"After Lehi and his family had wandered in the wilderness," wrote one critic in 1831, "they came to a fertile country, which they call the land Bountiful. This … must have been on the coast of the Sea of Arabia, or the Indian Ocean, which is a barren, sandy desert. …The historical part of the book is, all of it, thus fabulous and extravagant. …To believe the Book of Mormon, we must suppose that these emigrants …discovered a country almost equal to paradise, where no body else can find any thing but a sandy, barren desert" (Gimel, "Book of Mormon," The Christian Watchman [Boston, 7 October 1831]). As noted in a previous installment, much of the literature of Joseph Smith's milieu painted a picture of southern Arabia coast that was as much like the desert as the rest of the dry peninsula.
When the Lehites arrived at the coast they called it "Bountiful, because of its much fruit" (1 Nephi 17:6). It was during their stay at Bountiful that the Lord told Nephi to "get thee into the mountain" where he instructed Nephi to "construct a ship" (vs. 7-8). Nephi asked the Lord where to find "ore to molten" to make tools to build a ship and the Lord told Nephi where he could find such ore (9-10).
Nephi told Laman and Lemuel the Lord's plans, but his brothers became so angry that they wanted to kill Nephi by throwing him into the depths of the sea (48). Fortunately, the power of God intervened, saving Nephi's life. After building their ship from timbers, the Lehites gathered fruit, honey, seeds and meat before they sailed to their new destination.
Nephi's account was mostly at odds with the prevailing views of the day. Current research, however, supports the view presented in the Book of Mormon. In the southern Arabia country of Oman near the border of Yemen is a coastal province known as Dhofar which has a fertile region — only a few miles wide — on the coast of the Arabian Sea. This mountainous area covers more than 38,000 square miles and historically was the chief source of frankincense in the world. As explained on Wikipedia:
"Dhofar and a small portion of the northern tip of Yemen are directly exposed to the South East monsoon from mid-August to late September or early October; this is known as the Khareef. As a result, it has a lush, green climate during the monsoon season and for sometime after until the vegetation loses its moisture. Dhofar's temporarily wet climate contrasts sharply with the neighboring barren Empty Quarter Desert."
It's very possible that the Lehite Bountiful was once located somewhere in a 100-mile stretch along this fertile coast. Currently, there are four possible candidates in this small region, but the candidate I find the most persuasive is the location known as Khor Kharfot ("Fort Inlet").
Warren Aston describes Khor Kharfot as the most naturally fertile location on the Arabian coast, with abundant springs, timber trees up to 40 feet in circumference, and vegetation extending over several miles." According to Aston, wild figs, an important staple in Lehi's world, are prolific, along with tamarinds, dates, wild honey and a variety of edible nuts, berries, vegetables, herbs and roots. In addition to small game and birds, the plentiful sea life may hold the key to understanding how Lehi's group — with its limited manpower — could derive sufficient protein from the environment without diverting substantial time and energy to hunting. "A sheltered sea inlet until it was closed by a sand bar in fairly recent times, Kharfot was an ideal location to build a ship."
Aston notes 12 criteria that must be met for any location to qualify as Bountiful. Such criteria include shipbuilding timber, fruit and honey, a mountain for Nephi to pray upon, a cliff from which Nephi could be thrown into the ocean, ore for tool-making, ocean access, and more.Comment on this story
In 1993, a scholarly expediion lead by what is now known as the Maxwell Institute concluded that among the several candidates for Bountiful, Khor Kharfot emerged "as the the most probable" while no others came "…close to fitting the criteria … so well." Not only did the features match Nephi's account but there were no features (other than the fact that no "ore" was discovered) that conflicted with Nephi's account.
In 2000, the final piece of the puzzle was resolved when another expedition to Dhofar uncovered two iron ore sites within a few kilometers of Kharfot. While these sites don't yield enough iron for an iron industry, there was more than enough ore for Nephi's tool-making needs.
From what we currently know about Arabia's southern coast, the Book of Mormon gets it right.