There is "a striking comparison" between 19th century Utah and the Holy Land in the Near East, according to a Texas college professor.
Dr. Richard V. Francaviglia, professor of history and geography, the University of Texas at Arlington, said that even Utah's settlers in the 1800s saw similarities between the two regions, based on maps and memories.
"The Latter-day Saints are modern day Israelites," he said during a presentation Friday at the 52nd annual meeting of the Utah State Historical Society in the Salt Lake City Library.
For Francaviglia, it was an intriguing 1896 map showing the Great Salt Lake area and an upside-down Dead Sea region side-by-side that highlighted this striking comparison best. He also said many mapmakers of the day were also aware of similarities.He noted similarities in hydrology, names and geographic placement:
Both the Great Salt Lake and Dead Sea are salty bodies of water so laden with salt that bathers can usually float like a cork.
The GSL and Dead Sea are both fed by fresh waters from "Jordan" rivers the River Jordan from the Sea of Galilee in the Near East and the Jordan River coming out of Utah Lake here.
Both Jerusalem and Salt Lake City are situated similarly along the shores of their salty seas. Francaviglia said a French Catholic Priest who visited the Territory of Deseret in the 1850s wrote that the GSL reminded him of the Dead Sea.
Not only was America believed by many to be a promised land, but Mormons also thought of Deseret as their divine land. He said Mormons had visited the Holy Land as early as 1841, six years before coming west.
The two regions are bordered by mountains and a desert. Mountains are symbols of revelation and uplift, while deserts represent wilderness challenges. Mount Nebo is somewhat like the Golan Heights, he said.
Some place names in Utah not only represent the Book of Mormon (Nephi, Manti, Bountiful, etc.) but also the Bible (Mount Nebo, Moab, etc.)
Francaviglia stressed that not everything is alike. For example, Utah's elevations are much more abrupt and higher, ranging from 4,500 feet above sea level to 11,300, as compared to the Holy Land's 1,200 feet below sea level to 3,000 feet.
However, for Deseret, the Wasatch Mountains were viewed as a barrier than could help protect the church members from their enemies, as well as from corruption.
Also, Salt Lake City was laid out in a rectangular orderly fashion, while Jerusalem relied on a very irregular and disorderly kind of street layout,"Early Mormons were so pro-Israel in the 19th century," Francaviglia said, noting the Mormons may have pioneered some of this favor to Israel that is much more widespread by American churches today.