Where is the Sidon River?
By Robert A. Pate
The Sidon River is in the Nephite lands to the east of Zarahemla. The headwaters were near Manti and the hills Amnihu and Riplah (Alma 2:15; 22:27; 43:35). The river can be identified only when the given references can be anchored with certainty.
If we lay a straight edge along a map of the ninety-mile stretch along the south coast of Guatemala between the land of Lehi (El Salvador) and the land Desolation, it will cross rivers and streams sixty-five times. So why is only one river mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon? Rivers are mentioned forty-one times; there are two references to unnamed rivers. All the other references are to the Sidon! Is it possible that Sidon is a generic name?
One candidate for the Sidon River might be the Coyolate River. The main and longest branch of this river passes by Iximché. That particular branch is named Río La Vega. Further upstream, the name of this branch of the river changes to Río Xayá. Remembering that Sidon is Saida in Hebrew and Arabic, and remembering that the Portuguese x is pronounced “sh”, the name of this river is the Shaya -- very close to the Saida (Sidon).
The first mention of the Sidon is in connection with the hills Amnihu (Hunahpú) and Riplah. The Sidon is also mentioned in connection with the south wilderness. Amnihu is east of the Sidon; Melek is said to be on the west of the Sidon, and Riplah is also on the east of the Sidon (Alma 2:15; 8:3; 43:31, 35). These references can all be explained if the hill Riplah is in the volcano Pacaya area and a tributary of the Rio María Linda represents the Sidon River.
There is good reason for this conclusion. The battles in Alma 43 fit very well with Pacaya being Riplah and Zerahemnah’s army arriving from the east, passing to the north between the volcano and the Lake Amatitlán, and engaging the three Nephite armies at the Michatoya branch of the river.
The meaning of the name Michatoya seems a clincher. It was checked in a Nahuatl Florentine word list. The word for “fish” is michi and one of the words for “river” is atoya (toyam also meaning “water” in Sanskrit). So Michatoya is “Fish River”. That is a pretty generic name for a river and may be the source of some of the confusion noted above. Looking up saida in the Hebrew lexicon it mentions the biblical name of Bethsaida and explains that Beth means “house” and saida has to do with “fish, fishing, fishery”, giving Bethsaida the meaning, “house of fish.” Since saida is Sidon in Arabic, the Sidon River is also the “Fish River,” exactly as it is in Nahuatl today -- the Michatoya.
The Michatoya River starts in the highlands near Guatemala City (Ammonihah) and descends southward into Lake Amatitlán (Manti at the headwaters of the Sidon). It then flows out the west end toward the southwest for several miles before turning back to the southeast where it joins the Río María Linda on its way to the Pacific Ocean.
Almost all of the references relating to the river Sidon appear to be self-consistent except those relating to the battles with Amlici in Alma 2. Was it “east of the river Sidon” or was it “east by the river Sidon”? The languages in the area as well as Hebrew and Sumerian are very ambiguous in their use of prepositions -- often not distinguishing among them and often not even having discriminating prepositions in their languages. In English, “east of the river Sidon”, or was it “east by the river Sidon”, are very distinct in meaning. This is not always the case in other languages.
Tightening up a preposition or two does not fix the apparent inconsistencies. Making available a second Sidon river would fix the problems. We know of Manti at the headwaters of the Sidon River. But that is 40 miles away from Zarahemla and there are the lands of Antionum and Melek in the way before reaching it. After the battles with Amlici, there was much mourning and conversion and many were baptized in the river Sidon. Alma 4:4 is the only reference to baptizing in the river Sidon. Would they go 40 miles from Zarahemla to be baptized when there are literally 20 rivers much closer?
So what does Sidon really mean? One form has to do with “fishing” with Bethsaida meaning “house of fishing” or Poseidon being the Greek god of the sea. There is another Hebrew word much closer which is zeydown (pronounced as zay-dohn') meaning “churning, raging, and turbulent”. This description could apply to all of the rivers as they approach and pass through the piedmont toward the Pacific Ocean. Even permitting the ambiguity in the name Sidon, it does appear that it is only used to identify two rivers – one with Manti at the headwaters and bordering on the southeast wilderness and the other running just east of Zarahemla. The two would be respectively, the Michatoya and the Pantaleón (Zacayán).
Dr. Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos informed the author that from Cortés y Larraz's late eighteenth-century Descripción Geográfico-Moral de la Diócesis de Goathemala 1768-1770, it appears that the Pantaleón River was called the Zacayán, which is still the name of a diversion that brings water from the river to Los Tarros and El Baúl (Chinchilla 2012 personal communication). Zacayán is very close phonetically to Sidon.
Ca means “two” in many Maya languages. If we disregard Allen J. Christenson’s Quiché orthography and throw out ca, Zacayán becomes Sayán – which is very close to Sidon. But, desire does not make it so. The linguists of the world have rules against such linguistic abuse.
In conclusion, it really pains me to say it, but there are two Sidon Rivers mentioned in the Book of Mormon – the Pantaleon (Zacayán), just on the east edge of the town Zarahemla, and the Michatoya, further east 40 miles bordering on the South Wilderness with Manti near the headwaters.