The Red City

Hugh Nibley taught of a potential connection between Hopi legend and the Book of Mormon:

“We haven’t heard of Zarahemla so far. It always got me because there’s an important trading center in the middle of the Sahara that goes by the name of Dar al-Hamra’ which means red city. Of course, it depends on the dialect. Zarahemla means red city, but what attracts me about that is that the Hopis say that their people came from the ‘great Red City of the South when it was destroyed because of the wickedness of the people.’ They were led by prophets and came north. They call it ‘the great Red City of the South.’ Of course Zarahemla means red city.” (Nibley, Hugh, Teachings of the Book of Mormon: Semester 1, Lecture 26).

In a subsequent lecture, Hugh Nibley expands on this legend a bit. I’ve included some context because his narrative is interesting.

“{Mosiah 7} verse 12: ‘And now, when Ammon saw that he was permitted to speak, he went forth and bowed himself before the king [that’s exactly what he wanted]. . . . For I am assured that if ye had known me ye would [you would have been glad to see me]. . . . For I am Ammon [that good old name], and am a descendant of Zarahemla [a good old Mulekite name], and have come up out of the land of Zarahemla to inquire concerning our brethren, whom Zeniff [ah, ha, the king’s grandfather] brought up out of that land.’ That was Limhi’s grandfather, you see. ‘And now, it came to pass that after Limhi had heard the words of Ammon, he was exceedingly glad [cousin, how are you feeling?], and said: Now, I know of a surety that my brethren who were in the land of Zarahemla are yet alive [again, if Zarahemla had been a mighty city at the time they left it, he wouldn’t be worrying whether they would survive or not; it was a very small affair, hanging on probably by the skin of their teeth]. And now, I will rejoice; and on the morrow I will cause that my people shall rejoice also.’ As I said, every week the Hopis have their dance and celebration. They come from all the twelve cities. One village will host it one week, and another one the next week. The whole nation comes together. There’s no work or anything like that. They have a high old time, and it’s a very solemn affair with those costumes. There can be nothing bought, nothing artificial, nothing cheap. The colors all have to come from the berries and the minerals. The macaw feathers have to come from Guatemala (very interesting). Why are the Hopis getting their macaw feathers from Guatemala? They are forbidden because of psittacosis from crossing the border, but they go down and get them. That’s another story; you’d be surprised at the connections here, showing where they came from. To make things official at the spring dance, they have to wear macaw feathers. They have to be real, and they have to be fresh all the time. This is important. As I said, they have a great time. It keeps them occupied and happy between their long hours in the field.

“For their agriculture they have the poorest land in the world. If you have been [in] northeastern Arizona, you know there is nothing there but sand and the mesas. What they do is take a stick and push five (a sacred number) seeds of corn down about twenty inches. They push them down and trust that the ground water will make them grow. They do grow, but never more than about a foot or eighteen inches high. And I’ve never seen a stalk that had more than one ear of corn on it. That ear of corn is treasured; it’s precious. They are taken and piled like wood in front of the house; everybody keeps track of every ear. They say, ‘If one of us has corn, we all have corn.’ But they have been able to live and live well with hard work. They don’t mind that. All these years they have lived on [practically] nothing. They were pushed to the most out of the way place in the world. They were the Moquis or the Hopis, the peaceful people, but they were once the most terrible fighters of all. They were on these high mesas. When I first went down there years ago, you still had to get to first mesa by ladder. Then they put a road up, and everybody started driving off and getting killed. But it’s amazing that they could not only survive and be happy, but go on for [hundreds] of years. They came up from the south. They tell how they came from the south, but that’s another thing. This is another thing about getting lost. The story of their wanderings is very important. They kept a record of their wanderings. They came up from the ‘great red city of the south’ when it was destroyed because of wickedness. Zarahemla means ‘red city,’ as you know, Dar AhmarAhmar is red. Feminine is hamra’, and dar or zar is a settlement, a colony, or a community. If you say Zarahamra, it means a red city. That’s a coincidence. I don’t know if there’s anything to it or not, but it’s good clean fun to engage in these things. They say they came up from the south along the Little Colorado. They tell about their wanderings, etc. They kept the record, and thereon hangs a tale.” (Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon: Semester 2, Lecture 31).

What we have is an interesting hypothesis of Nibley’s. He postulates that this “red city” of the Hopis’ ancestors might have been Zarahemla, which became a major center for the Nephites after they joined with the descendants of another group who left Jerusalem (the Mulekites). More modern Hopis called this ancient “red city” Palatkwapi (knowing how quickly languages and words change, particularly in the absence of written records, it is not expected that modern names of ancient cities are the same as what they were called anciently).

While all this is speculation that Nibley did not fully believe, it is interesting that the Hopis have an ancient legend telling about the destruction of an ancestral home, a “red city in the south”, in the days of their wickedness; in the Book of Mormon we have a record of a city with a name that possibly meant “red city” (I’ll trust Hugh Nibley on this – if anyone knows, it’s Nibley); this city was later destroyed.

While I’m not one for speculating much about where events of the Book of Mormon took place, it’s likely that much of the Book of Mormon took place in what is now Central America (which is south of Arizona, where the Hopis lived and live).

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