Captain Moroni's Fortified Cities

By Rick Brunson

The prophet Mormon stated:

Captain Moroni Title of Liberty
Captain Moroni

If all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men (Alma 48:17).

The purpose of this article is to take a closer look at this Captain Moroniparticularly his fortified citiesin hopes that we may better understand this impressive individual. Before we examine Moroni’s fortified cities, however, it may first be helpful to give some context as to exactly where in Mesoamerica Captain Moroni’s battles with the Lamanites were fought.

(Note: For a complete list of references as to why the events in the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica, read our article on Book of Mormon geography.)

The Narrow Strip of Wilderness

The Book of Mormon teaches us that there was a “narrow strip of wilderness” that ran from coast to coast and acted as a natural dividing line between the land of the Nephites (Zarahemla), and the Lamanites (land of Nephi). For example, Mormon stated in the book of Alma:

[The land of the Lamanites] was divided from the land of Zarahemla by a narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west, and round about on the borders of the seashore…running from the east towards the westand thus were the Lamanites and the Nephites divided (Alma 22:27).[1]

But what exactly was a “narrow strip of wilderness”? LDS scholar Joseph Allen gives us this insight:

We solve a problem in Book of Mormon geography in the New World when we designate the term “wilderness” as “mountainous region” instead of “desert.” Therefore, when Mormon refers to a narrow strip of wilderness, he is talking about a narrow mountain range. We know this because the land of Nephi was literally up in elevation from the land of Zarahemla and because the headwaters of the river Sidon were on the borders of Nephi and Zarahemla. In other words, all references regarding the dividing line of Nephi and Zarahemla have to do with rugged mountains and not with sandy deserts.[2]

Why is this important? Allen continues,

Without question, the most reliable and significant geological statement regarding Book of Mormon geography is a narrow mountain range that runs from the east to the west and touches two oceans.
The Book of Mormon says that the Lamanites were divided on their north from the Nephite land of Zarahemla “by a narrow  strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west” (Alma 22:27; emphasis added)…. The only place in the New World where a narrow mountain range runs in an east-west direction and touches two oceans—both Book of Mormon requirements—is the Cuchumatanes Mountains.[3]

Figure 1- The Cuchumatanes Mountains, or "narrow strip of wilderness”

We can therefore say with relative certainty that the Cuchumatanes Mountains in Mesoamerica was the “narrow strip of wilderness” spoken of in the Book of Mormon. The Cuchumatanes Mountains, or “narrow strip of wilderness,” is colored brown in figure 1.[4]

This means that the Lamanites inhabited the lands just south of this mountain range, and the Nephites inhabited the lands just north of it.

As we can see in the below photograph, this mountain range is quit impressive:

The Cuchumatanes Mountains, or "narrow strip of wilderness"
No doubt this heavy terrain was the very reason why the Limhi expedition of Nephites got lost when traveling across this “narrow strip of wilderness,” from the Lamanite land of Nephi to the Nephite land of Zarahemla in 121 B.C:[5]  We read:

And the king [Limhi] said…I caused that forty and three of my people should take a journey into the wilderness, that thereby they might find the land of Zarahemla, that we might appeal unto our brethren to deliver us out of bondage. And they were lost in the wilderness for the space of many days…and found not the land of Zarahemla (Mosiah 8:7-9).

Because of the rough terrain of these mountains, this group of Nephites got lost along their way to Zarahemla and instead ended up in ancient Jaredite lands.[6]

Barrier from the Lamanites

As it turns out, this mountain range, or “narrow strip of wilderness,” was extremely important to the Nephites because it kept the Lamanites from overrunning and inhabiting Nephite territory.  Furthermore, it was nearly impossible for the Lamanites to bring an entire army over these mountains to attack the Nephites. Therefore, if the Lamanites wanted to come up to war against the Nephites, they had to go around these mountains. That is, they had to march to either coast, and curve around this “narrow strip of wilderness” before they made any attacks.

