“Tents, Donkeys And Camels”

Did Lehi use camels to cross Arabia? According to George Potter, the answer is a given. Camels are the only way anyone could have crossed Arabia before the twentieth century. Donkeys and horses would have quickly broken down under the burden of the sands. Besides, there is neither enough water nor the proper fodder for such animals in most of Arabia. The camel is still highly admired in Arabia and it has only in relatively recent times been replaced as the prime mode of transport for long journeys. The English explorer H. St. J. Philby praised the camels he used in crossing Arabia: “To my companions and the great beast that bore us--hungering and thirsting but uncomplaining--the credit of a great adventure.” [George Potter with Richard Wellington, Following the Words of Nephi: Part One: Discovering the Valley of Lemuel, Unpublished Manuscript, 1999, p. 74]

“Provisions and Tents”

According to the Hiltons, the living conditions of the Bedouin have changed little since 600 B.C., the possessions of the family they visited may be similar to what Lehi’s group took with them on their journey. As they approached the Bedouin tent they could see everything they owned. There was a donkey in the dooryard, a horse and camel in the distance, sheep and a turkey walking underfoot. Entering the flap of the stiff black tent they saw handwoven baskets hanging on the center poles filled with cooking pots, some half-filled with waterskins. They could see their entire wardrobe in a box pushed into the corner.

Lehi probably carried his provisions in goatskin bags, which are still used all along the trail in the Arabian peninsula. These bags typically hold about four gallons. These bags probably held such food as wheat, flour, barley, dried sour milk, olive or sesame oil, olives and dates. There also must have been bedding, weapons such as bows, arrows, and knives, and cooking utensils, although according to research, no spoons or forks were used in Lehi’s day among the Hebrews s or the Arabs. [Lynn M. and Hope A. Hilton, In Search of Lehi’s Trail, pp. 57-59]


The Hiltons comment that Lehi had “tents” (1 Nephi 2:4), had them at a time when making them was a laborious and time-consuming process of weaving… . And according to one of [their] guides, Salim Saad, an eminent historian, travelers in Judea generally camped in caves; tents were for desert travelers. Why would a city-dweller have tents in his possession, ready when he wanted to leave? … If Lehi had some type of dealing with desert people, it might explain several things: (1) why he apparently had sufficient tents and animals to move his family without making extraordinary preparations; (2) why his sons knew how to handle tents and travel in the wilderness; and (3) how he had sufficient knowledge of the main routes and water holes to survive prior to receiving the Liahona.

Historians say that the beit shaar (house of hair) has not substantially changed with the passing of time. The Old Testament describes tents as “black” (Song of Solomon 1:5), made of “goats’ hair” and containing partitions of curtains (Exodus 36:14), with a “hanging for the door of the tent” (Exodus 26:36). The houses of hair we visited and studied were oblong and had a long pitched roof with drooping ends. The smallest tents had nine poles, the three tallest down the center with the three shorter ones running down each side. Guy ropes, also handwoven from goats’ hair, extended outward to stakes (also called nails anciently) driven in the ground. (See Judges 4:21.) Each tent was divided laterally into two or more living sections by a curtain or curtains: at least one section for the men and one for women and children. [Lynn M. and Hope A. Hilton, In Search of Lehi’s Trail, pp. 68-9]

“Family and Provisions and Tents”

In a F.A.R.M.S. article, John Tvedtnes disagrees with Nibley: “I do not believe that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that Lehi was involved in caravan trade.” … I argue that [1 Nephi 2:4] bespeaks a man who was not prepared for a sudden journey into the wilderness. While most things are labeled (in true Hebraic style) “his … and his … ,” the pronoun’s absence is striking when it comes to "provisions and tents,” which are the very things one would expect a caravaneer to have on hand. Because the rest of the verse is so consistent in using the possessive pronoun, its absence here may mean that Lehi had to procure provisions and tents for the trip. If so, this would imply that he was not involved in the caravan trade… . Indeed, shortly after Nephi’s group separated from that of his elder brethren, the Nephites began planting crops, raising herds and constructing buildings, including a temple (2 Nephi 5:11-17)--hardly typical of a nomadic life. Later, the Nephite pattern of settlement was to establish city-states, wherein cities would control the land surrounding them, hence giving rise to lands and cities having the same names in the Book of Mormon. This is typical of Judah of the time of Lehi, but not of nomadic peoples or of caravaneers… .

