If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome. Anne Bradstreet

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. Ether 12:27

Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season therof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul. And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion. D&C 59:18-20

Monday, May 19, 2008

Book of Mormon Geography: Defining ZARAHEMLA

To recap, Mormon's map has two major divisions: the land north (Mulek) and the land south (Lehi). Mulek is divided into the land northward (Jaredites) and the land southward (Mulekites and Nephites). The land southward is divided into the land of Zarahemla (settled by the Mulekites, joined by the Nephites) and the land of Nephi (settled by Nephi, abandoned by Mosiah 1).

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:

  1. Its head is near the west sea (Alma 50:11).
  2. It empties into the sea (Alma 44:22).
  3. It has east and west banks or sides. Never once is it described as having north or south banks or sides.
  4. 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).
  5. The south wilderness is on its east side (Alma 16:7).
  6. 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).


Anonymous said...

If Cumorah was in New York and Zarahemla in Mesoamerica, how did Moroni bury the plates at Cumorah?

Marlene Newell said...

I will answer that question when I discuss the massive migrations before and after the time of Christ, and the flight of the Nephites after the time of Christ.

Joe Bowers said...

I served my mission in southern Honduras, Tegucigalpa, and everything south. I love this stuff... I've been back to Guatemala a few times and cannot wait to visit Copan.

Anonymous said...

"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."

While I appreciate the difficulty of what you are attempting to do here, it seems to me that this kind of reasoning is faulty. Matching Nephite sites to Mayan sites seems irrelevant to me. The Classical Mayans cannot be the Nephites, the well-established dates are wrong. The Nephites would parallel the Pre-classical Mayan period.

Here is a chronological chart and further down the page is a timeline.

If the Nephites were among the Pre-Classical Mayans, there is no particular reason that later peoples (Mayans)would necessarily use ritual centers abandoned by Nephites. Mayan temples have always impressed me more as something like a Rameumpton than a temple. I'm not sure if temples after the manner of Solomon would leave much footprint.

It has always been interesting to me how well Olmec and other early cultures parallel the Jaredite story. Even the Nephite dates parallel major events in Mayan development. However, as we learn more about these civilizations, if we can't find a place for the Jaredites and the Nephites among these cultures, we need to consider different settings no matter how well we thinks the geography fits.

Marlene Newell said...

Thank you for your very thought provoking contribution. I agree totally with your analysis -- however, many are looking at the Mayan sites as evidence of the Nephite cities, and I wanted to point out that some "could be" but the majority of them just don't fit the geographic descriptions in the Book of Mormon. You very well pointed out that they don't fit the cultural descriptions, either, or the timeline.

thanks again . . .

My theory goes on to suggest the location of the key cities in the Book of Mormon war chronicles.

Anonymous said...

A person from the church I don't rememeber which President said this but he said that some or most people from Scotland are the descendent from the Nephites who left after so much war and never went back. Who said it? Does anyone know?

Marlene Newell said...

Eva, I am totally unfamiliar with this saying, so I do not know to whom it is credited.

I'm not discounting what you are saying, but I always thought of the people from Scotland and that whole general area as being descendants of the 10 Lost Tribes -- no authority to back me up, just my own thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Hey Marlene,
This is a pretty complex subject isn't it. Even the geography may have changed a little at the time of Christ's coming. I like the way you reason it out. I don't quite understand why you rule out a more northern river, like the san-pedro, as there are mesoamerican cities in a group up there which match up pretty well with the BofM esp in the peten region. They have the correct age and features; highways connecting, fortifications,(Becan) temples. The temples within the correct era include those called 'triadic'. These may not match so well artists interpretations of Solomons temple but if you compare the drawing of 'El Tigre' triadic complex at El Mirador with drawings of the plan of the great temple Ezekiel saw in vision, the similarities are numerous, down to the masks on the walls, some of which are quite intriguing as they show obvious pierced palms. They find evidence there also of an Israelite custom of bloodletting, it's not a Christian practice, but was well known to Lehi's people leaving Jerusalem when Israel was about to go into captivity because of their idol worshiping, its part of that, eg 1 Kings 18:28.
Mark Parker.