Source:Echoes:Ch5:15:Incense trail

Lehi's desert journey: The Incense Trail

Lehi's desert journey: The Incense Trail

There are hints in the narrative that those in Lehi's party knew of the incense trail, an aspect of ancient Arabia that Joseph Smith could not have known....This route, already well established by the era of Lehi and Sariah, had already developed an infrastructure that would support desert travel, including wells and food sources for humans and animals.

It is not really possible to speak of a single trail. At times this trail was only a few yards wide when it traversed mountain passes. At others, it was several miles across. In places the trail split into two or more branches that, at a point farther on, would reunite into one main road. Essentially, the trail carried caravan traffic, loaded with frankincense and myrrh, from southern Arabia into the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian regions. Until late antiquity, the trail ran along the east side of the mountain range in western Arabia rather than along the west or coastal side.74 In addition, its caravans carried exotic goods that had come to Arabia by ship from India and China. Indeed, it was one of the most important economic highways of the ancient world, and therefore competition and disruption were not tolerated.75

The party of Lehi and Sariah could easily have followed, or traveled parallel to, the trail as they moved deeper into Arabia, except in areas where rugged hills or extensive boulder fields at the sides of the trail prevented a person from leaving the main road. The trail and its spurs kept to the main wells and grasslands where caravanners could obtain water and food for their animals and themselves. It is apparent that Lehi's party had met people who knew and used this trail because some in the group threatened to return home from Nahom, even though they were by then approximately fourteen hundred miles south of Jerusalem (see 1 Nephi 16:36) and even though twice between the first camp and Nahom they had faced the terrifying prospect of starvation (see 1 Nephi 16:17–32,39).

As we might expect, the terrain through which the trail ran differed from place to place. In the south, where inhabitants harvested and packed the incense, the trail ran from populated area to populated area where cultivation was extensive because of irrigation works. Farther north, past Nahom, the trail passed through a vast, sparsely settled area that was inhabited largely by unruly nomads who had to be controlled and cajoled by the governments and merchants that profited from the incense trade. It was evidently in this area that the party of Lehi and Sariah came to rely heavily on their compass to lead them to the "fertile parts of the wilderness" where they could find fodder for their animals and food for themselves (see 1 Nephi 16:14,16). Joseph Smith, of course, would not have been acquainted with such a huge desert region lying between two rather fruitful areas, one in the south and one in the north, for northwest Arabia, the location of the first camp, also offered regions of rather high fertility and settlement where a person could find oases and, in antiquity, large areas of cultivation.76

From northwest Arabia the northward trail split, one spur turning west toward Egypt and the other continuing north toward such destinations as Jerusalem, Gaza, and Damascus. Even though the terrain was rough and dry along this part of the trail, towns and cities sprang up at regular intervals and their citizens made much of their living by servicing the incense caravans.[1]


  1. 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.