has examined the collections held at the Manchester lending library and Dartmouth College before 1830 and found that key works relating to the history and geography of Arabia, such as the English translation of Carsten Niebuhr’s account of his expedition to Arabia from 1761 to 1767 and d’Anville’s 1751 map of Arabia, were not available to Smith “in either of the libraries that lay near his home at one point or another in his youth.”[5]


However, the absence of these works from two particular libraries is not in itself a decisive argument against the idea that maps of Arabia were available to Smith near the time he dictated the BoM. Rick Grunder has emphasized the “widespread, informal sharing of both broad and particular knowledge” that occurred at every level of Smith’s local environment, so that there were numerous possible means of discovering knowledge about the geography of South Arabia.[6] After examining the print resources available at Palmyra, Robert Paul concluded, “Clearly Joseph Smith had access to a wide range of books in that he lived in proximity to libraries and bookstores,” so there was no need to travel the greater distance to the Manchester area.[7] More recently, Noel Carmack has described how living near the Erie Canal put the Smith family in reach of a wide variety of books, maps, and pamphlets, thanks to traveling bookstores and museums and the connection to larger urban centers to the east.[8]


It is therefore not unreasonable to think that Smith could easily have encountered a map of Arabia/Middle East in the area of Palmyra. Geographies, maps, and travel narratives of European derivation were available from multiple sources, and Carmack has called attention to the proliferation of atlases and geographical texts in the post-revolutionary period: “A sudden, steady increase in the production and sale of new geographical texts not only resulted in a feeling of nationalism but also a growing preoccupation with owning and studying geographies, maps, and atlases.”[9]


So if the possibility that Smith had seen and studied a map of Arabia cannot be excluded a priori, is there evidence to support the theory? In the following I will present an argument that Smith had indeed used a map to compose his story about Lehi’s exodus from Jerusalem and will rely primarily on evidence from the BoM itself.


First, we have already seen in Part 1 and 2 of this series that the larger narrative context in which Nahom appears is unrealistic as an account composed by an ancient author, and yet the placement of Nahom in southwest Arabia near the tribal district of Nihm seems to reflect real world geography. So to me this would seem to necessitate the theory that Smith had access to a reliable source of information about the social/political landscape of Arabia and specifically a map, since the BoM betrays knowledge only of Nihm’s location and no further details or information of a descriptive nature that an encounter with a book would have inevitably entailed. The dictum of Sherlock Holmes comes to mind, that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” no matter how much the conclusion may run against your preconception.


Second, Nahom is not the only name present in the BoM narrative that coheres with the theory that Smith used some limited modern geographical sources to artificially construct his narrative. We have already noted that the BoM name Irreantum is unmistakably similar to the ancient Latin name for the Arabian Sea, Erythraeum, featuring a closely comparable sequence of consonants and vowels. It is simply inconceivable to me that Smith could have invented a name for the sea south of Arabia that tallies so closely to the Latin form of the name, and obviously neither is it possible for Nephi to have spoke Latin! However, knowledge of the Erythrean Sea was available in the world of Joseph Smith. For example, Josiah Conder’s popular travel book on Arabia, The Modern Traveler, speaks of the Erythrean Sea as “the name applied by the Greeks to all the seas round the Arabian peninsula” and other more strictly geographical works designate this part of the Indian Ocean simply the Erythrean Sea.[10] The Latin name appears on various maps, including d’Anville’s 1763 map of the ancient world Orbis Veteribus Notus, James Rennell’s 1799 map of the circumnavigation of Arabia, Robert Mayo’s 1813 reproduction of d’Anville’s map, and Aaron Arrowsmith’s 1828 Eton school atlas. The conclusion therefore seems inescapable that either Smith had seen the name Erythraeum/Erythrean on a map and recalled it to the best of his ability (or modified it slightly to escape obvious notice) or he had heard it secondhand as the proper name of the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean in antiquity. Either way, the name demonstrates an interest on the part of Smith in adapting real world place names for the purpose of adding ancient color to the narrative of the BoM.


Third, the use of a map would explain why the narrative of the BoM presumes a rather accurate understanding of the overall shape of the Arabian Peninsula and yet is completely vague about its internal geography. We discussed this aspect of the narrative in part 1 and how the simple unilinear trajectories of travel southeast and then eastward are best accounted for on the assumption that the author was marking out an artificial course of travel indiscriminate of real world topography. The large-scale and two-dimensional nature of a map and Smith’s ignorance about the geography of Arabia simply did not allow for more detailed description of the route taken by Lehi.


