Lost city of Ubar, named in the Koran and 'Arabian Nights,' is found

February 05, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- The fabled lost city of Ubar, celebrated in both the Koran and "The Arabian Nights" as the queen of the lucrative frankincense trade for 3,000 years before the birth of Christ, has been discovered by a Los Angeles-based team of amateur and professional archaeologists.

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 Mountans. Used in cremations and religious ceremonies as well as in perfumes and medicines, frankin

cense 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 called it "the Atlantis of the sands," and like the undersea Atlantis, many scholars doubted that Ubar even existed.

In a press conference today at the Huntington Library in nearby San Marino, Calif., the researchers will announce that remains excavated over the past two months reveal 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.

Taken together, the discoveries are expected to shed considerable light on the early history of the region, which has been shrouded in myth, according to Los Angeles lawyer George Hedges, who with filmmaker Nicholas Clapp was one of the leaders of the expedition. Scholars do not know, for example, whether the Queen of Sheba, who would have been contemporaneous with Ubar, actually existed.

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