A century or more before Lehi’s 600 BC exodus from Jerusalem, a wealthy man in southern Arabia named Bi’athtar donated three limestone altars to a temple dedicated to Ilmaqah, the moon god. Inscribed on each altar was a text identifying him as the grandson of Naw’um of the Nihm tribe. The three altars were unearthed in 1988 by German archaeologists amid the ruins of the Bar’an temple near Marib, in modern-day Yemen. They provide the earliest known reference to the Nihm, which nearly three millennia later retains the name and is one of Yemen’s largest tribes. The tribal territory today is extensive, centered in the mountains northeast of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, but may have been even larger anciently. Because the account of Lehi’s Arabian journey mentions just such a place-name, the altar discovery highlights a most significant development: the possibility, even likelihood, that ancient evidence of the Book of Mormon site “Nahom” survives to the present day. This article surveys what has been published or reported and summarizes and updates what is known about this interesting place-name in the Book of Mormon.
As background to what follows, two underlying points should be noted regarding Nephi’s statement in 1 Nephi 16:34, that Ishmael “was buried in the place which was called Nahom” (italics added). This wording makes it quite clear that Nahom was already known by that name. Lehi and his party saw no need to name or rename the place, as they regularly did on their desert odyssey, both before and after Ishmael’s death (see “in the valley which he called Lemuel,” 1 Nephi 16:6; “we did call the name of the place Shazer,” 16:13); “the sea, which we called Irreantum,” 17:5; “we called the place Bountiful,” 17:6; “we did call it the promised land,” 18:23). Although the meaning of the name “Nahom” is not exactly clear, it may well have captured in Arabic or Hebrew the human aspects of sighing, moaning, sorrowing, or mourning, as well as the ideas of comforting or consoling, any or all of which meanings would have made Nephi’s mention of this name appropriately significant, given the fact that it was a place suitable for burial.
Second, Nihm, which is the name of both a tribe and the territory it occupies, may well have shared the same consonants, N H M, as the Book of Mormon name Nahom. This would hold true in any of the Semitic languages, whether in today’s Arabic or the ancient Epigraphic or Early South Arabian language of the altar inscriptions, depending on which Hebrew or Egyptian H Nephi used in this word on his small plates.
In other languages, including English, the name is transliterated with vowels added. This results in variants such as Nehem, Nihm, Nahm, and Nehm, but the consonants—and therefore the essential name—remain the same. While many toponyms, or place-names, appear repeatedly in Arabia, NHM is unique, always with “a voiceless laryngeal,” a simple h. As a toponym, NHM has not been found to appear anywhere else except in reference to one area.1
NHM in Scripture and LDS Commentary
Beyond noting the rare name and exploring its meaning, most scholars have had little reason to pay particular attention to NHM.2 LDS scholars have had a much greater interest in this singular place in Nephi’s account and, examining it closely, have found a series of links that greatly increase the likelihood of a connection between it and Nihm in Yemen.
This process began in 1948 when Hugh Nibley, freshly returned from military service in Europe and fascinated with Arabic, commenced publishing details illustrating how Nephi’s text demonstrated “insider” familiarity with Arabian customs.3 He noted the linguistic connections between the two possible Semitic roots of the NHM name (the Arabic root NHM, meaning “to sigh or moan with another,” and the Hebrew Nahum, meaning “comfort”) and what happened following Ishmael’s death. Both possible roots for the name link to such meanings as “to comfort, console, a soft groan” and “to roar, complain, suffer from hunger.”4
A conclusion reached forty years later by biblical scholar David Damrosch corroborates the connection between NHM and dying. He noted that the root for Naham appears twenty-five times in the narrative books of the Bible and how “in every case it is associated with death. In family settings, it is applied in instances involving the death of an immediate family member (parent, sibling, or child); in national settings, it has to do with the survival or impending extermination of an entire people. At heart, naham means ‘to mourn,’ to come to terms with a death.”5 This closely mirrors Nephi’s description of the mourning and the complaints about looming hunger following the death and burial of his father-in-law, Ishmael: “The daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father, and because of their afflictions in the wilderness; and they did murmur against my father . . . saying: Our father is dead; yea, and we have wandered much in the wilderness, and we have suffered much affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue; and after all these sufferings we must perish in the wilderness with hunger” (1 Ne. 16:35).
Stephen Ricks pointed out in 2011 that while these associations seemed appropriate to the Lehites in view of what happened following Ishmael’s death, the original place-name itself—the one we can document in ancient texts—may well have had a different origin in early Arabia.6 In other words, when Lehi’s group heard the name Nahom vocalized, it recalled to them the mourning and complaining, despite it having a different original meaning. While this is linguistically probable, the material presented below gives additional reasons to believe that the place Nahom also already had an association with death and burial.
