The Land of Nephi

The Land of Nephi

by John Tvedtnes

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    During most of its history, the land of Nephi was under Lamanite control. Its original inhabitants were, however, Nephites who later fled to the land of Zarahemla to avoid conflicts with their encroaching Lamanite neighbors. Some Nephites returned, however; and three generations of them lived side-by-side with the Lamanites. After they, too, fled to Zarahemla, the city of Nephi became the Lamanite capital.
    The major cities located in the land of Nephi were Nephi (Lehi-Nephi), Shilom, Shemlon, Ishmael, Middoni, Lemuel, and Shimnilom. Many of the inhabitants of these cities were converted to the Nephite religion by the sons of Mosiah during the first quarter of the first century B.C. (Alma 23:8-13). They were unable to convert the inhabitants of the cities of Amulon, Helam, and Jerusalem, however (Alma 24: 1). Two of these - Amulon, Helam - were located in the wilderness, roughly en route to the land of Zarahemla. It is reasonable to assume that Jerusalem was in the same region.
    A major characteristic of many - if not all of the cities mentioned in the Book of Mormon - is that they lay along a fault zone characterized by both earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. This is clear from the destruction described in 3 Nephi 8-9.
    In this article, we shall summarize what is known from the Book of Mormon about cities in the land of Nephi and nearby lands.