If Lehi and his family were metal-workers (living on a plot of land sufficiently large to grow crops as well), then the source of their wealth is readily explained. From Biblical passages (2 Kings 24:11-15; Jeremiah 24:1, 29:2) as well as the Assyrian and Babylonian documents of that era, we learn that craftsmen and smiths were considered in Lehi’s day to belong to the upper class. [John Tvedtnes, “Was Lehi a Caravaneer?,” F.A.R.M.S., p. 1]

“Family and Provisions and Tents”

Hugh Nibley claims that there is ample evidence in the Book of Mormon that Lehi was an expert on caravan travel. Consider a few general points. Upon receiving a warning dream, he is ready apparently at a moment’s notice to take his whole “family, and provisions, and tents” out into the wilderness (1 Nephi 2:4). While he took absolutely nothing but the most necessary provisions with him, he knew exactly what those provisions should be, and when he had to send back to the city to supply unanticipated wants, it was for records that he sent and not for any necessaries for the journey. This argues a high degree of preparation and knowledge in the man, as does the masterly way in which he established a base camp in order to gather his forces for the great trek, in the best manner of modern explorers in Arabia. Up until Lehi leaves that base camp, that is, until the day when he receives the Liahona, he seems to know just where he is going and exactly what he is doing …

His family accuse Lehi of folly in leaving Jerusalem and do not spare his personal feelings in making fun of his dreams and visions, yet they never question his ability to lead them. They complain, like all Arabs against the terrible and dangerous deserts through which they pass, but they do not include ignorance of the desert among their hazards, though that would be their first and last objection to his wild project were the old man nothing but a city Jew unacquainted with the wild and dangerous world of the waste places.

Lehi himself never mentions inexperience among his handicaps. Members of the family laugh contemptuously when Nephi proposes to build a ship (1 Nephi 17:17-20), … but they never mock their brother’s skill as a hunter or treat him as dude in the desert. The fact that he brought a fine steel bow with him from home and that he knew well how to use that difficult weapon shows that Nephi had hunted much in his short life. [Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, F.A.R.M.S., p. 36]

“Tents Donkeys and Camels”

According to the Hiltons, when Lehi left Jerusalem, they probably used donkeys to carry their tents and provisions. The land around the city is very sharp and rocky; consequently, very few camels, with their soft padded feet, are in evidence. The Hiltons were assured by the Bedouins with whom they visited that each tent would weigh about 500 pounds and would have been packed separately as walls, partitions, and roof on three different donkeys. Thus, with three donkeys needed for one tent, and a donkey per person for provisions, one arrives at a minimum figure.

No matter which route Lehi might have used to leave Jerusalem, he would have run into camel markets where he could have traded his donkeys for camels. He might even have had money with him that he used--leaving his gold and silver behind does not mean that he departed penniless. Those camel markets are still there, large, dusty, and noisy with haggling buyers and sellers.

The unique qualities of the camel not only allow it to survive, but also to thrive under harsh desert conditions. Camels in Arabia are not the two-humped Bactrian animal from Asia, but the single-humped dromedary. To the Arabian desert dweller, the camel is more than the “ship of the desert.” It represents a way of life, a special gift from God, a source of food, clothing, shelter, transportation--an animal so important that over seven hundred Arabic names exist to describe it in its numerous varieties, breeds, conditions, and stages of growth. Camels have a life expectancy of forty to fifty years, and female camels will lactate as long as four years after giving birth. Bedouins can and do live for months and even years at a time with nothing but camel’s milk and dates as the staples of their diet. [Lynn M. and Hope A. Hilton, In Search of Lehi’s Trail, p. 49, 52-53, 91]

