Book of Mormon/Geography/Old World/Shazer

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The place "Shazer" in the Book of Mormon

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Question: How realistic is the name "Shazer" described in the Book of Mormon?

Nigel Groom's Dictionary of Arabic Topography and Placenames contains an entry for a similar word, "shajir," giving the meaning: "A valley or area abounding with trees and shrubs."

Shazer is introduced in 1 Nephi 16:, as Nephi's group departs from the hospitable Valley of Lemuel:

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.(1 Nephi 16:11–14.)

Regarding the place name Shazer, Nigel Groom's Dictionary of Arabic Topography and Placenames contains an entry for a similar word, "shajir," giving the meaning: "A valley or area abounding with trees and shrubs." [1]

Regarding the name "Shazer," 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. [2]

It turns out that there is a perfect 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

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. But is there such a place in the area required by the Book of Mormon?

It turns out that there is a perfect 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.

Potter and Wellington describe the process of locating their proposal for Shazer:

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 down- right 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), 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). [3]


S. Kent Brown: "Joseph Smith does not seem to have known of this natural barrier even though the Book of Mormon narrative offers clear hints that it exists"

S. Kent Brown:

A range of mountains, called Al-Sarat, runs almost the entire length of the west coast of Arabia and separates the coastal lowlands from the uplands of the interior. The peaks in the north rise to heights of five thousand feet while those in the south reach much higher. A limited number of passes and valleys offer access from one side of the range to the other.48 At some point the party had to cross the mountains before reaching "the place which was called Nahom," where the group turned "nearly eastward" ({{s|1|Nephi|16|34; 17|1). Otherwise, the mountains would have formed a major barrier to their eastward trek. Nephi's narrative offers hints that the family went into the mountains not long after leaving the camp.

The first hint is the amazing initial success of the hunters in the party.49 For after leaving a place they called Shazer, which lay four days' journey from their first camp (see 1 Nephi 16:13), they traveled "for the space of many days, slaying food by the way" (v. 16:15). This expression indicates abundant cover for hunters that one finds in mountainous terrain rather than in the open, flat region of the maritime plain that runs along the shore of the Red Sea.

A second clue has to do with the possible location of Shazer. Nephi reported that the party had stopped specifically to rest and hunt at Shazer after traveling for only "four days." Shazer lay in "nearly a south-southeast direction" from the first camp (vv. 16:13–14). Traveling this general direction would have kept the group near the shore of the Red Sea, at least initially. But after the family departed from Shazer, Nephi's account mentions the Red Sea for the last time, a significant point (v. 14). In this light, we can theorize two possible locations for Shazer. Both point to the family's leaving the Red Sea coast soon and traveling into the mountains. First, Shazer may have lain next to the coast a few miles from the mountains and may have been the party's last stop before they entered mountainous terrain, which would explain Nephi's last mention of the Red Sea. Second, it is also possible that Shazer lay inside a mountain valley not far from the Red Sea, a valley that led into and across the mountains.50 There are not enough hints in the narrative to determine which alternative may be correct.

The third clue has to do with the word borders. This term seems to mark a mountainous zone. Early in his narrative, Nephi had apparently used the term borders in connection with the mountainous region that runs along the Gulf of Aqaba farther to the north (see 1 Nephi 2:5,8).51 Then, as the party moved south from the first camp, Nephi wrote that party members traveled "in the most fertile parts of the wilderness, which were in the borders near the Red Sea" (16:14). In this context, the term borders may well point to mountainous areas.52

A fourth clue has to do with "the most fertile parts of the wilderness." Such areas did not lie along the coastal plain immediately south of the base camp, because that territory has been known for centuries as a region that does not support much plant life.53 Hence, one would not expect to find large numbers of wild animals there either. Such "fertile parts," as Nephi described them, either lay in the mountains, perhaps in a season when there was rain,54 or consisted of the oases that lay on the eastern side of the mountain range.55 The oases were already populated but often lay a good distance from hunting grounds.

In sum, from hints in Nephi's narrative, it seems that the family went into the mountains not long after leaving Shazer.56 Importantly, Joseph Smith does not seem to have known of this natural barrier even though the Book of Mormon narrative offers clear hints that it exists. Joseph Smith's only known statement about the geography of Arabia and the route of Lehi's family shows no knowledge of the mountain chain, or other geographical features for that matter. He simply said that the party traveled from "the Red Sea to the great Southern Ocean," a rather simple statement when compared to Nephi's complex narrative.[4]

Hugh Nibley, "Lehi and the Arabs"

Hugh Nibley,  An Approach to the Book of Mormon, (1957)
Lehi's intimacy with desert practices becomes apparent right at the outset of his journey, not only in the skillful way he managed things but also in the quaint and peculiar practices he observed, such as those applying to the naming of places in the desert.


The stream at which he made his first camp Lehi named after his eldest son; the valley, after his second son (1 Nephi 2:8). The oasis at which his party made their next important camp "we did call . . . Shazer" (1 Nephi 16:13). The fruitful land by the sea "we called Bountiful," while the sea itself "we called Irreantum" (1 Nephi 17:5).

By what right do these people rename streams and valleys to suit themselves? By the immemorial custom of the desert, to be sure. Among the laws "which no Bedouin would dream of transgressing," the first, according to Jennings-Bramley, is that "any water you may discover, either in your own or in the territory of another tribe, is named after you."38 So it happens that in Arabia a great wady (valley) will have different names at different points along its course, a respectable number of names being "all used for one and the same valley. . . . One and the same place may have several names, and the wady running close to the same, or the mountain connected with it, will naturally be called differently by different clans," according to Canaan, 39 who tells how the Arabs "often coin a new name for a locality for which they have never used a proper name, or whose name they do not know," the name given being usually that of some person.

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More evidence about the place called "Shazer" in the Book of Mormon

Notes

  1. Nigel Groom, Dictionary of Arabic Topography and Placenames (Beruit: Librairie du Liban ; London : Longman, 1983), ?. ISBN {{{isbn}}}. Cited in Warren P. Aston and Michaela Knoth Aston, In the Footsteps of Lehi: New Evidence for Lehi's Journey across Arabia to Bountiful (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994), 73. ISBN 0875798470 See also Thomas J. Abercrombie, "Arabia's Frankincense Trail, National Geographic 168 (October 1985): 474–512.
  2. Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd edition, (Vol. 6 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), 76. (Italics in original.) See also Nibley's brief remarks in Hugh Nibley, "Book of Mormon Near Eastern Background," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow, (New York, Macmillan Publishing, 1992), ?:188.
  3. Warren P. Aston and Michaela Knoth Aston, In the Footsteps of Lehi: New Evidence for Lehi's Journey across Arabia to Bountiful (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994), 74,76. ISBN 0875798470
  4. 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), Chapter 5, references silently removed—consult original for citations.