The City of Nephi

    The city of Nephi was founded by Nephi and his followers sometime between 586 and 556 B.C.1  Despite the fact that Nephi and his followers traveled "many days" to the site they named place Nephi (2 Nephi 5:7-8), by the fortieth year, they already had had wars and contentions with the Lamanites (2 Nephi 5:34; the manufacture of swords for defense is mentioned in 2 Nephi 5:14). These events imply that the two groups were not separated by a great distance. This distance proximity is further indicated by the facts that Jacob, who lived in Nephi, knew of Lamanite family life (Jacob 3:3, 6-7) and that in his lifetime there were failed attempts to convert the Lamanites, with whom war broke out (Jacob 7:24-25). These wars continued during the next few generations (Enos 24; Jarom 7, Omni 1:1, 10).
    The wars prompted many of the Nephites, perhaps most - to desert the city during the time of Mosiah I, ca. 150 B.C.,2 and immigrate to a place called Zarahemla (Omni 1:12-13. Some, however, returned to Nephi in the days of Mosiah's son, Benjamin (Omni 1:23-30), before 122 B.C. when Benjamin was succeeded by his son Mosiah II
    Mosiah II, who reigned between ca. 122-89 B.C., sent a search party to find the people who had gone up from Zarahemla to the city/land of Lehi-Nephi (Mosiah 7:1-2). They found the people were under Lamanite domination (Mosiah 7:15). Indeed, they were surrounded on every side by Lamanites (Mosiah 21:5). The Nephites occupied the cities of Lehi-Nephi and Shilom, which had been yielded to them by the Lamanites when Zeniff first arrived in the land (Mosiah 7:7, 2 1; 9:6-7). The city of Nephi was close enough to the lands of Shilom and Shemlon (where the Lamanites lived) that, from a top a very high tower near the temple, one could see both these lands (Mosiah 11: 12; 19:5-6).
    The Nephites deserted the city and fled to the land of Zarahemla early in Mosiah's reign (ca. 122-89 B.C.),4 leaving Nephi in the hands of the Lamanites. By ca. 72 B.C. (Alma 46:37), the city of Nephi "was the chief city" of the Lamanite kingdom (Alma 47:20), and the land of Nephi ran in a straight course from the East Sea to the west (Alma 50:8).
    Nephi was higher in elevation than Zarahemla, from which it was separated by a wilderness.5 This wilderness evidently consisted of forest land, where wild beasts could be hunted (Enos 1:3). The city of Nephi was probably situated between the Lamanite land of Shemlon and the wilderness. When the Lamanites approached from the direction of the land of Shemlon, the Nephites fled into the wilderness, presumably in the opposite direction (Mosiah 19:9, 23). Earlier, Zeniff had the women and children hide in the wilderness when the Lamanites attacked (Mosiah 10:9). Similarly, when Limhi saw the Lamanites preparing to attack (probably from the land of Shemlon; see Mosiah 28:1), he sent the people into the fields and forests (Mosiah 20:8).
Natural Resources
    Among the natural resources used by the Nephites in the city of Nephi were wood (meaning forests) and an abundance of iron, copper, brass, gold, silver, and other "precious ores."6 These resources imply a mountainous land. We are not sure which "precious things" that Nephi wanted to use in his temple were "not to be found upon the land" (2 Nephi 5:16). Although it is unlikely that wood will still be found on the site of Nephi, some metallic artifacts may have been preserved.
    The kinds of plants and animals raised are clues to the location of the city of Nephi. Some animals, for example, require pasturage, while some are restricted to specific climates. Climate, altitude and soil conditions also determine the kinds of plants that can be grown. Pollens, and sometimes seeds, are at times found during archaeological excavation, and bear evidence of the kinds of plants used during different time periods.
    The original settlers of Nephi were able to grow much from seed, raised flocks, herds, and "animals of every kind" (2 Nephi 5:11). A generation later, Enos wrote of the Nephites having all manner of cattle of every kind, including goats, wild goats, and horses (Enos 2 1).
    Zeniff's colony likewise grew corn, wheat, barley, neas, sheum, and all manner of fruits, and raised flocks and herds.7 King Noah planted vineyards (Mosiah 11:15). A generation later, wine was being given as tribute to the Lamanites (Mosiah 22:7, 10).
Structures one might possibly find at the site of Nephi include the following:
    •    Fortifications. During the early generations (ca. 398 B.C.), the Nephites fortified their cities against the Lamanites. These fortifications were repaired by returning Nephites during the mid-second century B.C. (Mosiah 9:8). Two generations later, we read of both the wall and a gate (Mosiah 7: 10; 21:19, 23). Limhi and his people escaped from the city through a "back pass, through the back wall, on the back side of the city" (Mosiah 22:6).