In his later years, Nibley saw the Arabian links he identified as his “most important” contribution to Book of Mormon research.7 The characteristically broad sweep of his writing noted the appropriateness of the Nahom name but left it for others to probe more deeply. Following Nibley’s lead, other scholars have continued to find a veritable treasure trove of insights and evidences that support the Book of Mormon’s founding story in the Near East.
A major step forward in Old World studies of the Book of Mormon came in 1976, when Lynn and Hope Hilton visited Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel on a Church assignment from the Ensign magazine. Their writings further focused LDS scholarly attention on the lands in which Nephi’s account unfolds. On the basis of that visit, the Hiltons tentatively proposed a location for Nahom in southern Saudi Arabia.8
In 1978, however, a BYU archaeologist raised the intriguing possibility that Nahom might still be known by that name today. In a short letter published in the Ensign, Ross T. Christensen noted the similarity of a place-name, Nehhm, on a 1763 map of Yemen to Nephi’s Nahom.9 He recommended research into the origins of the name and a search for other references to this name.10
Professor Christensen’s letter bore fruit, eventually setting in motion a train of events that resulted in fieldwork in Yemen by the present author and others from 1984 onward. In time, other maps and historical sources have been found that confirm the presence of the tribal name back almost two millennia, always in the same location. Present-day leaders of the Nihm tribe in Yemen proved an invaluable source of information. The physical setting of Nihm and the plateau to its east leading to the fertile coast of southern Oman have also been explored.11
The resulting data were published in a series of reports by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) from 1984 to 1991, documenting the presence of Nihm back to about AD 100, or to within roughly seven centuries of Nephi’s reference.12 The essence of the findings was later published as “Lehi’s Trail and Nahom Revisited” in the 1992 book Reexploring the Book of Mormon.13
Textual studies continued in the meantime, including a 1988 study by Stephen Ricks entitled “Fasting in the Book of Mormon and the Bible,” taking a more focused look at the hunger and fasting connected with Ishmael’s death and the name of his burial place.14
In 1991, Alan Goff’s significant essay “Mourning, Consolation, and Repentance at Nahom” provided a holistic overview of Nephi’s narrative. Goff explored the biblical milieu in which the Lehite narrative is presented, finding that the apparently linear account of Nahom is underlain with sophisticated Old Testament parallels.15
In 1994, the book In the Footsteps of Lehi encapsulated all the research findings into the Lehite journey, including Nahom, to that point in time.16 The following year, on July 22, 1995, I presented a paper titled “Some Notes on the Tribal Origins of NHM” at the annual Seminar for Arabian Studies at Cambridge University, England. Delivered before the altar discovery was known to LDS researchers, the paper proposed an initial chronology for the name, including the reference to it in the first book of Nephi.17
Summaries of the Book of Mormon’s Old World setting depicting Nahom, such as that published in 1997 by Noel B. Reynolds18 and the 1999 study aid Charting the Book of Mormon,19 continued to be expanded and deepened by scholars probing Nephi’s deceptively simple text. In 2002, two major pieces dealing with Nahom were published in a FARMS book, Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon. In it, S. Kent Brown’s “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail” made new proposals concerning the length of the Lehite journey from Shazer to Nahom and then across Arabia to Bountiful. In Stephen Ricks’s “Converging Paths: Language and Cultural Notes on the Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Book of Mormon,” Ricks incorporated the altar discovery into his overview.20
The year 2004 saw publication by FARMS of the seminal Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, the most comprehensive treatment to date of the setting in which Nephi’s account begins. The book concluded with “Jerusalem Connections to Arabia in 600 BC,” by S. Kent Brown, noting historical Jewish influences in Arabia and the implications of the Nahom account inadvertently confirming that Lehi’s group certainly had some contact with outsiders.21
In 2005, the documentary film Journey of Faith was released. Filmed on location, Journey of Faith showed views of the modern Nihm tribal area, as did the book by the same name the following year. Both showed the use of mummification in ancient South Arabian burials from one of several known burial sites in Nihm.22
Nahom: A Place of Burial
Nahom was not necessarily where Ishmael died but was where he was buried. This insight ties in perfectly with other facts. Adjacent to modern Nihm is the largest known burial site on the Arabian peninsula, an ancient necropolis dating back into the Neolithic period of some four millennia ago. Thousands of burial cairns spread over the hills of ’Alam, Ruwayk, and Jidran, near Marib, have been known to the outside world only since their 1936 discovery.23 Unstable security conditions—a perennial obstacle in Yemen—meant that the sites were not examined by archaeologists until some decades later, at about the same time the three altars were unearthed nearby.24 Because Nihm in the ancient Early South Arabian language refers to “pecked masonry,” this may carry an echo of the name’s genesis: the construction of the extensive burial complex and perhaps other structures.25
The Link to an Eastward Bountiful
There are other reasons for believing that the tribal name and Nephi’s Nahom are one and the same. After describing the impact of the death of Ishmael, Nephi specifies the first major change of direction since leaving Jerusalem. Instead of their southerly tending course, from Nahom onwards the Lehites traveled “nearly eastward” (1 Ne. 17:1), until they arrived at their uniquely fertile “Bountiful.” Only recently has satellite-assisted mapping enabled us to appreciate that after traveling southward into Arabia, as the Lehites did, people are prevented from easterly travel by the shifting, waterless dunes of the vast Empty Quarter, as much today as in the past. However, a narrow band of flat plateaus beginning in the Nihm area, marking the southern end of the Empty Quarter, presents the first opportunity for travel in an easterly direction.
