Ubar (Iram)

The story of its discovery and importance

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A summary of the story of Ubar, with links to relevant websites.

The discovery of Ubar (Iram) made world headlines in 1992, “Fabled Lost Arabian city found”, “Arabian city of Legend found”, “The Atlantis of the Sands, Ubar”. Ubar was truly legendary, described in the Qur'an as:

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? (Surat al-Fajr: 6-8)

The discovery can be attributed to the persistence of Nicholas Clapp and Ranulph Fiennes, both adventurers / amateur archaeologists, who tracked down this legendary city mentioned in the Qur’an. They were led to Ubar by the book 'Arabia Felix' by desert adventurer Bertram Thomas, the first European that crossed the Rub Al Khali, the un-impregnable vast sand desert that covers most of the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.. During his travels Thomas noticed that the tribes living in the region of the Dhofar mountains in South Oman considered themselves the descendants of the "People of 'Ad", the people that were associated in the Qur'an with Ubar. When making his famous crossing of 'The Sands' he came across ancients caravan tracks at approximately 18°45'N -52°30'E that were explained by his Arab guides as 'the road to Ubar'.

Clapp got fascinated by the Ubar story and started reading everything he could lay his hands on. Fiennes had been stationed in Oman in his military time and had roamed around in southern Oman extensively, with the lost city always in the back of his mind . Both homed in on southern Oman and decided to find Thomas' tracks, reasoning that all roads must lead somewhere. They got help from space technology, with NASA shuttle space images revealing pieces of the ancient tracks and converging to the small oasis settlement of Shisur, which is now identified as Ubar. Ironically they, like Thomas long before them,  visited Shisur during reconnaissance expeditions exploring the Rub Al Khali to the west, expecting to find the desert city hidden in the vast dune areas to the west. Only after failing to find anything in the sands Clapp's team realised in 1990 that the unimpressive ruined fort at Shisur may be older than originally assumed and that it was actually situated right at the point of convergence of many old caravan tracks. Clapp's famous book (see references) may therefore be better called 'the road from Ubar'.

Satellite map of the Shishur region. The white band through the centre is Wadi Ghadun. The arrow points to Shisur at the convergence point of various tracks. Picture references from Islamcity website

Image to the right produced by NASA/JPL Space shuttle (copyright free, released July 1994). See also

http://www.solarviews.com/cap/earth/ubar.htm

The image is acquired on orbit 65 of space shuttle Endeavor on April 13, 1994 by the Spaceborne Imaging Radar C/X-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR). The SIR-C image shown is centered at 18.4 degrees north latitude and 53.6 degrees east longitude. The image covers an area about 50 by 100 kilometers (31 miles by 62 miles). The image is constructed from three of the available SIR-C channels and displays L- band, HH (horizontal transmit and receive) data as red, C- band HH as blue, and L-band HV (horizontal transmit, vertical receive) as green. The prominent magenta colored area is a region of large sand dunes, which are bright reflectors at both L- and C-band. The prominent green areas (L-HV) are rough limestone rocks, which form a rocky desert floor. A major wadi, or dry stream bed, runs across the middle of the image and is shown largely in white due to strong radar scattering in all channels displayed (L and C HH, L-HV). The actual site of the fortress of the lost city of Ubar, currently under excavation, is near the Wadi close to the center of the image. .

Click on map for larger image

 

For description see above and Nasa Website, notice the modern and ancient tracks converging on Sishur, just left below the centre of the images and from there heading to the northwest into the Rub Al Khali.

Excavations at Sishur revealed a sizeable walled fortress that had partly collapsed in a large sinkhole. Before collapsing, the sinkhole must have been a large cave partly filled with water and probably with a well on top allowing access to the all important water. It had clearly collapsed after the fortress was built, taking down almost the full interior space of the fortress and a sizeable part of the gate and adjacent walls.