    •    Temple. Nephi built a temple "after the manner of the temple of Solomon, save it were not built of so many precious things" (2 Nephi 5:16).  Jacob, Nephi's brother, taught in the temple (Jacob 1: 17). The temple of king Noah's day (second century B.C.) - which may or may not have been the one Nephi built - was ornamented with fine wood, gold, silver, copper, brass, and other "precious things" (Mosiah 11:10). Seats for the high priests (built-in) were constructed "above all the other seats" and ornamented with gold. A breastwork before these seats enabled the priests to "rest their bodies and their arms" while speaking. The temple, still in use in Limhi's day, was large enough to assemble the city's inhabitants for a meeting (Mosiah 7:17).
    •    Tower. A very tall tower had been built by king Noah near the temple, overlooking the lands of Shilom and Shemlon (Mosiah 11: 12; 19:5-6; 20:8).
    •    Palace. Noah also built "a spacious palace," with a throne (perhaps built-in) "in the midst thereof," ornamented with "fine wood . . . gold and silver and . . . precious things" (Mosiah 11:9). Assuming that the king lived in the palace (in addition to its use for public functions), it must have contained living quarters sufficiently large to accommodate his many wives and concubines (Mosiah 11:2, 14). A Lamanite palace is noted in the early first century B.C. (Alma 22:1-2) and circa 72 B.C. (Alma 47:33-34), but we cannot ascertain from the text if these were different structures or rebuilt palaces.
    •    Public buildings. During the time of king Noah, "many elegant and spacious buildings" were constructed in the city of Nephi. These were decorated with gold, silver, ziff, copper, brass, iron, wood, and other "precious things" (Mosiah 11:8).
    •    Other buildings. There were some buildings in the city of Nephi during the first generations (2 Nephi 5:15; Jarom 8). Nephites returning under Zeniff erected buildings in the city (Mosiah 9:8).
    •    Storage facilities. The people of Limhi, in preparation for their escape from the Lamanites, "kept together in a body as much as possible, and secured their grain and their flocks" (Mosiah 21:18). Presumably, they had storage and corral facilities within the city of Nephi, since they escaped out the "back pass" through the wall of the city (Mosiah 22:6).
    •    Prison. There was a prison in the city at different periods of time (Mosiah 12:17; 17:5; 21:23). From the land of Zarahemla, then occupied by the land of Nephi (Helaman 5:16, 19), the sons of Helaman, ca. 50 B.C., went to the land of Nephi (Helaman 5:20) and were imprisoned in the same prison in which Ammon's search party had been placed earlier (Helaman 5:21-22), in the time of Limhi (Mosiah 7:7-8).
    •    Smelters, quarries, etc. Because the Nephites worked in metals and stone while residing in the land of Nephi, future exploration might disclose the existence of mines, smelters, and quarries nearby. These would date from the time of Nephi until the departure of Mosiah I, between ca. 586 B.C. and 150 B.C. (2 Nephi 5:15-16) and from the time of the Nephite reoccupation of the land, during the second century B.C. (Mosiah 11:8-11). Since the Nephites also manufactured steel (Jarom 8), they would have had facilities for this. The nature of these workplaces would probably preclude finding them within the cities themselves, however.
Winepresses. King Noah constructed winepresses, which may, however, have been outside the city of Nephi (Mosiah 11: 15).
Among the artifacts that might be discovered in the ruins of the city of Nephi are:
    •    Swords were in use from the time of Nephi until the Nephites' exodus from the city (2 Nephi 5:14; Omni 1:1, 10). The earlier swords are said to have been patterned after Laban's swords, which had a gold hilt and a steel blade (I Nephi 4:9); this may, however, refer only to the shape, not the material from which they were made.
    •    Weapons and agricultural tools. In the days of Jarom, ca. 398 B.C. (Jarom 5), the Nephites were manufacturing "machinery . . . all manner of tools of every kind to till the ground" and weapons such as the "sharp pointed arrows, quivers, darts, and javelins" (Jarom 1:8). Weapons of war were also manufactured by the Zeniff colony (Mosiah 10:1).
Domestic tools. In the days of Zeniff, women in the city of Nephi spun cloth of various kinds (Mosiah 10:5). This would require tools, perhaps including spindles and looms. Wooden implements may not have survived, but stone spindle whorls might still be found.
One should expect to find on the site items made of gold, silver, iron, wood, copper, brass, steel, and other precious things (2 Nephi 5:15; Jacob 1:16; 2:12; Jarom 1:8; Mosiah 11:3, 8; 19:15; 22:12) unless they had been looted over time. Temple ornaments were made of these materials (Mosiah 11:9-11).

