“The Land of Zarahemla”

Alan C. Miner

According to Russell M. Nelson, the Old Testament is replete with prophecies that relate to the scattering of Israel. One such comes from the book of First Kings: "For the Lord shall smite Israel, as a reed is shaken in the water, and he shall root up Israel out of this good land, which he gave to their fathers, and shall scatter them" (1 Kings 22:17). In this citation, the word "scatter" was translated from the Hebrew verb zarah, which means "to scatter, cast away, winnow, or disperse." [Russell M. Nelson, "Remnants Gathered, Covenants Fulfilled," in Voices of Old Testament Prophets: The 26th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, p. 10]

In a personal communication with Paul Hoskisson, director of The Book of Mormon Onomasticon Project, I asked if there were any meanings for the root "hemla" or hemlah in the Near Eastern languages. He responded by saying that finding any meaning for such a root was difficult, however, a possible interpretation might be found from the participial form of the verb "to look on with pity" or "to pity." I then read him the above quote by Elder Nelson and asked him if there was any chance that I could combine the two meanings in defining the name "Zarahemla" as something like "taking pity on the scattered [of Israel]." He said that, in fact, Robert Smith had already proposed such a meaning, but whether that meaning has merit is hard to determine. I asked him about the meaning for Zarahemla proposed by Ricks and Tvedtnes. He said that he doubted those two roots could be combined in such a way as to produce such a meaning. [Paul Hoskisson, Director of The Book of Mormon Onomasticon Project, November 21, 2000]

“The Land of Zarahemla”

The reader should note that another major Book of Mormon geographical model situated in Mesoamerica has been proposed by F. Richard Hauck. He locates the city or local land of Zarahemla on the Usumacinta River, Guatemala, in the area of Nine Hills. [F. Richard Hauck, Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon, pp. 7-8]

Richard Hauck is "convinced that Zarahemla is hidden within the incredibly humid, high-canopy rain forest of the Guatemalan tropical lowlands. . . . " Hauck suspects that Mulek and his Near Eastern refugees arrived at Zarahemla by boat, and that the Sidon river must have been navigable from the Gulf of Mexico, at least as far inland as the settlement at Zarahemla. Having assumed this is true, then for Mesoamerica, the Usumacinta River is the most logical candidate for the river Sidon because it is navigable far into the interior.

According to Hauck, the most probable locality for a major capital like Zarahemla is in the large valley where the Maya site of Nueve Cerros, or Nine Hills, is located. It is thirty-five miles directly north, down-slope from the Coban (proposed Manti) location and is crossed by the Usumacinta River (proposed Sidon). The difficult limestone karst terrain has restricted access south, up into the highlands where Manti would be located. To the north, Nueve Cerros is readily accessible to the Gulf of Mexico, or North Sea (see Helaman 3:8) via the river. To the east, it is accessible to the Caribbean, or East Sea. Finally, this valley is the only agriculturally productive locality that could sustain the large Nephite populations anciently living within the civilization's capital city. What's more, even the time frame of occupations at this site fit the Zarahemla model. Limited archaeological investigations at Nueve Cerros have documented that people lived here between 300 B.C. and A.D. 900. (See Dillon, Salinas de los Nueve Cerros, Guatemala, 1977.)

Salt is another factor that makes the Nueve Cerros valley complex most attractive as a location for ancient Zarahemla. Nueve Cerros was a most important source for salt in ancient Central America. The site is located at the only source of salt in all the interior of south-eastern Mesoamerica. Salt was being extracted from a saline creek at that site long before the arrival of the Spanish in this region. Why is salt such a big deal? Not only is salt necessary in our diet, especially for those living in the torrid tropics, but salt was anciently used as a primary means of food preservation. . . . Perhaps more vital than salt's secular value, however, was its sacred use. The ancient Hebrews had the salt sacrifice as stated in the Old Testament; they used salt in sacred rituals in the tabernacle and the temple. . . .

One final factor is that satellite and aerial photography have revealed the outline of an ancient city at this site measuring at least eighteen miles across. [F. Richard Hauck, "The Trail to Zarahemla," in This People, Holiday 1994, pp. 64-70]

Omni 1:13 The Land of Zarahemla ([Illustration]): Late afternoon light hits the shores of the upper reaches of the Usumacinta River in Guatemala near "Nine Hills" archaeological site. The river is a startling deep green. Surprisingly, the Hebrew root of Sidon is sid, meaning "lime." It may be more than coincidence that this river flows over limestone and is the color of a lime. [F. Richard Hauck, "The Trail to Zarahemla," in This People, Holiday 1994, p. 65. Photography by Scot F. Proctor]

Omni 1:13 The Land of Zarahemla ([Illustration]): Enormous salt dome forms this jungle-covered hillside in the lowland area at the site of Nueve Cerros (Nine Hills). A creek that flows out of the north side of this hill has been used by the Maya for centuries to obtain salt. This place has the only inland salt source in the region, and if this is the area of Zarahemla, it is interesting to note how often the Lord leads his people to an area of salt. [F. Richard Hauck, "The Trail to Zarahemla," in This People, Holiday 1994, p. 65. Photography by Scot F. Proctor]

Omni 1:13 The Land of Zarahemla ([Illustration]): Enormous salt dome forms this jungle-covered hillside in the lowland area at the area of Nueve Cerros (Nine Hills). Lush forest shelters abundant wildlife, including howler monkeys, jaguars, snakes, and colorful birds. . . . Zarahemla would turn away from the Lord and be destroyed by fire at the time of the crucifixion (which indicates that much of the city was built of wood) but be rebuilt again to last at least another 300 years. [Scot F. Proctor and Maurine J. Proctor, Light from the Dust, p. 152]

[Omni 1:13]: The Land of Zarahemla:

The naming of the land where Mosiah1 arrived as the "land of Zarahemla" (Omni 1:13) could have come from the Mulekites and been in use at the time Mosiah1 arrived. Zarahemla, or a previous Mulekite leader, apparently led the people of Zarahemla "into the land where Mosiah1 discovered them" (Omni 1:16). On the other hand, the name "the land of Zarahemla" could have come entirely from the Nephites according to their custom, which was "to call their lands, and their cities, and their villages, yea, even all their small villages, after the name of him who first possessed them" (Alma 8:7). [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]

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