Originally the fortress had eight or more towers, connected by a 2.5 to 3 metres high wall and almost one metre thickness, built of local limestone. The main internal building was in the northwestern corner of the fortress. The Qur'an tells us of ' a city with lofty buildings, which the excavations surely revealed. The towers guarded the most important source of water before the Rub Al Khali, now hidden in the collapsed sinkhole. To link this source with the 'great well of Wabar'  that according to the Arabic historian Yacut ibn Abdallah was the main feature in the city of Ubar does not need much imagination.

The legend of Ubar tells us that God punished the people of 'Ad, for wasting their wealthy sinful lives and not listening to his warnings, a story not unlike Sodom and Gomora in the Bible. He destroyed these people by 'sinking them in the sand', which is what clearly happened at Shisur.

Studies since the early 1990's, mainly led by Juris Zarins, the archeologist that was part of Clapp's original team, indicate that Ubar refers to a region and a group of people, not to a specific town. Ptolomy's second century map of the area clearly labels "Iobaritae". There was a tribal group of people, the Iobaritae or the Ubarites, who lived in the area, and the Shisur site is one of probably three or four major centers from that period. Whether it is Ubar or not is irrelevant from that perspective as it was clearly a key site along the incense caravan route at the edge of the great Empty Quarter.

Reconstruction of Ubar from Zarins (2001)
Click on drawing for larger image

Map reconstruction based on 1992 excavations (taken from Zarins, 2001). Click on map for larger image

Ubar reconstruction taken from Nova (1996)

Ubar artist impression (Nova (1996))

 

Arial photograph Ubar,  from Islamcity website

Arial photograph Ubar (Zarins, 2001)

The Ubarites and Frankincense

Ubar existed from about 2800 B.C. to about 300 A.D. as a remote desert outpost where caravans were assembled for the transport of the very valuable frankincense across the desert.

Old Sumerian text refer to aromatic incense as early as 5000 BC and the cuneiform term for frankincense first occurs in 2350 BC. Historical references to incense in Egypt begin in the fifth and sixth dynasties (2200 BC) and famous is Hatshephuts expedition to the land of Punt (locations in the southern Red Sea), indicating long lasting trade routes with south-eastern Arabia. The peak incense trade and business seems to have been reached in the late Iron Age (325 BC-650AD), with the wealthy trade centres established by the Ubarites. The trade network collapsed in the 15th century by Turkish and Portuguese invasions.

The effects of the summer monsoon (Khareef) have a direct linkage to the distribution of frankincense (Boswelia Sacra) in southern Arabia. The best resins are thought to originate from a belt in the arid zone just behind the Cara mountain range of Dhofar, beyond the reach of the monsoon rain, but within reach of cooler winds. The current Boswelia belt stretches approximately 30 km beyond the jebels. Much stronger monsoon winds during past interglacial periods probably resulted in monsoon effects felt even beyond the Rub Al Khali. The trade in these valuable aromatics was probably fully in place already by the middle of the third millennium BC (Neolithic) when climatic conditions in the Nejd were better and frankincense may have been easier and more widespread in the region. Climatic deterioration since this early period has resulted in a gradual retreat to the Dhofar hills of both the frankincense zone as well as a retreat in human settlements as shown by archaeological evidence. A scarce resource in high demand in the ancient civilizations resulted in prices higher than gold and a booming trade in the trade centres along the caravan routes such as found at Sishur in Oman

References:

Thomas, B., 1932, Arabia Felix: Across the "Empty Quarter" of Arabia, Scribner's

Zarins J., 2001. The Land of Incense, Sultan Qaboos University Publications vol. 1, Arcaeology & Cultural Heritage Series, Al Nadha Printing Press LLC, Sultanate of Oman

Clapp, N., 1998, The Road to Ubar, finding the Atlantis of the Sands, Houghton Mifflin US, Souvenir Press UK.
ISBN  0 285 63544 1

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@ J. Schreurs December 2003