The City of Shilom

The City of Shilom first appears in the story of the Nephites who returned from Zarahemla to resettle the land of Nephi in the mid-second century B.C.  Zeniff asked for and was granted the lands of Lehi-Nephi and Shilom by the Lamanite king (Mosiah 7:21; 9:6-7), and they remained in Nephite hands until the colony fled to Zarahemla (Mosiah 7:7). Zeniff s group built buildings and repaired the walls of the cities of Lehi-Nephi and Shilom (Mosiah 9:8). After the Nephites abandoned the cities in the days of Limhi (Mosiah 22), the Lamanites retook it and appointed Amulon and the other former priests of Noah as teachers in Shilom, Shemlon, and Amulon (Mosiah 24:1-2).
Topography and Agriculture
    Shilom was near the lands of Nephi and Shemlon. From atop a very high tower near the temple in Nephi, one could see the Nephite land of Shilom and the Lamanite land of Shemlon (Mosiah 11: 12; 19:5-6), which means that these lands were lower in elevation than Nephi. Shilom appears to be on the road to Zarahemla. There was a hill north of Shilom where the Nephites under Mosiah I stopped en route to their discovery of Zarahemla (Mosiah 11:13). Arriving from Zarahemla two generation's later, Ammon's exploration party prepared to go "down" to Nephi at this hill. (Mosiah 7:5-6). So the hill was higher in elevation than the city of Nephi.
    Limhi's people, fleeing to Zarahemla, departed into the wilderness from the city of Nephi and traveled around the land of Shilom.8 This may imply that Shilom, which was not in the wilderness, was near Lamanite territory, where their departure might have been noted. Indeed, the Lamanite land of Shemlon may have been to the north of Shilom, which was evidently closer to Shemlon than was Nephi. We read that a Lamanite army, apparently from the land of Shemlon, "came up upon the north of the land of Shilom" (Mosiah 10:7-8).
Elsewhere, * we learn that the land south of Shilom was suitable for watering and feeding flocks and for planting crops. A Lamanite army attacked the Nephites working in the fields and forced them to retreat to the city of Nephi (Mosiah 9:14-16). Evidently, Nephi was south of Shilom.
    Nephites returning under Zeniff erected buildings in the land of Shilom (Mosiah 9:8). These may have been constructed in the days of Nephi (cf. 2 Nephi 5:15; Jarom 8). King Noah constructed many buildings in the land of Shilom and a tower atop the hill north of Shilom (Mosiah 11:13).
The City of Shemlon
    We first read of the Lamanite land of Shemlon in the days of King Noah, who constructed a very high tower in the city of Nephi from which one could see the lands of Shemlon and Shilom (Mosiah 11: 12; cf. 19:5-6). The proximity of the three cities is further indicated by the fact that Zeniff sent spies from Nephi to the land of Shemlon to see the Lamanite preparations for war (Mosiah 10:7).
    Shemlon was evidently north of Shilom, for when the Lamanites attacked in the days of Zeniff, they came on the north of Shilom (Mosiah 10:8). It was perhaps from Shemlon (see Mosiah 20: 1) that the Lamanites attacked the Nephites in the land of Nephi (Mosiah 20:9).
    Nephi was higher in elevation than Shemlon, for the Lamanites "came up" against the Nephites (Mosiah 20:9). This is further implied by the fact that it was from the tower in Nephi that Limhi had seen the Lamanite preparations for war (Mosiah 20:1, 8). One would not expect him to see activities in a land higher in elevation than his own city.
    Shemlon was near the wilderness. The priests of Noah, after fleeing the city of Lehi-Nephi, lay in wait in the wilderness outside the city and carried off some of the young women as wives (Mosiah 20:15). After the departure of Limhi's people from the land of Nephi, the Lamanite king appointed these priests to be teachers in Shilom, Shemlon, and Amulon (Mosiah 24:1-2).
Possible Structures
    There may have been cultic structures at the site in Shemlon where the Lamanite girls gathered to dance (Mosiah 20:1-2). A courtyard of some kind might have been located there.

The Waters of Mormon

    The Waters of Mormon are mentioned only in connection with the ministry of Alma I (Mosiah 18). The place was in the "borders of the land" (Mosiah 18:4, 3 1). A goodly number of Nephites from Lehi-Nephi went to Mormon to hear Alma and to be baptized in the waters (Mosiah 18:6- 10, 16-17). This means that the place was not at a great distance from king Noah's capital city.  Indeed, the king learned of the meetings being held by Alma (Mosiah 18:32-33).
Topography and Agriculture
    The Waters of Mormon were located in the forest and were therefore possibly a lake (Mosiah 18:30). The “fountain of pure water” near a thicket of small trees where Alma hid probably denotes the waters in question (Mosiah 18:5).
    The region was suitable for pasturage and planting of crops. Alma's followers had both flocks and grain, which they took with them when they fled into the wilderness (Mosiah 23: 1). The fact that they traveled only eight days before settling in another place shows how close to Mormon that wilderness was.9
    That the people who assembled at Mormon were basically farmers is suggested by the flocks and grain they took with them and by the fact that when they arrived at their new home, they tilled the ground and constructed buildings (Mosiah 23:5). However, it is likely that they left no permanent structures in their temporary home at the Waters of Mormon; for when they arrived at their next destination, they pitched tents prior to constructing buildings (Mosiah 23:1-5).
    The region of Mormon was infested at seasons by wild beasts (Mosiah 18:4). Because they were not present year-round, we assume they were migratory animals.

