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                                                                                   By Vessy Nick

The Atlantis of the Sands

  Seest thou not how thy Lord dealt with the 'Ad (people),- Of the (city of) Iram, with lofty pillars, The like of which were not produced in (all) the land? (The Holy Qur'an: Surat al-Fajr, 6-8)

  The tale of the lost city of Ubar has for centuries been one of the Middle East’s greatest mysteries. Subject of countless Bedouin tales, Ubar was even mentioned in The One Thousand and One Nights, while Lawrence of Arabia called it "the Atlantis of the Sands". Most importantly, there is a reference to the city in the Holy Quran where, due to its imposing architecture, Ubar was referred to as Irem That Al Emad, the "city of towers". 

The legend goes like this …

Buried under the sands for centuries on end, Ubar was once a city bustling with life. King Shadad of the ancient civilization of Ad built the city some five millennia ago and it quickly became a thriving commercial centre. The secret to Ubar’s prosperity was frankincense – a commodity as precious as gold in the ancient world. Prepared from the sap of trees grown in the nearby Qara Mountains, this sweet-smelling substance was widely used in religious offerings, cremations and imperial processions, while both nobles and commoners alike coveted it for its medicinal benefits. So popular was frankincense with the ancient people, that even the Queen of Sheba is said to have frequented the Ubar region for supplies of the precious substance, which she then offered to King Solomon.

As the sap’s fame grew around the world, so did Ubar’s fortunes. Believed to have been one of the main points on the frankincense route, the city saw caravans transporting shipments of the sap to Alexandria, Jerusalem, Damascus, Rome, and China. In Ubar’s time the trade in frankincense was as important to the world as the trade in silk from the Orient would be a millennium later. Ironically, it was the city’s immense wealth that was to bring about its tragic end.

  According to the Holy Quran, King Shaddad did not spare gold, silver, pearls, amber and other precious commodities when building the city as he was trying to recreate his idea of paradise. The city and the roads that lead to it were left crumbled and buried beneath the sands of the desert when God destroyed the corruption of wealth and delights of the flesh of the people of Ad.

Searching for the lost city

For centuries on end the mystery of Ubar has captivated the minds of archeologists and explorers. There were several documented expeditions devoted to the search of the city. One of the first attempts was in the 1930s and belongs to British explorer Bertram Thomas. The first documented Westerner to cross the Rub’al Khali in a series of expeditions in 1925 – 1932, Thomas found evidence of a caravan route across the desert as well as remains of pottery along the route, but this was all as he was overwhelmed by the desert’s harsh conditions. The great Lawrence of Arabia also dreamt of finding the great city, but was unsuccessful.

In the 1950s, an expedition lead by American archaeologist Wendell Phillips managed to find Thomas’ caravan route but could not find the city itself among the vast sea of sand dunes.

  Ironically, it was an amateur US archaeologist that solved the mystery of the lost city. An award-winning filmmaker for Disney, the National Geographic Society and Columbia Pictures, Clapp had been on previous exhibitions to discover Ubar. In the early 1980s, after careful reviews of ancient maps, literature and other records, he arrived at the conclusion that Ubar was located in southern Oman. However, the search needed to be narrowed as this area spreads to hundreds of kilometers. This is where modern technology came to the rescue.

Remote sensing technology helps

The idea of narrowing down a search area before investing money and effort in a major excavation job is not foreign to archaeology. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, archaeologists were taking aerial pictures of historical sites and the first such site was the Stonehenge in England.

From those early aerial pictures evolved a new method that allows scientists to analyse the surface of the planet and distinguish topographical features often unperceivable by the human eye. Remote sensing technology involves the use of satellites equipped with special sensors who record the various electromagnetic waves emitted from the Earth. This information is then fed to networks of powerful computers which process it thus allowing scientists to see from space what is often invisible on the ground and pinpoint archaeological sites.    

Having formulated a general assumption of the area where Ubar probably was, Clapp approached Dr. Ronald Bloom at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the US. A technology known as radar imaging was used to study the Southern Omani desert. Radar imaging is generally very useful when surveying arid regions as the radar can penetrate through dry sand. Clapp and Bloom hoped the radar will let them ‘see’ through the sand the remains of the ancient Ubar fortress. However, this method did not yield the expected results.

