The Book of Mormon is not a book of geography, and, so far as known, no one knows the exact route Lehi and his family traveled from Jerusalem to the great sea they crossed to the promised land, but it is interesting to look at some possible routes.
Most writers on this subject believe Lehi traveled from Jerusalem to the Gulf of Aqaba (also Akabah and Acquaba), following the Frankincense Trails, south down the Arabian Peninsula to approximately the 19th parallel. They feel Lehi turned east at Najran in Arabia to travel across the lower portion of the Arabian Peninsula to Salalah Oman.Using the verses from the Book of Mormon that record Lehi's travels, another route might be proposed. This one would take Lehi from Jerusalem to the Gulf of Suez, southeast along the African side of the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, then east across the horn of Africa to the "great sea," or Arabian Sea, which is part of the Indian Ocean. The land Bountiful perhaps would be present-day Somalia.
Lehi was commanded to take his family, leave his home and go into the wilderness. (1 Ne. 2:4) After arriving in the "borders" --which may be the territorial borders between Egypt and the Babylonian Empire-- near the shore of the Red Sea, Lehi and his family traveled for three more days and then pitched their tents in a valley by the side of a river of water. The family spent some time camped in this valley, which Lehi named Lemuel. (1 Ne. 2:5-16.)
The river seems to have been important to Lehi's family, for it is mentioned several times in the passage that records their stay, and Nephi mentioned specifically that the family crossed this river when they resumed their journey into the wilderness. (1 Ne. 16:12.)
Many writers have implied that this river was merely a wadi or a dry wash that flowed after a thunderstorm. But Nephi said the river flowed continually: "And when my father saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea, he spake unto Laman, saying: O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!" (1 Ne. 2:9)
There are no natural rivers running into the Red Sea, but there is another possibility that should be considered. Anciently there was a portion of the Nile River that ran into the Red Sea through a canal dug by the Egyptians. In the early 20th century B.C., possibly during the reign of the Pharoah Sesostris I, the Egyptians dug a canal from the Nile Delta to the Red Sea near the present port of Suez. Pharaoh Necho II began to restore it About 600 B.C., and the restoration was completed about 500 B.C. by the Persian conqueror Darius I.
This freshwater canal may have been the river Laman. It flowed down a natural valley called the Wadi Tumilat (sometimes called the At-tymaylat Valley) and linked the Pelusiac branch of the Nile with the Red Sea. It had a large flow of water that allowed transport of grain from the Nile Valley for shipment to Mecca. This waterway was used, modified, destroyed, and rebuilt over a period of several hundred years. It was finally put out of commission by Caliph Abu Jaafar Adbullah al-Mansur in the 8th century A.D.
Lehi's party could have camped on the east side of this waterway in a natural valley. The river or canal would have been flowing continually into the mouth of the Red Sea. Crossing the river was probably not a simple task, hence Nephi's mention of the event.
Lehi's use of the word "fountain" in his admonition to his son has more significance when the River Laman is considered to be this ancient canal that brought fresh water from the Nile into the Red Sea.
After Lehi's party crossed the River Laman, they traveled four days in a south-southeast direction and pitched their tents again in a place they called Shazer. (1 Ne. 16:13) Along this route, there are several places with springs and trees that could have provided a rest stop for Lehi's family. The word shazar, pronounced "shazer" by the Arabs, means "trees." (See A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon, p. 114, by Daniel H. Ludlow.)
The seashore along the west side of the Gulf of Suez runs in a south-southeasterly direction, which fits the description given in the scriptures. There is a narrow plain between the Red Sea and the mountains to the west, along which Lehi's party could have traveled as they went down the west side of the Gulf of Suez and then continued south-southeast along the Red Sea. The continuation of the journey is described in 1 Ne. 16:14.
The west side of the Red Sea is a very arid region. The route I am suggesting would have taken Lehi and his family through present-day Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia. They would have traveled across barren, uninhabited stretches of desert.
This route seems to explain several things about the scriptural account of the journey. First, the account does not mention that the family made contact with any other people. The Frankincense Trails, which many people feel Lehi and his family followed, were some of the most heavily traveled roads of the ancient world. It would seem very unlikely that the family could have traveled these trails without encountering many other people. If they had traveled along the west side of the Red Sea, we can account for the silence of the scriptures about fellow travelers.
Second, if Lehi was following well-known trails, why did the Lord give him the Liahona, and why did Laman and Lemuel accuse Nephi of leading them into a "strange wilderness"? (1 Ne. 16:380 Routes like the Frankincense Trails were in common use at least 900 years before Lehi's day. However, if his party had traveled through what is today Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia, they indeed would have needed a Liahona, for they would have been in a "strange wilderness" with few people around to guide them.
Third, why did they live on raw meat, and why did the Lord command them not to build fires? (1 Ne. &:2, 12) If they had been on well-traveled trails, surely other people would have been building fires. If, however, they were in an unfamiliar area with little knowledge of who or what surrounded them, it may have been unwise and unsafe to build fires.
Fourth, in their journey down the west side of the Red Sea, Lehi's group would have passed through Egyptian territory. This could help to explain the many references Lehi and Nephi make to Egypt. Nephi frequently used examples drawn from the deliverance of the children of Israel out of Egypt. (1 Ne. 4:2-3; 5:14-15; 17:23, 27, 40; 19:10) These examples would have had especially powerful effects upon his family if they had been traveling in the very area where these events took place. It is also interesting to note that Lehi named his two sons born in the wilderness Jacob and Joseph, after his ancestors who lived in Egypt.
Fifth, Lehi's party would have likely chosen to travel through territories where the people were friendly to the Jews. Egyptian territory was friendly. In fact, there were numerous cities in Egypt where Jews had settled. Also, the territory along the Gulf of Suez and then south along the Red Sea was largely uninhabited. The populations of the Sudan and Ethiopia were located along the Nile or in the highlands. Somalia likewise had a sparse population. The people along the route through Edom, Midian, and Arabia were not friendly to Jews. In fact, they had a long tradition of great hatred toward the Hebrews. When the Chaldeans besieged Jerusalem, the Edomites joined them and excited them to utterly raze the city and temple. This was only 11 years after Lehi left Jerusalem. There were few, if any Jews, living in the towns and territories of the Edomites.
The end of the wilderness journey was the land Bountiful. In this area, Nephi and his brothers constructed a ship and prepared to sail to the promised land. (1 Ne. 17:1-6)
In present-day Somalia, there is a place that could well have been the land Bountiful, for it matches the location and bounty of the area described in the scriptures. The Nogal Valley, which runs from northwest to southwest, is a low depression, that, despite sparse rainfall, is relatively well watered. Its name means "the fertile land," since it was once very fertile. In recent years, however, erosion has caused rapid loss of its rich soil and thick vegetation.
Lehi's wilderness journey from Jerusalem to the place where the ship was constructed was an arduous journey. Whether the family traveled down the Arabian Peninsula or down the west side of the Red Sea to the horn of Africa is not known, but at least the Book of Mormon reader has two possible routes to consider.