Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Geographic Strategy Behind the Location of Nephihah

Using the terrain to strengthen your defense is not a new idea. Richard Smail described the early crusader habit of building forts using existing terrain.[1] Such a fortress would be built upon a spur near a pivotal river crossing, and thus be only accessible by one side. This would reduce the need to four high walls, hence both men and material could be better concentrated. Benjamin Wallacker discussed how many Chinese cities could be self sustaining fortresses.[2] This allows the defender a greater degree of sustainability in the face of assault. Finally, David Graff's analysis of the Battle of Huo-I examined how that city was placed to guard the open plains extending away from a narrow river gorge.[3]

This final point has direct application to the city of Nephihah, its importance to the Nephite government, and the actions of Moroni. The Book of Mormon describes plains being near the city and bearing the same name(Alma 62:18). When this city fell Moroni doubted if the Nephite government would survive (Alma 59:11). John Sorenson places the city in a position between the capital of Zarhahemla and the Nephite possessions on the East Sea.[4] So we can assume that the capture of Nephihah opened up another avenue of approach to the capital (the other being on the West sea where Helaman was fighting) and almost fulfilled the Nephite nightmare of being harassed on every side (Alma 52:13-14).

I submit that the strategic importance of this city, evidenced by the internal evidence and geographer cited above, is due to the tactical importance gained from its location. Micheala Stephens has discussed the unique tactical insight from the description of Moroni's night time scouting recorded in Alma 62.[5] Since Moroni needed no ladders to get on the walls, but did need cords to get down OFF of the wall she argues that the city was backed by cliffs on at least one (and presumably the west) side. I support this assertion for several reasons. First, the macro geography of the Nephite nation supports Nephihah as a pivotal city in their defenses. And based on the readings I outlined in the first paragraph, few places are more solid than a self sustaining fortresses that takes advantage of micro terrain and protects a river valley leading to the capital.

Furthermore, the account mentions how Moroni came upon the West side of the city and was able to see the army camped by the East side of the city. While Moroni could see this while standing on the city wall, it makes more sense if he were significantly higher by standing upon the cliff side in the west and able to see the army campfires in the east. An article by William Hamblin described how Saladin used the ruse of climbing upon an unexpected place to surprise an army; so this has verifiable historical correlations as well.[6] Finally, the account mentions the Lamanites attempted to flee out "by the pass"(Alma 62:24). This pass could mean a number of things including the East gate where they were camped or another gate. But it could refer to a mountain pass that would be near Nephihah, especially if it was built into a cliff. And it could refer to whatever terrain is opposite the "plains of Nephihah". This includes the example of Huo-I, which described a city located at the opening of a narrow river valley into a plain.

The brevity of the text and the preliminary nature of Book of Mormon geography preclude a definite conclusion.[7] But the above was a consistent reading of both internal and external evidence that point towards Nephihah being strategically located withing Nephite lands with the benefit of natural terrain such as cliffs and or "passes". And I suggest that Nephihah was located near a strategic choke point along the river Sidon with rocky terrain to one side, and upon plains to the other. The next step would be to correlate the theory presented here with real world geographic models and see what we find!

Thank you for reading. I invite your comments.

1. Richard Smail. Crusading Warfare: 1097-1193 London: Cambridge University Press 1995.
2. Benjamin Wallacker "The Siege of Feng Tian", Peter Lorge Ed. Warfare in China to 1600,London: Ashgate Publishing, 2005.
3. David Graff, "The Battle of Huo-I", Ibid.
4. John Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Provo: F.A.R.M.S. Press, 1985, 241.
5. Private Email Correspondence October 24th, 2009.
6. William Hamblin. "Saladin and Muslim Military Theory", The Horns of Hattin, 228-238.
7. But please see this post for why you haters can go screw yourself.


Michaela Stephens said...

Nice job on this post! I knew you would treat this topic well. I especially like how you end with "The next step would be to correlate the theory presented here with real world geographic models and see what we find!" which opens it up to future archeological research.

Keep it up!

Morgan Deane said...

Thanks. I was thinking of trying a google earth search to see if I can find a location similar to what I described in theorized areas of BoM locations. But I don't have the program and don't know how to use it, so that is definitely a future project.

Anonymous said...

Excellent thinking Morgan.