  When the initial radar images proved unhelpful in finding the location of the lost city, another remote sensing method came to the rescue. Equipped with a powerful appliance called the ’thematic mapper’, the Landsat satellite brings out topographical features not discernible to the human eye. Data from Landsat was combined with data from a French satellite know as SPOT and this allowed Clapp and Bloom to narrow down their search, eliminating vast areas in the desert. In the end, the researchers found a series of tracks across the desert, which they identified as ancient caravan routes. The spot where the routes converged was some 180 kilometres north of the city of Salalah, near the small town of Shisr on the verge of the Empty Quarter.

What lay beneath the sands?

After two expeditions in 1990 and 1991, excavations began near Shisr on Christmas 1991. Besides Clapp and Bloom, the expeditions also consisted of American archaeologist Juris Zarins and British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Famous for being the first man to visit both the North and South poles, Fiennes had attended previous searches for Ubar. US litigator and avid explorer of modern-day Oman and Yemen, George R. Hedges was leader of the expedition.

 What was discovered beneath the sands was to make front-page news around the world and was later named one of the ten most important discoveries of the year by Discover, Time and Newsweek magazines.

The excavations uncovered a 90-centimetre thick fortress wall constructed of large limestone blocks. The fortress had the form of a pentagon and boasted a commanding view over the surrounding countryside. The remains of eight once imposing towers were clearly distinguishable. There was an ancient well, which must have supplied the settlement with water. The thickness of the fortress’ walls most probably means the city within it was very well-off. As the city was a major hub for the frankincense trade, there must have been a lot of money kept there and the walls were a deterrent to thieves from outside the city. The walls were also meant to protect the city’s water supply as water was not freely available in the area.

On the site, the group of scientists also found glass vessels and incense burners, dating back to the era between 1000 BC and the Islamic era 900-1400 AD, as well as pieces of Greek, Roman and Syrian pottery, the oldest of which was more than 4,000 years old. The discovery of artifacts from places as distinct as the above could mean only one thing – the settlement was a major trade centre.

Pieces of frankincense were also found at the excavation site. It seems the city was surrounded by storage facilities where vats containing the precious commodity were kept. Also around the fortress, spreading out as far as six miles into the desert, were a large number of little campsites and villages. These were used as resting points for the many caravans traveling across the region. He view from the fortress of Ubar probably revealed a sea of the tents and campfires of the frankincense traders.     

The presence of frankincense storage facilities and foreign artifacts made scientists believe that the fortress most probably was the lost city of Ubar. Another point that suggests this is the fact that the fortress appears to have indeed met a tragic end. It turned out that the walls of the fortress had been constructed over a giant limestone cavern. The cavern had collapsed, destroying the fortress and burying the city beneath the sands.

The expedition managed to collect evidence revealing how the ancient people of Ubar lived. It turns out they were growing barley and dates, plants traditional to the area. Farming was possible by the presence of water, which they used for irrigation. From remains of bones found at the site, the scientists discovered that the ancient inhabitants of the fortress raised domestic animals, while fish from the Indian was also a part of the ancient’s daily menu. Surprisingly enough, it turned out the Ubarites were probably trading in horses as well as in frankincense.

  Ubar seems to have been more than just a city. According to Zarins, the name ‘Ubar’, as mentioned in the classical texts and Arab historical sources, was used to refer to a region and a group of people. References to Ubar as a city are only found in later, medieval versions of The One Thousand and One Nights. The city of Ubar was one of three or four major centres of a kingdom in the area, which spread as far as parts of modern-day Yemen.

Ubar – a link to the past

  The discovery of the city of Ubar had big implications for people in the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. The story of the lost city, which was miraculously found from beneath the sands, was picked up from media from all over the world and helped raise awareness of what the Sultanate of Oman had to offer.

  For archaeologists, the era after Ubar brought a new appreciation of the ancient past of the Arabian region. The discovery of the city led to three more years of excavation in the region and during this time the scientists managed to pinpoint a number of sites, which were all linked to Ubar and the frankincense trade. A major discovery was the city of Saffara Metropolis on the coast of Oman, which has been mentioned in ancient Roman maps. In 1997, Zarins and Hedges took to Yemen in an attempt to unravel more secrets of the ancient frankincense route. They started excavating in the region of Al Mahra, where they discovered more than 60 archaeological sites in less then a month. A year later, the scientists set off to Yemen’s coastline. They were able to confirm that frankincense also grew in modern-day Yemen and that there was a link between territories there and Ubar. It seems that Zarins and his colleagues are not yet finished and there are many more fascinating discoveries yet to come.



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