Hey guys, so in the Book of Mormon, we read that after Christ is crucified in the Old World, the New World experienced all kinds of terrible natural disasters. In 3 Nephi 9, we read that some Book of Mormon cities are burned with fire, some are buried under the earth, and some are submerged in water. In this episode, we’re going to talk about one specific Book of Mormon city called Jerusalem — not Jerusalem from the Bible — this was a different city in the Americas named after the old city from the Bible. Buckle up, this is some fascinating stuff.
Okay—background information: If you’ve read the Book of Mormon, you’ll remember the story of the great Nephite missionaries known as the four sons of Mosiah. One of these missionaries, named Aaron, “took his journey towards the land which was called by the Lamanites, Jerusalem, calling it after the land of their fathers’ nativity; and it was away joining the borders of Mormon. Now the Lamanites and the Amalekites and the people of Amulon had built a great city, which was called Jerusalem.”
So, from the Book of Mormon, we learn that the city, Jerusalem, is situated within the land of Jerusalem, which bordered the land of Mormon. You might also remember from the Book of Mormon that within the Land of Mormon, there was a body of water called the Waters of Mormon where a guy named Alma taught and baptized a bunch of people. Anyway, amongst the calamity described in 3 Nephi 9, we read that God had “caused [Jerusalem] to be sunk … and waters have I caused to come up in the stead thereof, to hide their wickedness and abominations from before my face….”
Now, the Church does not have an official position on a specific geographic model regarding where the Book of Mormon took place. But that has not stopped some Latter-day Saint researchers from trying to figure out plausible locations for where these various cities could have been. Most Latter-day Saints that have an opinion on this subject point to ancient Mesoamerica as the most likely setting, but there are various other theories out there, and you can believe whatever you’d like.
In 1985, researcher John L. Sorenson published a landmark book called “An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon.” It was published by Deseret Book in association with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, or FARMS. Taking into account all of the geographic data the Book of Mormon offers, Sorenson proposed that the waters of Mormon could have been what we know today as Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. He further proposed that the city of Jerusalem (which borders the land of Mormon) would have likely been situated somewhere along the southwestern shoreline of this lake before the city was flooded.
And here’s where things get interesting. In the 1990s, about a decade after Sorenson came to this conclusion, there was a guy named Roberto Samayoa that was doing some scuba diving in Lake Atitlán. And guess what he found? That’s right. Evidence of an ancient city at the bottom of the lake, more than 50 feet below the surface, off the southern coast. This underwater city is now called Samabaj, though some go so far as to call it the Mayan Atlantis.
Now, disclaimer: Before we get ahead of ourselves, I need to say that this may or may not be the city of Jerusalem from the Book of Mormon. There are striking parallels, but there are also some things that don’t line up perfectly. For example, in the category of striking parallels, both Jerusalem and Samabaj were submerged rapidly. One newspaper reported that “… the area, 50 feet below the lake’s surface, was once an island until a catastrophic event, such as a volcanic eruption or landslide, raised water levels.”
Also, both Samabaj and Jerusalem seem to have been religiously significant. In the Book of Mormon, one antagonist in Jerusalem pushed back against Aaron’s calls to repentance, saying, “How knowest thou that we are not a righteous people? Behold, we have built sanctuaries, and we do assemble ourselves together to worship God.” Interestingly, in Samabaj, “no fewer than 16 religious structures” have been found. Archaeologist Sonia Medrano noted that “…the religious structures demonstrate that this was a place of public rituals and pilgrimage.”
On the flip side, in the category of details that don’t line up perfectly: While the city does date to the pre-classic Mayan period, which overlaps with Book of Mormon times, most experts estimate that the city was probably flooded around 250 AD. If that’s accurate, it’s a couple of hundred years too late to be Jerusalem.
In any case, at the very least, what Samabaj does tell us is that the Book of Mormon’s dramatic descriptions of cities being suddenly submerged is not only possible but has actually happened before in what many believe to be the right general area and roughly near the right time.