As a matter of fact, this is the very reason why the wicked Nephite city of Ammonihah was able to be destroyed so easily by the Lamanites in 81 B.C. (see Alma 16:1-3).  Once we learn that this city was located along the west coast line, just around the corner from this “narrow strip of wilderness,”[7] we are able to understand why this city was such an easy target for the Lamanites. As you will recall, this was the city Alma and Amulek preached repentance to and prophesied of their destruction if they did not repent (see Alma 8-14).  When these inhabitants choose wickedness over repentance, the Lamanites marched up the coast line and destroyed the city.  Their route likely looked something like this:

Fortification Line

All throughout the Book of Mormon, the Nephites used this mountain range, or “narrow strip of wilderness” to their advantage.  Because this mountain range ran from sea to sea, there was no need to fortify the entire border.  Rather, only the coast lines on both sides needed fortification.  We read in Alma that the Nephites, after the city of Ammonihah was destroyed by the Lamanites, apparently learned their lesson, because they did in fact fortify their western borders[8] in order to prevent the Lamanites from again overrunning their lands:   

And it came to pass that the Nephites had inhabited the land…[along] the west sea, and thus the Nephites in their wisdom, with their guards and their armies, had hemmed in the Lamanites on the south, that thereby they should have no more possession on the north, that they might not overrun the land northward. Therefore the Lamanites could have no more possessions only in the land of Nephi, and the wilderness round about. Now this was wisdom in the Nephites—as the Lamanites were an enemy to them, they would not suffer their afflictions on every hand, and also that they might have a country whither they might flee, according to their desires (Alma 22:33-34, emphasis added).[9]

Captain Moroni would soon after fortify these very cities to an even greater degree. These fortifications along the west sea proved to be very important; for, after the wicked Nephite dissenter Amalickiah became king of the Lamanites by fraud,[10] his first item of business was to have his troops march right up along the western coast, to the newly rebuilt city of Ammonihah, and attack that city again because he believed it to be the easiest target:

And now it came to pass in the eleventh month…the armies of the Lamanites were seen approaching towards the land of Ammonihah. And behold, the city had been rebuilt, and Moroni had stationed an army by the borders of the city, and they had cast dirt round about to shield them from the arrows and the stones of the Lamanites; for behold, they fought with stones and with arrows. Behold, I said that the city of Ammonihah had been rebuilt. I say unto you, yea, that it was in part rebuilt; and because the Lamanites had destroyed it once because of the iniquity of the people, they supposed that it would again become an easy prey for them. But behold, how great was their disappointment; for behold, the Nephites had dug up a ridge of earth round about them, which was so high that the Lamanites could not cast their stones and their arrows at them that they might take effect, neither could they come upon them save it was by their place of entrance (Alma 49:1-4).

Unable to make an attack, the Lamanites decided to go over to the nearby city Noah. “But behold, to their astonishment, the city of Noah, which had hitherto been a weak place, had now, by the means of Moroni, become strong (Alma 49.14).” 

In addition to these two cities, we also read that “Moroni had fortified, or had built forts of security, for every city in all the land round about (Alma 49:13).” With no alternative, the determined Lamanites decided to risk it and attack anyway:

And it came to pass that the captains of the Lamanites brought up their armies before the place of entrance, and began to contend with the Nephites, to get into their place of security; but behold, they were driven back from time to time, insomuch that they were slain with an immense slaughter. Now when they found that they could not obtain power over the Nephites by the pass, they began to dig down their banks of earth that they might obtain a pass to their armies, that they might have an equal chance to fight; but behold, in these attempts they were swept off by the stones and arrows which were thrown at them; and instead of filling up their ditches by pulling down the banks of earth, they were filled up in a measure with their dead and wounded bodies. Thus the Nephites had all power over their enemies; and thus the Lamanites did attempt to destroy the Nephites until their chief captains were all slain…. And it came to pass, that when the Lamanites saw that their chief captains were all slain they fled into the wilderness. And it came to pass that they returned to the land of Nephi, to inform their king, Amalickiah, who was a Nephite by birth, concerning their great loss (Alma 49:21-25).

As we can see, this Nephite fortification line along the west coast was extremely important in keeping the Lamanites from overrunning their lands. 

The East Coast

With one side of the coast in check, Captain Moroni turned his attention to the east coast. By this time, many Lamanites had made their way around the eastern edge of the “narrow strip of wilderness,” and began to inhabit those lands.  Therefore:

Moroni caused that his armies should go forth into the east wilderness; yea, and they went forth and drove all the Lamanites who were in the east wilderness into their own lands, which were south of the land of Zarahemla…. And it came to pass that when Moroni had driven all the Lamanites out of the east wilderness…he caused that the inhabitants who were in the land of Zarahemla and in the land round about should go forth into the east wilderness, even to the borders by the seashore, and possess the land (Alma 50:7-9).