1 Nephi 2:4 Tents [Camels] ([Illustration] This stone relief from the palace of Sennacherib in ancient Nineveh illustrates the 701 B.C. (probable date) Assyrian capture of the city of Lachish in Judah … within 25 miles of Lehi’s city of Jerusalem. It also shows how seventh-century B.C. Jews loaded a camel. Lehi and his group, once they were on the desert probably looked much like this. [Lynn M. and Hope A. Hilton, “In Search of Lehi’s Trail -- Part 1: The Preparation,” in The Ensign, September, 1976, p. 39]

“Tents and Camels”

According to Potter and Wellington, for travel through the desert no animal can compare with the camel. It is singularly adapted for life in the desert. Even on the hottest day the camel hardly perspires. A fine layer of fur near the skin protects the camel from the sun and yet is ventilated in such a way as to allow sweat to evaporate. A shorn camel loses 50% more water than one with a long coat.

Man reacts to the heat by keeping body temperature steady and losing fluids constantly. He can control his temperature until finally the body fluids are so concentrated that the blood can no longer flow fast enough to dissipate the body’s heat and very rapidly the body temperature rises resulting in death. On the other hand, the camel can vary its body temperature depending on the air temperature, thus making it unique amongst mammals. The body temperature of the camel can range from 34o C at night up to 40.7o C in the heat of the day without impairing its ability to function. By storing heat and then releasing it at night the camel needs to perspire much less than any other mammal.

Camels can withstand severe dehydration far better than humans. Camels can lose up to 30% of their body weight without fatal consequences and when water is available they are able to drink huge quantities that would result in water intoxication in any other mammal. The camel can survive this because its red blood cells can expand up to 240 times their size in order to soak up every drop of water.

The camel has an ingenious method of cutting water loss through the kidneys. While humans routinely expel urine which is 95% water, the camel does not excrete all its urea. Much of the urea passes to the rumen where microorganisms in the saliva are able to break it down, thus saving the camel considerable amounts of fluid loss. A study undertaken at the University of Riyadh compared camels with donkeys under desert conditions and found that by weight the donkey requires more than three times as much water as the camel. The kidneys of the camel are able to concentrate the urine far more efficiently than donkeys, which lose water in their feces and through sweating.

Not only is the camel superbly designed for life in the desert but it is also a strong pack animal. The Arabs use the camel to carry salt mined in Yemen (close to where Lehi’s family would have passed). Each camel can carry two “skins,” each weighing 150 to 200 pounds (for a total of 400 lbs). Lehi took tents with him into the desert (1 Nephi 2:1). In a visit to a traditional Middle Eastern tent maker in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, Potter and Wellington weighed a small goat hair tent. The 10‘ x 10’ tent weighed 160 pounds, and with tent poles, guy ropes and tent pegs they estimated the total weight would have been in the region of 240 pounds. They postulated that because a camel can carry 240 pounds, but unlikely 480 pounds, then one camel could carry only one small tent. They reasoned that Lehi’s party would have had multiple tents as well as supplies and would therefore have had multiple camels. [George Potter and Richard Wellington, Discovering The Lehi-Nephi Trail, Unpublished Manuscript, 2000, pp. 52-54]

1 Nephi 2:4 Tents [Camels] ([Illustration] Camels can carry loads of up to 1,000 pounds, go two or three weeks without water, and survive in scorching heart of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. So important are camels “there are a thousand Arabic terms for (them) in various stages of growth. They still supply the desert nomad with transport, food, and wealth. He drinks their milk, eats their flesh, weaves their hair into tents and cloaks, burns their dung for fuel, uses their urine for medicine and hair tonic, and uses the beast to turn his waterwheel and pull his plow.” The lack of mention of them in the record is not surprising, as they were the common means of transportation in the desert. [Scot and Maurine Proctor, Light from the Dust, p. 23]

Alan C. Miner -

Alan C. Miner

Step by Step Through the Book of Mormon: A Cultural Commentary