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Source:Echoes:Ch5:5:Lehi's first camp
Lehi's desert journey: Location of First Camp
Lehi's desert journey: Location of First Camp
There are four factors to remember about the camp of Lehi and Sariah in northwest Arabia. First, this area, also known as Midian, was rather heavily populated in antiquity.9 Hence, it may be incorrect to think that the family was completely isolated in this region. Second, they camped about three days' journey south or southeast of modern Aqaba, a distance of between forty-five and seventy-five miles, depending on their speed and endurance (see 1 Nephi 2:6).10 Third, the camp lay next to a "river of water" (v. 6) that "emptied into the Red Sea" (v. 8). Lehi described this stream as "continually running" (v. 9). Fourth, the evident impressive character of the valley where they located their camp led Lehi to term the valley "firm and steadfast, and immovable" (v. 10).
Nephi's narrative thus offers a few clues about the camping place. The most astonishing is the claim that there was a "continually running" stream of water in that part of Arabia. After all, students of geography believe that Arabia has been largely a desert for thousands of years and that water flows only after heavy rains.11 But there is an unforeseen surprise in the mountains south of Aqaba, a surprise that Joseph Smith could not have learned about.
In 1952 Hugh Nibley pointed out that the camp had to lie near "the Gulf of Aqaba at a point not far above the Straits of Tiran" where Lehi, "perhaps from the sides of Mt. Musafa or Mt. Mendisha," beheld that the stream of water ran into the Red Sea.12 In 1976 Lynn and Hope Hilton visited the area and proposed that the likely location of the camp was at the oasis Al-Badc in Wadi al-Ifal, about seventy-five miles south and east of Aqaba. Although any running water at the oasis was seasonal, flowing only after heavy seasonal rains, there were springs. Besides, the distant hills were impressive to behold. Thus, the Al-Badc oasis seemed to be a good fit with Nephi's narrative.13 More recently, George Potter has come upon a deep valley that cuts through the granite mountains that border the Gulf of Aqaba on its east shore. Known locally as Wadi Tayyib al-Ism ("Valley of the Good Name") and lying almost seventy-five miles south of Aqaba by foot, the valley holds a stream that flows year-round. Moreover, even though the amount of water flowing in the stream has diminished in recent years because of pumping, it still reaches almost to the shore of the Red Sea. Further, the valley itself is characterized by narrow passages and steep sides that rise about two thousand feet, features that would fit Lehi's description of an impressive valley.14 Hence, Wadi Tayyib al-Ism is a very attractive candidate for the party's first camp in a desert region that features no other known "continually running" stream.
There is actually a fifth consideration that Joseph Smith could not have known. It concerns the custom of a newcomer's naming a place and its geographical features. That is exactly what Lehi did when he camped next to a desert stream in an impressive valley. He called the stream by the name of his oldest son, Laman, and the valley by the name of his second son, Lemuel (see 1 Nephi 2:8–10; 16:12). Such actions seem odd in light of the fact that people lived in this part of Arabia and therefore the valley where the family camped probably had already received a name.It was Hugh Nibley who first drew attention to this aspect of the narrative and also pointed out what was obvious, that the names conferred by Lehi did not stick.15 Charles Doughty, an Englishman who traveled in Arabia during the nineteenth century, made a similar point. During his journey in Arabia, Doughty observed that "every desert stead" had received a name. In fact, many had two or more names. Why? Because landmarks and important places received names from both local residents and from traveling caravanners. These names were never the same because the places in question meant different things to these individuals, depending on the function and importance of the landmarks or depending on an event that occurred there. Perhaps oddly, a person cannot predict which name will stick to a locale, that of the local people or that of the caravanners who visited places again and again.16 In any event, the constant passing through a region by local herdsmen or by caravanners contrasts with the journey of Lehi and Sariah's party only once through Arabia.