By sending Nephite colonies to this eastern sea, Moroni prevented the Lamanites from coming up around the eastern edge of the “narrow strip of wilderness,” and overrunning his people. Because these eastern cities could potentially be an easy target for the Lamanites as well, the next step was to fortify them to discourage an attack.  Therefore,

[Moroni] caused them to erect fortifications that they might secure their armies and their people from the hands of their enemies. And thus he cut off all the strongholds of the Lamanites in the east wilderness, yea, and also on the west, fortifying the line between the Nephites and the Lamanites, between the land of Zarahemla and the land of Nephi (Alma 50:10-11).

As it turns out, Amalickiah’s next attack would be on these eastern cities. Unfortunately, for the Nephites, this attack would come at a time when they lost their reverence for God,[11] and as a result,

Amalickiah attacks the Nephites' eastern cities
behold, the Lamanites had come into the land of Moroni which was in the borders by the [eastern] seashore…. And it came to pass that Amalickiah took possession of the city, yea possession of all their fortifications…. And thus he went on, taking possession of many cities, the city of Nephihah, and the city of Lehi, and the city of Morianton, and the city of Omner, and the city of Gid, and the city of Mulek, all of which were on the east borders by the seashore (Alma 51:22-26).

After Amalickiah had captured these eastern cities, he did what any smart military commander would do in order to maintain them. He simply sent a part of his army to harass the Nephite cities along the west coast. This forced the Nephites to draw away part of their army from the east, and as a result, the Nephites had less manpower available to recapture the eastern cities which had fallen into the hands of the Lamanites: 

Now, the king (Ammoron)…had gathered together a large number of men, and had marched forth against the Nephites on the borders by the west sea. And thus he was endeavoring to harass the Nephites, and to draw away a part of their forces to that part of the land, while he had commanded those whom he had left to possess the cities which he had taken, that they should also harass the Nephites on the borders by the east sea, and should take possession of their lands as much as it was in their power, according to the power of their armies (Alma 52:12-13).

It would be Heleman’s 2000 stripling warriors who assist in fighting the Lamanites along this western border,[12] while Captain Moroni was mainly found defending and recapturing the cities along the eastern coast. Eventually, with stratagem and with the help of the Lord, the Nephites were able to recapture all the cities which had been previously lost along both coast lines and subsequently drive the Lamanites back into their own lands.  

Lines of Defense

As mentioned previously, these Nephite citieson both the east and west coastscontained several lines of defense, all built under the direction of Captain Moroni. It is to these lines of defense that we turn our attention.

 By far, the first and most effective line of defense is stated as follows:

Moroni…had been preparing the minds of the people to be faithful unto the Lord their God (Alma 48:7).

As the Book of Mormon testifies, as long as the Nephites were faithful, they were able to keep their cities. When they became wicked, they lost their cities. When they repented, they regained their cities. No doubt, this particular line of defense was the most important to the Nephites success in battle.

The next line of defense was a huge stone wall that wrapped around the entire city:

Yea, [Moroni] had been strengthening the armies of the Nephites…building walls of stone to encircle them about, round about their cities and borders of their lands; yea all round about the land (Alma 48:8).

Inside these stone walls, the text says that Moroni threw up “banks of earth round about to enclose his armies” (Alma 48:8). Naturally, next to these “banks of earth,” we would find ditches from whence the dirt came. Hence, the Book of Mormon states:

Now behold, the Lamanites could not get into their forts of security…because of the highness of the bank which had been thrown up, and the depth of the ditch which had been dug round about (Alma 49:18).

In addition, Moroni also caused that that picket fences should be built, with towers overlooking them from whence they could cast stones and arrows:

Captain Moroni's Works of Timbers
And now it came to pass that Moroni…caused that his armies…should commence in digging up heaps of earth round about all the cities, throughout all the land which was possessed by the Nephites And upon the top of these ridges of earth he caused that there should be timbers, yea, works of timbers built up to the height of a man, round about the cities. And he caused that upon those works of timbers there should be a frame of pickets built upon the timbers round about; and they were strong and high. And he caused towers to be erected that overlooked those works of pickets, and he caused places of security to be built upon those towers, that the stones and the arrows of the Lamanites could not hurt them. And they were prepared that they could cast stones from the top thereof, according to their pleasure and their strength, and slay him who should attempt to approach near the walls of the city. Thus Moroni did prepare strongholds against the coming of their enemies, round about every city in all the land (Alma 50:1-6).

The Book of Mormon also tells us that each of these above lines of defense surrounded “forts” which were used “to enclose [Moroni’s] armies” (Alma 48:8). Thanks to these lines of defense, “the Lamanites could not get into [the Nephites] forts of security by any other way save by the entrance” (Alma 49:18).  Because there was only one entrance into these forts of security, the Nephites were able to place all their manpower in guarding this single passage way. 

