PHOENIX — In a corner of ancient ruins, not far from the towering Pyramid of the Sun, a small group of Mormons sat among the milling tourists in Teotihuacan, Mexico, and gazed across what they believe to be their holy land.
“This is just what it says in the Book of Mormon about the Jaredites,” Bill Welsh of Provo, Utah, said excitedly as an archaeologist described how internal strife sped the downfall of Teotihuacan.
For the world’s 13 million Mormons, the ruins of Mexico and Central America are hallowed ground, a place where Old Testament tribes settled after traveling across the ocean and where Jesus came to preach after his resurrection. Although archaeologists say there is scant evidence to back up such beliefs, a growing number of travelers are paying thousands of dollars to search for connections on Mormon-themed tours and cruises.
“It solidifies the things you read about in the Book of Mormon,” Randy Andrus of Gilbert said as he walked through a section of Teotihuacan known as the Citadel. “I’m feeling some good things here.”
Mormons believe that three groups of people — the Jaredites, the Mulekites and the family of a Hebrew merchant named Lehi — sailed from the Middle East and settled in the Americas hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus.
The descendants of Lehi split into two camps, the Nephites and the Lamanites, and were visited by Jesus after his resurrection around A.D. 34, Mormons believe. The Nephites kept records of their history on gold plates.
The Nephites were destroyed by rival tribes around A.D. 385, the church says. One of the last surviving Nephites wandered through the Americas and eventually buried the plates in New York.
The plates were found and translated in the 1800s by the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, the church says.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon church is known, does not have an official position on where the ancient tribes lived. Even Mormon archaeologists say more research is needed to pinpoint their cities.
But that hasn’t stopped tour companies from offering Book of Mormon trips to Guatemala, Honduras and southern Mexico, places rich in pre-Hispanic ruins.
“No one is exactly sure where these things happened, but we think we have some good candidates,” said Blake Allen, president of Book of Mormon Tours.
Book of Mormon Tours, which started in the 1970s, claims to be the first such company, but at least 10 others now offer tours and cruises. One of the biggest tour operators, Liahona Tours, started in 2001 and has seen its business double every year, President Shelby Saberon said. This year it will conduct 16 tours.
The trips have become more popular as roads and air links improve, making once-remote ruins easier to get to, organizers say. But they are pricey, with some trips stretching for 21 days and costing more than $4,200, not including airfare.
Central America and southern Mexico are the most important destinations for such tours because of the advanced cities and writing systems that existed there from 600 B.C. to A.D. 400, the main period covered by the Book of Mormon, Allen said.
But the tour groups differ over the exact sites. L.D.S. Guided Tours says the ancient city of Bountiful, where Jesus appeared to the Nephites, may be the Mayan city of Dzibanche in southern Mexico. Liahona Tours says it could be El Mirador, 90 miles away in Guatemala.
Other companies focus on Tikal, 40 miles to the southeast of El Mirador, or on another site 200 miles west in Mexico’s Tabasco state.
Most Latin American archaeologists say there are no connections between the Mayas, who lived in that area, and the Hebrew tribes of the Middle East.
“These are completely different cultures, and they developed in a different space and time,” said Jose Huchim, an archaeologist and Mayan expert with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.
Even Mormon archaeologists say it will take decades of digging for artifacts before the Book of Mormon can be proved or disproved.
“I just see the tours as entertaining, and I try not to get upset that people are wasting their money doing foolish things,” said John Clark, director of the New World Archaeological Foundation at Brigham Young University, which is owned by the church.
But that uncertainty didn’t dampen the spirits of the 18 recent travelers at Teotihuacan, the first stop on an 11-day Liahona Tours trip.
They nodded knowingly and chimed in with Scripture references as archaeologist Kim Goldsmith, also a Mormon, described the use of cement and the way Teotihuacan’s builders cleared the forest to make way for the city.
Archaeologists know little about the people who built Teotihuacan, not even the city’s original name or what language was spoken there. The city reached its zenith between A.D. 250 and 600.
The city’s builders may have been related to the Jaredites, who Mormons believe came to the New World at the time of the biblical Tower of Babel, said Mont Woolley, the tour director.
But whether the archaeological evidence backs up the Book of Mormon is irrelevant, said tour participant Dawn Frenetti, 28, of Milpitas, Calif. Just seeing such sites is inspiring, she said.
“It definitely helps me stay interested in learning more about the Book of Mormon,” she said. “But as far as confirming my faith, my faith has always been there.”