Fourth, the spelling of Nahom itself points to the likelihood it was borrowed from a 19th century map. The spelling of the tribal name Nihm with a vowel between the last two consonants was fairly standard in Western maps of Arabia available during this period. In his 1751 map d’Anville spelled Nihm as Nehem and this spelling was then continued in a series of maps made in the late 18th and early 19th century, whereas Niebuhr in his writings spelled the place Nehhm with no vowel.[11] So the unnecessary vowel in Nahom seems to reflect the fact that Smith encountered a form of the name with a similar vowel, namely the map tradition of Nehem. Except in the process of reproducing the name he appears to have given it an ao vowel combination instead of an ee combination. Why Smith changed the pronunciation from Nehem to Nahom is unclear and will be explored further later, but for now it is worth noting that the final -om fits with Smith’s creative philological tendencies. As David Wright once observed, the BoM contains a large number of names with the suffixed element –om: Abinadom, Antiomno, Corom, Cumom, Curelom, Ezrom, Jacom, Jarom, Shiblom, Shilom, Sidom, Zeezrom; and others ending in –um: Antionum, Jeneum, Helorum, Mocum, Antum, Coriantum, Irreantum, Moriancum, Moriantum, Ripliancum, Seantum, Teancum.[12]


Fifth, the use of a map would also explain why Nahom is portrayed in the BoM as though it were a particular place or district. Because Smith would have encountered Nehem only as a place name on a map, he would have been ignorant of the tribal origin of the name or its cultural-historical significance. From his perspective, it would have been perfectly reasonable to speak of Nahom as a “place.”


Sixth, the name Nehem tends to be printed on maps from the late 18th and early 19th centuries in a font slightly larger or bolder than the immediately surrounding titles or place names, which would explain why Smith’s eye landed on this name rather than others. This includes the 1794 map of Robert Laurie and James Whittle; the 1804 map of John Cary; the 1811 map of William Darton; the 1814 map of John Thomson; and the 1817 map of Robert Kirkwood. Presumably, the emphasis on Nehem in these maps is related to the importance that Niehbur attached to the area and his discovery it was a large semi-independent district in Yemen, whereas Nihm/Nehem largely disappears from later 19th century maps.[13]


Seventh, it is possible to limit the number of maps down that Smith could have used based on the particular geographical features that are mentioned in the account of Lehi’s journey. I have examined a large quantity of maps of Arabia that were circulating in the English world during the late 18th and early 19th centuries[14] and have found only two that would account for multiple features in the BoM: the 1794 “A New Map of Arabia” by Robert Laurie and James Whittle, which was an English translation of d’Anville’s map with improvements based on the research of Niebuhr, and the 1817 atlas map by Robert Kirkwood, which for the most part seems to follow Laurie and Whittle.


1) The BoM states that Lehi and his family camped in a valley by the shore of the Red Sea near a river. Among maps that mention Nehem, the Laurie and Whittle and Kirkwood maps are distinctive in that they feature some mountains at the north end of the Gulf of Aqaba, which could have allowed for interpreting the intervening area as a valley, whereas similar mountains are not present in the maps of Cary, Darton, or Thompson. The Gulf of Aqaba is also represented with two narrow tongues branching north in between the mountainous areas, which Smith could have mistakenly identified as the mouths of rivers. Such a mistake may have been encouraged by the appearance of rivers entering the Red Sea on the west side of the Sinai peninsula, a topographical feature which is also distinctive to the Laurie and Whittle and Kirkwood maps.


2) As we saw earlier, the BoM implies that the party of Lehi kept to a route along the shoreline of the Red Sea. At the time of Lehi this would have been virtually impossible, but during the Ottoman Empire a route from Cairo to Mecca had developed along the shore of the Red Sea and the Laurie and Whittle and Kirkwood maps explicitly delineate it, labeling the feature “Route of the Turkish and African Caravans.” The presence of this caravan highway could therefore have influenced Smith’s decision to portray Lehi traveling close to the shoreline, which he seems to have associated with the “more fertile parts” of Arabia (1 Ne 16:16). It goes without saying that the representation of the interior of Arabia as barren deserts on the maps would have precluded leading the party of Lehi directly across the peninsula to the coast of Southern Arabia.


