Lost city of Ubar found in Oman, scientists say Satellite photos point to 'Atlantis of sands'

February 05, 1992|By Thomas Maugh II | Thomas Maugh II,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 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 called it "the Atlantis of the sands," and like the undersea Atlantis, many scholars doubted that Ubar even existed.

In a news 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 that 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.

The impetus for the search arose when Mr. Clapp, a lifelong Arabophile, first read about Ubar in "Arabia Felix" by British explorer Bertram Thomas. Mr. Thomas had spent years unsuccessfully searching the suspected trade routes for Ubar. Mr. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, planned an exploratory expedition that was disrupted by his untimely death.

But Mr. Clapp had two major advantages over Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Thomas: the closeness of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which is famous of its space imagery, and the gall to approach researchers there with his "crazy idea" -- to use that imaging capability to locate Ubar.

Mr. Clapp persuaded JPL scientists Charles Elachi and Ronald Blom to scan the region with a special radar system that was flown onthe last successful mission of Challenger. The radar was able to "see" through the sand and 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 a hard surface by the passage of hundreds of thousands of camels. Junctions where the trade routes converged or branched seemed likely locations for the lost city.

Then they enlisted two other principals, archaeologist 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 began preliminary excavations at several sites in December and found that an oasis called Shisr held great promise.

A crossroads for wandering Bedouin, Shisr currently has a few residents who farm an acre of land using water from its well.

Mr. Zarins immediately brought in a team from his university, and Mr. Clapp and Mr. 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," Mr. Clapp said. "The sand was really flying from the site."

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 ringed by eight walls, each about 2 feet thick, 10 to 12 feet high and about 60 feet long. At each corner stood a tower, roughly 30 feet tall. The towers were the primary distinguishing feature of Ubar, which is described in the Koran as "the many-towered city . . . whose like has not been built in the entire land."

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