And just as a side note: Lake Atitlan is fairly large and very deep. It has a surface area of about 50 square miles — that’s about 294 times larger than Vatican City in Rome. The average lake depth is several hundred feet, but over 1000 feet at its deepest — that’s deep enough to submerge two Washington Monuments stacked on top of each other. It’s not particularly surprising that, as it turns out, Samabaj is not the only underwater archaeological site that has been discovered in the lake, and my guess is that it won’t be the last, either. And there’s still plenty we don’t know about Samabaj. It’s not easy to excavate an archaeological site on dry ground. Doing it underwater is formidable, and we’ve still got plenty more to learn about this fascinating island city. So we’ll see what the future has in store.
Of course, as always, none of this proves that the Book of Mormon is true. These are just interesting tidbits that some might find faith-promoting, but take them with a grain of salt, and please understand that this stuff certainly should not be the foundation for a testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. That should come from God through the witness of the Holy Ghost. If you haven’t yet, I invite you to study the Book of Mormon and ask God for yourself if it is what it claims to be. If you want to learn more about archaeology and the Book of Mormon, go watch this video, and have a great day.
— “Underwater archaeology and the Book of Mormon in Sorenson’s Mormon’s Codex,” by Matthew Roper (BYU Maxwell Institute): https://bit.ly/46ALtBp
— “The Submergence of the City of Jerusalem in the Land of Nephi,” by John L. Sorenson (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3razmuu
— “Samabaj: un sitio sumergido en el Lago de Atitlán: https://tinyurl.com/3rkxa5nc
— “Divers probe Mayan ruins submerged in Guatemala lake,” via Reuters: https://bit.ly/44qfQIW
— “The Secrets of Guatemala’s Atlantis: The Maya Ruins of Samabaj,” via The Collector: https://bit.ly/3CZUpTo
— “Underwater archaeology: UNESCO to explore Lake Atitlán and compile register of best practices,” via UNESCO: https://bit.ly/3D2FMP3
— “Lost Island of the Maya,” by Roger Atwood in Archaeology magazine, Vol. 68, No. 4 (July/August 2015), pp. 40-45: https://tinyurl.com/2xfsep35
— Samabaj: The Mayan Ruins Hidden Beneath Lake Atitlan,” via A Little Bit Human: https://bit.ly/3pLncrA
— “Book of Mormon Evidence: Sunken Cities,” via Evidence Central: https://tinyurl.com/47xnpe8v
— “Is There Evidence of Sunken Cities in Ancient America?” via Book of Mormon Central (KnoWhy #429): https://bit.ly/43g1qda
— “5 Additional Compelling Archaeological Evidences of the Book of Mormon,” by Chris Heimerdinger, via Book of Mormon Central: https://bit.ly/3Nz9y2E
— “Samabaj, la Atlantida Maya,” a short Nat Geo documentary (in Spanish): https://tinyurl.com/mc3dsnxs
— For more info, see “Arqueología subacuática: Amatitlán, Atitlán,” by Guillermo Mata Amado & Sonia Medrano: https://tinyurl.com/yck8jjum
— “Samabaj, the underwater village in lake Atitlán and the Book of Mormon,” via the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum: https://bit.ly/3O2sBDY
— “Samabaj: a submerged site in lake Atitlán,” via UNESCO: https://tinyurl.com/ym26hhzj
— “Lost Mayan City Inside Volcano Crater Explored by Archaeologists,” via Newsweek: https://bit.ly/3JMu9Q8 (this source mentions 2 sites other than Samabaj [though I question whether or not they might have just counted Samabaj twice], also found submerged in the lake. One mentioned is “Chiutnamit.”)
— “Samabaj: The Underwater Island Site in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala,” by Mark Cheney, via the Institute of Maya Studies newsletter (Nov. 18, 2009): https://tinyurl.com/3np2vubt (this source also mentions another site under Lake Atitlan, called “Chiutnamit.”)
— This tour company website (Antigua Tours) also mentions Chiutnamit: https://tinyurl.com/3eyhuujb