The City of Helam

    The city of Helam was founded by Alma I and his followers about a century before Christ after they had fled from King Noah's army (Mosiah 23:1-5, 19-20). It was evidently named after Helam, the first person baptized by Alma at the Waters of Mormon (Mosiah 18:12-14).
    Helam was separated from Mormon by a wilderness (Mosiah 23:1, 3), which was evidently the same wilderness that separated the Lamanite and Nephite lands, for ultimately Alma's group went from Helam to Zarahemla (Mosiah 24:2325). Helam was an eight-day journey from the waters of Mormon for a group of about 450 persons fleeing with their animals and other possessions (Mosiah 23:3). It was evidently near Amulon, whose ruler of the same name was made king over the land of Helam by the Lamanite monarch (Mosiah 23:29).  It may have been roughly between Amulon and Nephi. Lamanites and Amulonites, having set out from Amulon to seek the land of Nephi, discovered Alma's People in Helam (Mosiah 23:30-36).
Topography and Agriculture
    Helam is described as "a very beautiful and pleasant land, a land of pure water," with ground suitable for agricultural use (Mosiah 23:4-5; cf. 23:25-26). It is significant that the flocks and grains brought from the Waters of Mormon grew well in the land of Helam (Mosiah 24:18).
    Though buildings were constructed at Helam (Mosiah 23:5), it is possible that the site was occupied for only a few years by a very small population.10 The city may have had a wall, for during a Lamanite attack, farmers took refuge in the city (Mosiah 23:25-26).

The City of Amulon

    The City of Amulon was founded in the second century B.C. by the priests of Noah (and named from their leader), after they had married Lamanite women captured at Shemlon (Mosiah 20:1-5; 23:31-32). The priests had laid in the wilderness outside Shemlon and retreated into the wilderness, where they built Amulon.
    The city of Amulon was roughly en route from the land of Nephi to the land of Zarahemla. Lamanites pursuing Limhi's people who fled from Nephi to Zarahemla were "lost in the wilderness" when by accident they came across the Amulonites (Mosiah 22:15-16; 23:30-3 1).
    Amulon was evidently not far from the cities of Shilom and Shemlon, for the priest Amulon was given authority by the Lamanites over the three cities (Mosiah 24:1-2). He was also made king over the land of Helam (Mosiah 23:39). The proximity of Amulon to the city of Nephi is evidenced by the fact that the Amulonites occasionally stole supplies from Nephi by night (Mosiah 21:20-2 1).
Topography and Agriculture
    After fleeing into the wilderness (Mosiah 19:23; 20:23), the Amulonites evidently subsisted by stealing from the people in Nephi. But when discovered by the Lamanite army searching the fleeing Nephites from the city of Nephi, they had "begun to till the ground" (Mosiah 23:31). Assuming that the "wilderness" was forested land, it is possible that they used the "slash-and-burn" method of raising crops.

The City of Ishmael

    Though in Lamanite-controlled territory and apparently near the land of Nephi (Alma 17:1920; 23:9; 25:13), Ishmael was not in the land of Nephi proper (Alma 20:1-2) and had its own king (Alma 18:1-10, 12; 20:8). It may have been near the land of Middoni, whose king was an acquaintance of the king of Ishmael (Alma 20:2-5, 7-8, 28; 21:18). Ishmael is mentioned only in connection with events of the period of ca. 90-77 B.C.
Topography and Agriculture
    Ishmael was lower in elevation than Nephi (Alma 20:1-2). Three days or less from the city of Ishmael lay the waters of Sebus, where flocks were brought for water (Alma 17:25-28, 31-33).
Structures and Artifacts
    There was a prison (Alma 17:20) and synagogues (Alma 21:20-21) in the land of Ishmael.  A royal sepulchre is also mentioned (Alma 19:1, 5).
    Among the possible artifacts that could be found on the site are implements associated with chariot-pulling horses (Alma 18:9-10, 12), swords (Alma 20:14), and beds of some sort (Alma 18:43; 19:5).

