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‘Atlantis of the Sands’: A Sizzling Tale

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Flying high in a helicopter over a shimmering Arabian desert, Nicholas Clapp began to wonder whether he wasn’t truly crazy after all.

Sprawling beneath him was the Rub’ al Khali, or Empty Quarter--an endless expanse of forbidding isolation known for its majestic dunes that rise up 60 stories from the desert floor like great ocher-colored waves of rolling sand.

Clapp had left Los Angeles and his career as a documentary filmmaker for a whimsical trip to the blast furnace interior of Oman, a country on the southeastern end of the Saudi Arabian peninsula where daytime temperatures reach 120 degrees. He surveyed the vast Empty Quarter, an enormous sand mass, and he lost his breath.

“I wondered why anybody, for any reason, would want to live out here,” he said. “And just for a moment I thought, ‘What in the world am I doing here?’ ”

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What Clapp was doing was playing the role of a modern day Indiana Jones, an unlikely amateur adventurer on a personal quest to find the lost city of Ubar.

The ancient kingdom, featured in both the Koran and the “Thousand and One Nights” fables, was said to have been destroyed by Allah a thousand years ago for the sins of its people--swallowed up by the desert, lost without a trace, becoming known as the magical Atlantis of the Sands.

For Clapp, the obsession to find the buried city became a 13-year odyssey that led him from staid research libraries in Southern California to one of Earth’s last remaining wastelands. His assembled archeological team eventually produced what Time magazine called one of the three major scientific events of 1994.

Using ancient historical maps, consulting the memoirs of scholars and scoundrels who had searched fruitlessly for Ubar--even convincing scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to contribute its satellite imaging technology to the search--Clapp and his team braved exhausting heat, poisonous snakes and the sometimes hostile desert denizens on two expeditions into the Empty Quarter.

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Trundling across the desert terrain in loaded-down Land Rovers, they traced ancient caravan routes to several dead-ends. Finally, they stumbled upon the ruins of the elaborate walled city at the bottom of a mammoth sinkhole near the center of a Bedouin trading center, excavating artifacts dating back 4,000 years or more.

Last month, the publication of Clapp’s book, “The Road to Ubar: Finding the Atlantis of the Sands,” launched him on a tour to meet people “whose curiosity about this world is just as strong as mine.” A documentary film of the find has been aired on public television.

The discovery was even more compelling because it wasn’t spearheaded by any university or lauded archeologist, but by an amateur with a keen sense of curiosity and the will to continue his quest even when the evidence overwhelmingly suggested that the city never existed.

The bookish-looking 61-year-old Rhode Island native, who admits he doesn’t know how to use the Internet, did his research the old-fashioned way--spending years sorting through dusty old maps and biographical accounts in German, French and Arabic, straining to see if ancient myth held up to historical scrutiny.

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“It was a little nutty, a little eccentric,” Clapp said. “But as an amateur, you can do things the professionals can’t. There are no reputations at stake, no colleagues looking over your shoulder. That freed me to perhaps do things others wouldn’t do.”

With his revelation that Ubar had apparently fallen prey to an ancient sinkhole, experts say, Clapp not only unearthed the answer to a centuries-old mystery but also confirmed a historical basis to the ancient myths that the city had suddenly vanished into the sand.

“This is a truly significant find,” said Eric M. Meyers, a Duke University professor and past president of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

“In this case, the romance associated with the site is equally significant to what they have found. It has shown scholars around the world that there can be a very real historical basis behind the myths that are out there.”

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Clapp’s fascination with the vast Empty Quarter began in the early 1980s on a visit to Oman during the shooting of a documentary. Eager to return, he began investigating the histories of explorers who had sought to find the lost Ubar--home to the People of Ad, the only tribe to carve out a successful existence there.

Ancient Ubar, according to legend, had once served as a desert marketplace for the trade of frankincense to seaports in Rome and Alexandria--exporting the scent that sweetened the air of households throughout Arabia. Yet since its disappearance around AD 400, no one had ever recovered a trace of the lost kingdom.