While the terrain of this plateau makes easterly travel possible, the plateau is nonetheless waterless and forbidding. It is still avoided today. The difficulty of travel along this route seems to be reflected in Nephi’s account, which mentions that the group ate their meat raw (1 Ne. 17:2), they did not use “much fire” (v. 12), and the afflictions and difficulties of the journey could not all be written (v. 6). The Book of Mormon later clarifies these afflictions as “hunger and thirst” (Alma 37:42).
Perhaps assisted by the Liahona, which arrived on the very morning the Lehite group departed into Arabia, Nephi makes it clear that he could distinguish quite precise cardinal directions, not merely southeast or a generic “southwards” for example. A route ENE or ESE from Nahom leads into the Empty Quarter or into the equally forbidding Ramlat Saba’tayn desert. Very significantly, the direction of travel from Nahom is specified by Nephi as nearly eastward, a direction that we now know is possible across the plateau.26
Finally, only in recent decades has research shown that eastward from Nihm is the only fertile area in over a thousand miles of coastline, the few miles of coast in Oman touched by the annual monsoon rains. This small fertile region lies within just a degree or two (thus “nearly”) of being directly east of Nihm.27
The Significance of the Bar’an Altars
Given the convergence of these facts, it is small wonder that the 1988 altar discovery documenting the name to before Lehi’s day was highly significant.
By 1997, the best preserved of the three altars formed part of an exhibition showcasing the ancient past of Yemen in museums across Europe. Noting the altar inscription published in one of the museum catalogs, S. Kent Brown of BYU published a short article in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies in 1999. In it he concluded that the Nihm mentioned on the altar was “very probably” the same place as Nephi’s Nahom.28 No images of the text itself were available for study, however, and because the altar was still touring Europe, it seemed unlikely that more could be learned.
In September 2000, I visited the Bar’an temple site at Marib with two colleagues, Lynn Hilton and Greg Witt. Unexpectedly, a second altar bearing an identical dedication text was located within the excavated temple. Two months later, with the permission of the German team completing the restoration of the site, I returned to document the site in detail. On this visit, a badly damaged third altar with the same text was also located and photographed. Other altars found at the site, numbering about twenty in total, had unrelated scripts carved upon them. The fact that not one but three altars had been offered to the temple by Bi’athtar is unusual and underscores his status and wealth.
With comprehensive images of the altars now available, a more accurate translation of the text was made by perhaps the foremost authority on ancient Arabian chronology, Kenneth Kitchen of Liverpool University. Kitchen was able to date several of the rulers mentioned in the Sabaean inscription, thus narrowing the date for Bi’athtar. The final dating of the three physical altars belongs to the 800–700 BC period, a century earlier than first thought.29 But since Bi’athtar’s grandfather Naw’um lived two generations earlier, the reference to the tribe actually refers to an earlier time, roughly 850–750 BC.
