For many years, Latter-day Saint scholars and travelers — including Hugh Nibley, Ross Christensen, Lynn and Hope Hilton, Warren Aston, George Potter and S. Kent Brown — have studied the question of Lehi's route through Arabia from Jerusalem to Old World "Bountiful," where he and his party built a boat and sailed for the Americas. Their books and academic articles have reached a few interested readers.
Since 2006, however, a larger audience has been able to see the likely setting for much of 1 Nephi. They don't actually feel the staggering heat and harsh, whipping winds of the Arabian desert, but "Journey of Faith," filmed on location in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman, represents the next best thing to being there. The story becomes vividly real.
Including Canadian, Yemeni and Omani scholars, as well as botanists, archaeologists, historians, geologists and other scholars from Brigham Young University and elsewhere — headed up by Brown, the scholarly force behind the project — the 90-minute film places the opening pages of the Book of Mormon solidly in ancient Arabia. It comments on proposed sites for Lehi's first base camp near the Red Sea; shows the land of "Nahom," where Ishmael died and was buried; and examines the fertile but remote, almost inaccessible, inlet on the Arabian coast that is the most likely location for Lehi's Bountiful.
"Journey of Faith" is beautifully done, with music composed and conducted by Merrill Jenson and art by Joseph Brickey. Director Peter Johnson, formerly an executive producer with the Audiovisual Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had, before that, led the BYU Motion Picture Studio, which became one of the top-rated university film studios in the world. His prior record as a director includes such efforts as "A More Perfect Union" (which won a regional Emmy award and was nominated for a national Emmy) and the highly acclaimed "Mountain of the Lord," about the building of the Salt Lake Temple.
The film takes its audience to locations that few Latter-day Saints will ever visit, and, not surprisingly, daunting challenges confronted the film crew. Work was delayed, for example, by the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. And when terrorists hit the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, the team was actually working in Yemen (perhaps the most isolated country in the Arab world, and, historically, one of the least stable and most hospitable of them to terrorists).
"We had spent a long day filming in the desert, and as we returned to our hotel, someone shouted, 'Something horrible has happened! Turn on CNN!' " Peter Johnson recalled afterward. "We sat transfixed in front of the television and watched the shocking events of that day. After a while, it occurred to me — these are murderous acts of terrorists against Americans … and we're here in the middle of Yemen.
"It was impossible," he continued, "to get a flight back to the U.S. We were stranded. We talked with the American Embassy, and they told us we would be safer in the desert than in the city, so we carried on and filmed for a few more days under a military escort of about 20 Yemeni soldiers. We were finally able to catch a flight to London and get out."
A sequel, "Journey of Faith: The New World," appeared in 2007. Filmed, like its predecessor, on location — this time in the steamy jungles of Guatemala and Mexico — and featuring interviews with 32 scholars, it, too, runs 90 minutes. It covers the much larger American portion of the Book of Mormon story, accompanied by breathtaking footage of lush vegetation, rugged volcanoes, ancient ruins and Mayan art.
The sequel addresses temples, political structures, warfare, the likely location of the City of Nephi, the significance of Mesoamerican pyramids, chronological parallels between the development of Mesoamerican culture and events in the Book of Mormon, cultural similarities and differences between Maya and Book of Mormon peoples, and the possibility that a volcanic storm was the actual cause of the destruction described in 3 Nephi.
The two "Journey of Faith" films are available through byubookstore.com (or 1-800-253-2578) and in many LDS bookstores, in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Many have seen these films. Many others would be interested.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of outreach for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org.