The land of Zarahemla is divided into lands (states), which have cities by the same name. Since one of these states is also named Zarahemla, I shall use ZARAHEMLA when discussing the national land of Zarahemla.
ZARAHEMLA's northern border is the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Since its southern border is formed by the head of the River Sidon, we must first locate that river.
The River Sidon
Mormon provides the following descriptions of the river Sidon:
- Its head is near the west sea (Alma 50:11).
- It empties into the sea (Alma 44:22).
- It has east and west banks or sides. Never once is it described as having north or south banks or sides.
- It forms the southern border of the land of Manti, which is located near its head, and yet Manti is on its west side (Alma 22:27, 43:32).
- The south wilderness is on its east side (Alma 16:7).
- While there are Nephite colonies on the east side of Sidon, the capital parts of ZARAHEMLA lie between Sidon and the Desolation/Bountiful line (Hel 1:27).
To accommodate these descriptions, the real-world river Sidon must have an east/easterly flowing upper course before turning north or northerly. Because the greatest length of its course is north or northerly, Mormon describes the banks along its entire course as east or west.
Only three rivers in southern Mexico and Central America are candidates for the real-world river Sidon: the Grijalva, the Usamacinto, and the rio Coco.
The Grijalva is quickly eliminated from consideration. Though it has the necessary north flow to provide east and west banks, it does not have an easterly upper course, it would exclude the majority of the Maya ruins in the former Kingdom of Guatemala as candidates for cities in ZARAHEMLA, it does not allow the capital parts of ZARAHEMLA to be between the Sidon and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and lands bordering the east sea would be hard to place.
The Usamacinto has the necessary easterly upper course and the necessary lengthy northerly course. Several Maya ruins along the river would be candidates for key cities in ZARAHEMLA. However, many Maya ruins would be eliminated as key cities in ZARAHEMLA and the lands along ZARAHEMLA’s east coast are problematic. This river was finally eliminated from consideration when it failed to accommodate numerous geographic descriptions and the population/troop movements described by Mormon.
The rio Coco remains as the only viable candidate. It has the necessary easterly upper course. Its lengthy northeasterly flow as the border between present-day Honduras and Nicaragua provides for east/west banks or sides because of the knee-shape formed by Honduras and Nicaragua.
With Honduras lying in a straight east/west direction, the Honduras side of the river can be described as its west side, and the Nicaragua side as its east side. Finally, ZARAHEMLA would then include much of the former Kingdom of Guatamela, and all of the Maya ruins.
ZARAHEMLA'S Southern Border
With the real-world river Sidon identified as the rio Coco, the southern border of ZARAHEMLA can be positioned.
In Alma 22, Mormon gives his description of this southern border from the Lamanite perspective – that is, as one would come into ZARAHEMLA from NEPHI, which was then under Lamanite occupation. In verse 27, Mormon specifically states that NEPHI stretches from sea to sea. He says, “And it came to pass that the [Lamanite] king sent a proclamation throughout all the land, amongst all his people who were in all his land, who were in all the regions round about, which was bordering even to the sea, on the east and on the west.”
Separating NEPHI from ZARAHEMLA is a narrow strip of wilderness, “which ran from the sea east even to the sea west” (Alma 22:27). This sea-to-sea wilderness ends at “the borders of Manti, by the head of the river Sidon” (Alma 22:27). Manti is a land in ZARAHEMLA. Drawing a line from the head of the Sidon due east marks the northern border of this wilderness, which is identical with the southern border of ZARAHEMLA.
Mormon makes it very clear that only Sidon’s upper course, not the entire river, forms ZARAHEMLA’s southern border because lands belonging to ZARAHEMLA are located on its east side and Alma 22:27 mentions only the river’s head as the location point for the dividing line between the narrow strip of wilderness and ZARAHEMLA.
The narrow strip of wilderness is also called the south wilderness when described from ZARAHEMLA’s perspective. This south wilderness does not entirely end at ZARAHEMLA’s southern border. Rather, it continues up along ZARAHEMLA’s west and east coastlines (Alma 22:28-29). Mormon says these wildernesses were inhabited by the “more idle part of the Lamanites,” and “thus the Nephites were nearly surrounded by the Lamanites” (Alma 22:29).