The altar find was briefly reported in the February 2001 Ensign, in the international Liahona magazine, and mentioned in a talk given in the April 2001 general conference.30 In 2002, Terryl Givens’s landmark study By the Hand of Mormon, published by Oxford University Press, included a full-page picture of one of the altars and endorsed this find as “the first actual archaeological evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon” and “the most impressive find to date corroborating Book of Mormon historicity.”31
A 2001 article entitled “Newly Found Altars from Nahom,” published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, updated readers concerning the two additional altars and their dating; it remains the fullest account of the altar discovery.32 The discovery continued to be seen as significant in encouraging non-Mormons to take the Book of Mormon seriously as an ancient text. The 2005 Library of Congress conference organized to mark the bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s birth thus highlighted the altars as evidentiary support for Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling,33 as they have been since, including in historian Richard Bushman’s 2007 biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.34 These evaluations of the significance of the altars, however, stand in stark contrast to the silence from both the cultural-Mormon and anti-Mormon communities about their discovery.35
Further Documenting an Ancient Name
Many Latter-day Saints, however, remain unaware of still other ancient sources now known to mention NHM. These finds further inform our understanding of the tribe and its role in that region in early periods. They contribute toward an ever clearer picture of the setting in which Lehi and Sariah’s odyssey played out.
Various categories of sources document the presence of Nihm in Arabia. Most prolific, unsurprisingly, are the maps made over recent centuries showing the tribal areas of Yemen. More than twenty such maps are now known. As noted earlier, it was a map that initiated LDS efforts to understand the history of the name. Interestingly, by highlighting the Western world’s ignorance of Arabian geography, an earlier map (D’Anville’s 1751 map) was a catalyst leading to the 1761–67 Danish expedition that produced the map Christensen noted.36 D’Anville’s map remains the earliest map located to date that shows NeHeM and, importantly, draws on much earlier sources that appear to be no longer extant.37
It is worth noting that the name NHM is not especially prominent in any of these old maps; there is nothing that would draw particular attention to it. More significantly, the name itself on any of these maps does not reveal in any way that the only fertile area on the Arabian coast lay to its east. Indeed, knowledge of the Dhofar region’s unmatched abundance began to be reported to the outside world only some sixteen years after the publication of the Book of Mormon.38
Written sources other than maps are fewer but no less valuable; these include several medieval travel accounts, some containing intriguing details about the Nihm tribe.39 A singular written source is one of the very earliest texts, an AD 620 religious epistle from the prophet Muhammad himself, addressed to the tribes of Yemen, including the tribe of “Nahm.”40 Earlier still are tribal listings documented by Arab geographers and historians.41 To these we can now add a final category: inscriptional texts. Usually carved into durable stone, they are proving to be the earliest of all. Indeed, some may predate Bi’athtar’s three altars.
Stone Inscriptional References to NHM
Several inscriptions now can be added to the altar texts after being recovered from recent archaeological work in Yemen, an activity that continues spasmodically in one of the world’s more difficult locations to conduct such work. These new inscriptional references to NHM come from three of the four major south Arabian kingdoms (Saba, Ma’in, and Hadramaut). No texts referring to NHM are known from the fourth kingdom, Qataban.
The four kingdoms date from the early first millennium BC down to the third century AD, when a new kingdom, Himyar, united the whole region.42 Such widespread references to the name indicate the influence of the Nihm tribe over the millennia.
Palm Leaves: Another Inscriptional Medium
While stone and metal recorded the conquests and reigns of kings and a powerful elite, a further method developed in ancient Arabia—cursive inscriptions on dry palm-leaf stalks. Necessarily small because of the limited, curved writing surface, these texts have created a new writing category designated “Zabur,” or “minuscule texts.”
The palm sticks were used primarily to record contracts, debts, lists of names, accounts, letters, and decrees—in short, the whole range of everyday life. They may also have been used by rulers as a “backup” copy of decrees carved in stone or cast in metal. In the desert climate, palm sticks have survived remarkably well and, being organic, are amenable to carbon dating. Some date back to the eleventh century BC.43 Thousands of palm sticks have been recovered (over three thousand are kept in the National Museum in Sana’a alone), and while study of them is still in its infancy, at least two palm sticks—still undated but epigraphically belonging “at least to the 4th century B.C.”—are known to document NHM.44
Documenting a tribal name and location back some three thousand years is, of course, rare anywhere in the world; it is likely unprecedented in Arabian archaeology. It is noteworthy that, without exception, each of these maps and texts portray Nihm in its present location, although many scholars assume that the tribal influence was wider in the pre-Islamic period. Together, these sources form a consistent, amply documented tribal chronology, allowing reasonable conjecture that the origin of this name may reach back at least into late Neolithic times and would have been known to many ancient people familiar with that region.
Thus, it is significant that Nephi’s account makes clear that “Nahom” was already the name of the area where his father-in-law, Ishmael, was buried. To this Hebrew-speaking group, it was natural and appropriate to mention the tribal place-name in recording and recalling the death and burial that took place there. At just the right location to link directionally to and access the place that they would call “Bountiful,” the rare name of NHM still exists today and is now firmly documented back through the centuries to before Nephi’s day.