And thus were the Nephites prepared to destroy all such as should attempt to climb up to enter the fort by any other way, by casting over stones and arrows at them. Thus they were prepared, yea, a body of their strongest men, with their swords and their slings, to smite down all who should attempt to come into their place of security by the place of entrance; and thus were they prepared to defend themselves against the Lamanites (Alma 49:19-20).

Finally, in addition to these fortifications we learn that “Moroni had prepared his people with breastplates and with arm-shields, yea, and also shields to defend their heads, and also they were dressed with thick clothing.”[13]

In short, these are the lines of defense used by Captain Moroni as discussed above:

1. Faithful minds.
2. Walls of stone.
3. Deep ditches.
4. Banks of dirt.
5. Sharp picket fences built upon banks of dirt.
6. Towers from which to shot arrows and throw stones.
7. Forts of security, which had but one entrance and which was heavily guarded.
8. Armor.

If we are correct in our assumption that these fortified cities were built up along both the east and west coast lines in Mesoamerica, next to the Cuchumatanes Mountains or “narrow strip of wilderness,” then we can expect archeologists to discover ancient cities in these very locations, which date to this very time period, and which were fortified in similar manners. 

As it turns out, archeologists have indeed found several fortified cities in these regions which date to this very time period. These include the ancient sites of “Tikal…Becan, Coba, Lamanai, and El Mirador, to name a few.”[14]  Below are a few photographs of these very ruins.


The below photograph[15] is an example of a man made hill, or “bank of dirt,” found at the ancient city Tikal, which is located in the eastern borders of Mesoamerica:

And here is a photograph[16] of a man made ditch, also found at Tikal:

These fortifications were first uncovered by archeologists in 1967.  During this excavation, archeologists published a blueprint[17] of the ditch and hill which ran along this ancient city of Tikal:

In many places, this ditch was measured at 10 feet deep, and 13 feet wide,[18] making it nearly impossible for the enemy to jump across.  As for the large hill next to the ditch, according to the archeologists who excavated these ruins, “this embankment must have been considerably steeper and higher a thousand [plus] years ago than it is today.”  
The ancient city of Becan

The City of Becan

This next image[19] is a recreation of the ancient ruins of Becan, a city also located along the eastern borders of the land, near Tikal. Notice the ditch that surrounded the city. In many places, this ditch was measured at 16 meters wide.[20]  The only way across these ditches was by a narrow pass, or bridge, which closely resembles Captain Moroni’s places of entrance (see Alma 49:21-25).

Here are a few photographs of this ancient ditch found at Becan:

To get an idea how large these ditches were, note the modern highway in the upper left hand corner of the above photograph.  These fortifications were truly impressive to say the least!


[1] See also Alma 27:14
[2] Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon (Revised Edition), p 556.
[3] Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon (Revised Edition), p 556-57.
[4] Image retrieved from Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon (Revised Edition), p 557.
[5] Mosiah 8:7-9.  In addition to this terrain, most scholars agree that the Limhi expedition got lost because they simply followed the wrong river. On top of the Cuchumatanes Mountains, there are two large river heads (Grijalva and Usumachinta) located just a few miles apart from each other.  One of these rivers (Grijalva, or the river Sidon as it is known in the Book of Mormon), lead to Zarahemla (Alma 2:15). The Limhi expedition likely followed the Usumachinta, which lead them further northward into Jaredite lands.
[6] Mosiah 8:8-11
[7] We learn from Alma 8:3 that the land of Melek was on the western borders of the land, and we learn from Alma 8:6 that the city of Ammonihah was directly North of Melek. 
[8] For justification as to why Alma 22:33 is referring to the west coast of the Nephite lands, see Allen, “The Waters of Sidon: The Grijalva River or the Usumacinta River?”
[9] For justification as to why Alma 22:33 is referring to the west coast of the Nephite lands, see ibid.
[10] Alma 47.
[11] Alma 51:1-22.
[12] Alma 53:22.
[13] Alma 43:19.
[14] Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon (Revised Edition), p 601.
[15] Image retrieved from Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon (Revised Edition), p 625.
[16] Puleston and Callender, “Defensive Earthworks at Tikal.” 
[17] Puleston and Callender, “Defensive Earthworks at Tikal.” 
[18] Puleston and Callender, “Defensive Earthworks at Tikal.”