3) After departing from the valley of Lemuel, the group travels for four days and then camps again at a place they call Shazer. We saw earlier that the place name Shazer is certainly not Hebrew, which raises the question of how Smith invented the name. While it is possible that Smith developed Shazer on analogy from the Bible, if we follow the caravan route depicted on the Laurie and Whittle and Kirkwood maps down the Red Sea we eventually come to a place that sounds somewhat similar to Shazer, namely “Hazire,” apparently a stopping place on the way to Mecca. As we have seen, the pronunciation of several real world place names taken up by Smith seem to have been adapted/modified to a significant degree, so the same may be the case here. Then again, perhaps Shazer was inspired by some of the other strange names on the map or was a pure invention of Smith.


4) After breaking his bow and returning to camp, Nephi builds a new one and goes up to the top of a certain mountain to hunt. This detail about a mountain near the camp is a little odd, because it is the first time a mountain is mentioned in the narrative since the implied existence of mountains by the valley of Lemuel and further the mountain is referred to as if it were a specific mountain known to the author, “the mountain” (1 Ne 16:30). However, if we look at the Laurie and Whittle and Kirkwood maps we see that there are only two places on the eastern shore of the Red Sea where the caravan road passes immediately near mountains, one near Hazire and another at Mecca. Because the BoM reports that the party had traveled “many days” past Shazer to reach the camp of the broken bow, a location at Mecca near the middle of the length of the peninsula makes sense. The next report of a journey of “many days” brings them all the way to Nehem in the south (1 Ne 16:33), implying that the temporal formula represents a substantial distance. In addition, it is probably not coincidence that the caravan road ends at Mecca and after the camp of the broken bow the party of Lehi no longer travels in the “fertile parts” near the Red Sea but moves somewhat further inland. It is as if a change in the topographical features shown on the map stimulated a change in the direction of travel. Thus on this reconstruction the mention of a specific mountain near the camp of the broken bow may have been inspired by a depiction of an actual mountain near Mecca on the map.


5) The party buries Ishmael at the “place which was called Nahom.” As was mentioned above, the name Nehem is printed in a larger font in the case of Laurie and Whittle and a slightly bolder font in the case of Kirkwood, which would have facilitated Smith latching onto this name over others. The Nehem title is particularly conspicuous in the case of Laurie and Whittle because of the mountains to which it is associated, which are shaped in a distinctive figure of a large cross. Although it is pure speculation, it is even possible that the cross shape of the mountains may have contributed to the development of the idea that this would be the place where Ishmael was buried.


6) The party travels eastward from Nahom until they arrive at a fertile spot on the coast of Southern Arabia, which is also situated near a mountain. The claim that the party traveled eastward from Nahom to arrive at Bountiful on the coast has often been taken as a decisive clue pointing to the historicity of the BoM account, because of the existence of exceptionally fertile areas in the Dhofar region of Southern Oman. However, several topographical features contained in the Laurie and Whittle and Kirkwood maps would have been sufficient in themselves to lead Smith to bring the party of Lehi to this part of the Arabian coast, without having any firsthand knowledge of the geography of Arabia. Directly east of Nehem on the maps are two large mountain ranges lying near the coastline with associated titles and descriptions that could have easily led Smith to conclude the area was fertile. One range is called the “Mountains producing frankincense” and the other “mountain of the moon”, the latter juxtaposed with and almost overlapping the large-scale title “Arabia Felix.” Accordingly, if Smith had a rather vague idea that Arabia Felix was a place of abundant fertility, as argued in part 1, and he wanted to lead Lehi to a place on the Arabian coast that would open up a clear path of sailing to the New World, then it would have been rather natural to bring the party to this area. We have already seen that Smith had a tendency to assume that the coastal borders of Arabia were more fertile than the interior.


In line with this interpretation, the mention of a specific mountain that Nephi went up to receive instructions about how to build a ship would have been based on an actual mountain range shown on the map. Smith awkwardly called it “the mountain” (1 Ne 17:7), because it was a mountain he had in fact seen and identified, the same as “the mountain” near Mecca. Incidentally, if the mountain range Smith had in mind were the “mountain of the moon,” then this would place Bountiful a substantial distance away from the Dhofar region where BoM researchers have tended to identify candidates of the site.


Taken all together, I believe that these correspondences between certain topographical features on the Laurie and Whittle and Kirkwood maps and geographical details in the BoM text lend support to the theory that Smith used a map and possibly one of these maps in particular (in my view, the Laurie and Whittle map seems somewhat more attractive as a candidate, because of its prominent representation of Nehem). According to my reconstruction, a number of features displayed on the map may have had a critical role in Smith’s development of the narrative of Lehi’s journey described in the BoM.


