The fabled lost city of Ubar, celebrated in both the Koran and “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights” as the center of the lucrative frankincense trade for 3,000 years before the birth of Christ, has been found by a Los Angeles-based team of amateur and professional archeologists.
Using a combination of high-tech satellite imagery and old-fashioned literary detective work, they discovered the fortress city buried under the shifting sands of a section of Oman so barren that it is known as the Rub’al Khali or Empty Quarter.
Built nearly 5,000 years ago, Ubar was a processing and shipping center for frankincense, an aromatic resin grown in the nearby Qara Mountains. Used in cremations and religious ceremonies, as well as in perfumes and medicines, frankincense was as valuable as gold.
Ubar’s rulers became wealthy and powerful and its residents--according to Islamic legend--so wicked and debauched that eventually God destroyed the city, allowing it to be swallowed up by the restless desert. T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, called it “the Atlantis of the sands” and, like the undersea Atlantis, many scholars doubted that Ubar ever existed.
In a news conference today at the Huntington Library in San Marino, the researchers will announce that the site excavated over the past two months reveals an unusual eight-sided structure that must have been every bit as magnificent as it was portrayed in legend.
Moreover, the researchers say they have documented how the city fell, and that it did not appear to be by divine retribution for wickedness. In building his “imitation of paradise,” the legendary King Shaddad ibn ‘Ad unknowingly constructed it over a large limestone cavern. Ultimately, the weight of the city caused the cavern to collapse in a massive sinkhole, destroying much of the city and causing the rest to be abandoned.
The researchers also discovered the remains of a nearby neolithic village that may date to at least 6000 B. C.
The discoveries are expected to shed considerable light on the early history of the region, which has been shrouded in myth, said George Hedges, 39, a Los Angeles lawyer who with 53-year-old filmmaker Nicholas Clapp was one of the leaders of the expedition. Among the mysteries of the region the findings may help resolve, for example, is whether the Queen of Sheba, who would have been contemporaneous with Ubar, really existed.
The researchers have already found evidence that the climate was much different at that time. The neolithic village was apparently located on the banks of a river--long since dried up--and its residents farmed a substantial area.
Even in the time of Ubar, 3,000 years after the neolithic village, rainfall was more plentiful and the well supplied quite large quantities of water, enough to support not only the city itself but also the camel caravans that traversed the forbidding desert.
Excavations at Ubar and other sites the researchers have identified should provide the first accurate information about the trade in frankincense, one of the first agricultural commodities to become an item of commerce.
The impetus for the search arose when Clapp, a lifelong Arabophile, first read about Ubar in “Arabia Felix” by British explorer Bertram Thomas. Thomas had spent years unsuccessfully searching the suspected trade routes for Ubar. Lawrence was also fascinated and planned an exploratory expedition that was disrupted by his death.
But Clapp had two major advantages over Lawrence and Thomas: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which is famous for its space imagery, and the gall to approach researchers there with his “crazy idea"--to use that imaging capability to find Ubar.
Clapp persuaded JPL scientists Charles Elachi and Ronald Blom to scan the region with a special shuttle radar system that was flown on the last successful mission of Challenger. The radar was able to “see” through the overlying sand and loose soil to pick out subsurface geological features.
Using the imagery, the team was able to pick out the ancient trade routes, which were packed down into hard surfaces by the passage of hundreds of thousands of camels. Junctions where the trade routes converged or branched seemed likely locations for the lost city.
Armed with this information, they enlisted archeologist Juris Zarins of Southwest Missouri State University and British explorer Sir Ranulf Fiennes, who has served with the British military in the deserts of Oman and fought with the sultan’s forces.
The team made a brief, preliminary expedition to Oman last summer, searching about 35 sites. They found shards of pottery and other evidence of the trade routes, but nothing to show they had definitively found the city.
They returned in December and began preliminary excavations at several sites. They quickly found that one of them, an oasis called Shisr, held great promise.
Little more than a crossroads for wandering Bedouin, Shisr now has a few residents who farm an acre of land using water from its well. The Omani government recently constructed a regional center for Bedouin there, building a mosque and 12 little houses. The team was able to rent three of the houses as headquarters.
Ironically, Thomas had stopped at Shisr in his search and made note of a “rude fort” at the site. Residents told him the fort had been built by a local sheik only 300 years earlier, and Thomas’s brief studies seemed to confirm that, so he abandoned the site.
But although the fort had been built recently, the team found that the sheik had built it on the rubble of Ubar. In fact, limestone blocks from Ubar were used in its construction.
As soon as they began digging, Clapp said, they knew that they were on to something. Zarins immediately brought in a full team from his university, and Clapp and Hedges recruited volunteers from a nearby military base to help with the laborious task of excavation.
“On some weekends, we had as many as 40 volunteers digging,” Clapp said. “The sand was really flying from the site.”
In the last two months, he said, they have removed 200 tons of sand from the site, sifting every bit of it so that they could discover “even the smallest mouse bone.” He predicts they will have to remove another 2,000 tons to explore the site fully.
What they found was not a city in the conventional sense. Most Arabs in the past have lived not in traditional dwellings but in tents whose sides can be opened to allow cooling breezes. So the bulk of the “city” would have left few permanent traces, except for fire pits, which the team found in abundance.
But at the center of the tent city was a permanent fortress that served as the home of the king, as a processing and storage facility for the frankincense and as a record-keeping center. In times of trouble, the fortress served as a safe haven whose walls and towers were never breached.
The fortress, they found, was ringed by eight walls, each about two feet thick, 10 to 12 feet high and about 60 feet long. At each corner stood a tower, roughly 10 feet in diameter and 30 feet tall. The towers were the primary distinguishing feature of Ubar and are the strongest proof that this is in fact Ubar, which is described in the Koran as “the many-towered city . . . whose like has not been built in the entire land.” Also convincing is the sinkhole, which confirms that the city met a cataclysmic end.
During their excavations, the team has found fragments of pottery from all of the ancient world, bones ranging from mice to camels (although no human bones so far), incense burners and coins. They hope to find much more when they begin excavating the part of the city that collapsed into the sinkhole. Residents would have removed their belongings when they abandoned the buildings that did not collapse, but those that fell into the sinkhole probably would not even have been emptied by scavengers.
But that will have to wait until they can bring in some mining engineers. For now, the sinkhole is simply too dangerous to excavate.
Funding for the expedition was provided by a consortium of American, British and Omani companies, led by the Oman National Bank.
The Lost City
Researchers believe that they have found the legendary lost city of Ubar, celebrated in “The Thousand and One Arabian Nights” and the Koran as a center of the frankincense trade in ancient Arabia. Excavations at the site indicate that the city included a fortress surrounded by the tents of the permanent residents.
* Location: On a slight rise in the barren section what is now southern Oman known as the “Empty Quarter.” The fortress’ large well was the only source of water for several days’ journey.
* History: Artifacts indicate the city came into existence before 2800 B.C. Legend holds that it was destroyed by God because of the debauchery of its residents, but new evidence indicates it was destroyed, perhaps around AD 100 to 200, when a large limestone cavern beneath it collapsed.
* The Product: The frankincense -- a valuable substance used in cremations, in medicine and as a perfume -- was made from the sap of scraggly bushes from the Qara Mountains. It was processed in Ubar before being shipped northward across the desert on trade routes that led to ancient Sumer, as well as Damascus and Jerusalem.
Main Building (probably residence of ruler)
Central Water Well
* 8 different structures.
* 30 feet tall.
* 10 feet in diameter.
* 60 feet long.
* 10 to 12 feet high.
* About 2 feet thick.