The City of Middoni

    Middoni is mentioned only in connection with events of the period of ca. 90-77 B.C. It was perhaps near the Lamanite village of Ani-Anti (Alma 21:1-2, 11-12), and appears to have been near the land of Ishmael, whose king was an acquaintance of the king of Middoni (Alma 20:25, 7-8, 28; 21:18).  In Alma 24:5, we read of the land of Midian, which seems to be near Ishmael. This is probably a scribal or printer's error for Middoni, for it is the only occurrence of the name Midian as a New World city.
Topography and Structures
    Middoni was lower in elevation than Nephi (Alma 22:1, 3). Nothing is known of the city itself except that it had a prison (Alma 20:2-5, 7, 28).

Other Lamanite Cities

    Several Lamanite cities are mentioned so briefly in the Book of Mormon that we know very little about them. But their significance in geographical terms cannot be overlooked.
    The Lamanite-controlled city of Jerusalem was founded in the latter part of the second century B.C. or the early part of the first century B.C. by the Amulonites and Amalekites. It joined the borders of Mormon and was near the village of Ani-Anti (Alma 21:1-2, 11-12; cf. 24: 1). At the time of Christ's crucifixion, Jerusalem sank into the earth and was covered by waters (3 Nephi 9:67). We cannot be sure if those waters were a lake, a river, or the sea.
    From its name, we presume that Laman was in Lamanite territory. We read of its destruction by fire at the time of Christ's crucifixion Q Nephi 9:10).
    Nothing is known of the Lamanite village of Ani-Anti except that it was near the city of Jerusalem and perhaps near the land of Middoni and is mentioned in a text relating events of the first quarter of the second century B.C. (Alma 21:1-2, 11-12).
    The City of Siron was in the Lamanite borderland, near the Zoramites who lived in Antionum (Alma 39:2-3; cf. vs. 11). It is mentioned in a text relating events in ca. 74 B.C. The proximity of the Zoramite city of Antionum is also indicated in Alma 3 5: 10-11, where we read that the Zoramites began mingling with the Lamanites. (Alma 43:4). This prompted the Nephites to assemble armies in the land of Jershon, while the Lamanites gathered in the land of Antionum (Alma 43:4-5).

    1.    Lehi's announcement of Jerusalem's impending destruction came in the first year of King Zedekiah (I Nephi 1:4), which would make it 598 B.C. He left his home soon thereafter (I Nephi 2:14). From biblical chronology, we know that this occurred in 586 B.C. Lehi evidently died soon thereafter (2 Nephi 4:12), and it was not long afterward that the city of Nephi was founded (2 Nephi 5:5-8) - the terminus ad quo of the thirtieth year since their departure from Jerusalem (2 Nephi 5:28).
    2.    Mosiah II died in the 509th year after Lehi's departure from Jerusalem, aged 63, following a reign of 33 years (Mosiah 29:46). This means that he was born in the 446th year, i.e., 152 B.C., probably when his grandfather Mosiah I was still alive and king.
    3.    See the preceding note.
    4.    In the first year of the judges, Nehor slew Gideon, by then an old man (Alma 1:1-9) and no longer the vigorous soldier he was at the time of the exodus from the land of Nephi (Mosiah 19:1-7; 20:17; 22:3-9). This was the year in which Mosiah II abdicated and Alma II became the first chief judge, and the year in which Alma and Mosiah died (Mosiah 29:42-47).
    5.    Omni 1:27-29; Mosiah 7:4, 9, 13; 9:1-4; 19:18, 28; Alma 26:9, 23, 26.
    6.    2 Nephi 5:15; Jacob 1:16; Jarom 8; 11:3, 8-9; 19:15; 22:112. Ziff listed with other metals in Mosiah 11: 3, 8, probably derives from the Hebrew word meaning "brilliant, shining," and perhaps denotes electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver.
    7.    Mosiah 7:22; 9:9, 12; 10:2, 4, 21; 11:3, 16-17; 21:18, 20-2 1; 22:2, 6, 8, 10-11.
    8.    Mosiah 22:8, 11. They went via a secret pass on the left of the Lamanite camp (Mosiah 22:7).
    9.    Mosiah 23:3; see also Mosiah 18:34-35; 21:34.
    10.    The group consisted of about 450 souls (Mosiah 18:34-35; 21:34).

Tvedtnes, John A.