Skeptics to this theory may respond, so why did Smith include only a reference to Nehem out of all the place names found on the map if his goal was to add verisimilitude to his narrative? Why do the place names mentioned generally not line up with original names or name spellings on the map or in other historical sources (e.g. Valley of Lemuel, Shazer, Nahom, Irreantum)? Of course, we can only speculate about possible answers. Admittedly, the lack of more specific detail from a map source is somewhat unexpected, given the correspondences I have argued for above. But it is important to note that positive evidence for dependence on a map should be weighed differently than negative evidence, which tells us more about our assumptions and expectations than necessarily anything about what Smith was trying to do. Furthermore, one viable explanation is that Smith only had limited access to a map owned by someone else or in a store and as a consequence had time only to identify and mark out a basic path for the journey through Arabia, noting some basic topographical features along the way but essentially ignoring most of the titles of cities, towns, and districts. This could perhaps explain why Smith garbled Nehem and Erythraeum but then invented names of other localities, such as the Valley of Lemuel and Shazer. On the other hand, it is possible that Smith did not want his dependence on a map to be immediately recognizable and so slightly altered the spelling of some names. Perhaps he assumed it was in the nature of names to change over time and so slightly modified Nehem and Erythraeum to give credence to the claim of their antique origin.


Finally, one last piece of evidence that Smith used a map is suggested by the single statement that we have from him outside of the BoM describing the route taken by Lehi. As editor of the Times and Seasons, Smith commented on the discovery of archaeological remains in central America that support the existence of BoM peoples and in passing summarized the account of their origin: “Lehi went down by the Red Sea to the great Southern Ocean, and crossed over to this land, and landed a little south of the Isthmus of Darien.”[15] Although to some this laconic statement has been taken as proof that Smith could not have composed the complex narrative of the BoM,[16] to me it suggests that he had a fairly clear mental image of the route through Arabia taken by the group. He speaks of Lehi coming “down by the Red Sea” and then all the way to the “great Southern Ocean,” which can only refer to the Indian Ocean. Launching into the Indian Ocean implies the group had taken a route through Arabia, even though the BoM narrative is not explicit on this point. In addition, the emphasis on the “great Southern Ocean” matches the accent put on “Irreantum” or “many waters” in the BoM. Overall, Smith seems to betray a remarkably accurate knowledge of the route taken by Lehi, which he is likely to have gathered in the process of engaging firsthand with a map of Arabia in the construction of the BoM narrative years before.







[1] Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet, 609, n. 17.

[2] “Nahom Follies” [accessed October 22, 2015]. Online:

[3] Ibid. See also Jenkins’ comments in “Jenkins 24: Nahom Part Deux” [accessed October 22, 2015]. Online:

[4] William Hamblin, “Hamblin 35: Time for Clear Thinking on Nahom” [accessed October 22, 2015]. Online:; Rappleye and Smoot, “Book of Mormon Minimalists and the NHM Inscriptions: A Response to Dan Vogel,” 180-181.

[5] “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 72-75.

[6] Rick Grunder, Mormon Parallels: A Bibliographic Source (2nd ed.; Lafayette, New York: Rick Grunder Books, 2014), 1053-54.

[7] Robert Paul, “Joseph Smith and the Manchester (New York) Library,” BYU Studies 22 (1982), 341.

[8] “Joseph Smith, Captain Kidd Lore, and Treasure-Seeking in New York and New England during the Early Republic,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 46 (2013): 106-108.

[9] Idem., 112.

[10] Josiah Conder, The Modern Traveler: A Popular Description, Geographical, Historical, and Topographical of the Various Countries of the Globe, Arabia (London: James Duncan, 1825), 120; John Horsley, Compendium of Ancient Geography by Monsieur d’Anville, Vol. II (New York: R. M’Dermut and D.D. Arden, 1814), 3.

[11] James Gee, “The Nahom Maps,” JBMS 17 (2008): 40-57.

[12] “A Bit More on Nahom,” ZLMB [accessed October 23, 2015]. Online:

[13] Description of Arabia, Made from Personal Observations and Information Collected on the Spot by Carsten Niebuhr (trans. Major C. W. H. Sealy; Bombay: Government Central Press, 1889), 93. See Gee, “Nahom Maps,” 57.

[14] See the David Rumsey collection of antique maps of Arabia online at and the survey by Gee, “Nahom Maps.” It seems Gee missed the 1817 Kirkwood map.

[15] “Facts are Stubborn Things,” Times and Seasons 3/22 (September 15, 1842): 922.

[16] S. Kent Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 79.

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