Poring over medieval manuscripts at UCLA and the Huntington Library in San Marino, Clapp discovered that a slip of the pen by a 15th century monk would erroneously misplace the location of Ubar by several hundreds miles for centuries, baffling scholars, archeologists and adventurers alike--even the famous map maker Ptolemy.

His search soon took over his life. Based on his research, Clapp plotted his own map of ancient Persia and even compiled a family tree of sorts of who might have lived in Ubar. He explored countless myths of the era--from the pair of fabled dancing girls known as the “Twin Locusts” to the nisnases--weird monkey-like creatures said to haunt the ruins of the lost city.

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“There was a point where I actually had to come up with other things to do so that I wouldn’t be working on this,” Clapp said. “But there was always another lead to follow--the writings of some obscure German archeologist or another set of maps to read. I realized that this was really a one-way road. There was no turning back.”

One day, he read a newspaper story detailing how an airborne radar system had located Mayan ruins buried beneath a dense jungle canopy--and that the radar system was soon to be flown aboard the space shuttle.

That’s when Clapp had a brainstorm--why couldn’t modern satellite technology be used to help locate caravan routes buried under a thousand years of drifting sands, and even find Ubar?

He decided to call JPL to find out. “I know how crazy a request like that would sound to real scientists,” he recalled. “So I really had to work myself up to it. For a while, I just stared at the phone and asked myself, ‘Am I really going to do something this stupid?’ ”

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That day, he talked with JPL research scientist Ron Blom, who not only didn’t think the idea was crazy, but eventually helped arrange for satellite pictures to be taken from space of Clapp’s little corner of the world--pictures that paved the way for Ubar’s discovery.

“I never looked upon Nick Clapp as any amateur,” said Blom, who became part of the Ubar research team, along with archeologist Juris Zarins. “Most amateurs don’t do their homework.

“But Nick was a true scholar, clearly someone who had done a lot of research, you could tell that from the very first phone call. He was certainly obsessed, there’s no question about that. But his enthusiasm became infectious. It’s what drove the expedition.”

With the help of friends, Clapp secured financial backing through an Oman bank and a Middle Eastern oil company, (the entire expedition eventually cost about $60,000) and made use of contributions such as leftover Gulf War military food rations and cases of candy bars to hand out to local nomads and Bedouin chiefs.

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Despite the help of satellite radar, an initial mission in 1990 turned up little sign of Ubar. It was as though, Clapp mused, they were haunted by djinns, mythical spirits borne of smokeless desert fires.

At one point, the team was briefly held at gunpoint by a group of rifle-toting desert herdsmen who said their helicopter had scared several of their goats to death.

Throughout his search, Clapp made no secret of the possibility that Ubar had indeed never existed and was merely the fanciful product of generations of Arab storytellers.

“While he always figured for the worst, Nick wanted to find this city very much,” said his wife, Kathryn, the expedition’s manager. “For me, it was a great adventure if we found it or not. For him . . . it would not leave him alone.”

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In his book, Clapp described the city’s elusiveness:

“The myth of Ubar, I was to find, had all the certainty of a desert mirage,” he wrote. “It would draw you on, a vision of unexpected wonder rising from distant sands. Then suddenly, as you advanced just one step too far, it vanished.”

During a second expedition in 1992, while camping in the Bedouin village of Shisur, the crew eventually found their long-lost Ubar--literally right under their feet.

Slowly, plumbing a centuries-old underground cavern created by the sinkhole, they unearthed clues that convinced them they had found Arabia’s oldest incense-trading mecca, a fortress city of eight towers and 30-foot walls.

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What emerged, Clapp wrote, was a picture “of a distant time, place and people.”

Nowadays, from his West Los Angeles office decorated with Ubar artifacts, Clapp has embarked on a new book project--an investigation of the biblical Queen of Sheba.

But there are mysteries closer to home that also intrigue him, from a supposed lost city in the Mojave Desert to stories of a buried gold mine in the hills of Hollywood.

“There are lots of lost things out there,” Clapp said with a smile. “All you need is the curiosity to go out there and find them.”

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