By Yeru Ebuen — About 3 hours’ drive from Salalah, roughly 55 kilometres from the main road of Thumrait, is the small little town of Shisr. It was literally in the middle of nowhere and the only semblance of modernity in that part of Oman are the on-going road construction and the patches of wide farms which I presumed were growing fodder for animals. Bogs Jacildo has been in the Sultanate for 12 years. A fellow travelphile, he was clueless when I brought the subject of The Lost City of Ubar. “I haven’t heard of it,” he said.
We were parked at one of the corners of the Frankincense farm in Daykah.
Rolando Escrupolo, our other buddy, has been in the Sultanate for more than 8 years. He got married here. He raised a child here and a second one is coming. He’s been reading the newspaper for as often as he gets them, yet Ubar was also an unknown subject to him.
“What is there to see?” he also asked.
I told them what little I knew. I shared that I saw a Facebook post from one of the media influencers in the country that talked about it. Sketchy of the details, I added that based from what I saw, it was somewhere near the Empty Quarter.
I went on to explain that it has become popular as the Atlantis of the Sand, the nickname given by TE Lawrence or Lawrence of Arabia. I also explained that it’s a fabled city supposedly mentioned in the Qur’an and “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights.” The Qur’an referred to it as the city of Iram, its people called Ad and for all the good things that they possessed, they’ve grown wicked for which God punished them.
It was an interesting tale which roused their interest. Bogs will eventually punch Ubar into his phone’s GPS — found what seemingly was the right location and without any complaints from us, drove through the sun-drenched and blinding roads of Dhofar headed for Ubar.
In February of 1992, The Los Angeles Times ran a story written by Thomas H Maugh II, the newspaper’s Science writer, detailing how the Lost City of Ubar was found.
In Maugh’s report, he described that amateur and professional archaeologists based in Los Angeles worked together using a “combination of high-tech satellite imagery and old-fashioned literary detective work” to discover the fortress buried under the shifting sands of the Empty Quarter.
The researchers announced that months of work yielded the discovery of an eight-sided structure built on a large limestone cavern that due to the weight of the city, collapsed into a massive sinkhole.
Maugh detailed how Nicholas Clapp, the leader of the expedition, convinced scientists in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to allow him to scan the region using the agency’s Challenger radar system.
The images they took would eventually reveal ancient trade routes — their convergence and branches — apparently made by “passage of hundreds of thousands of camels.” As Maugh added in his story, “The radar was able to “see” through the overlying sand and loose soil to pick out subsurface geological features.”
From the information Clapp gathered, he will soon launch an excavation reaching out to possible volunteers which resulted to the discovery of the site in Shisr.
WHAT IS THERE TO SEE?
The town of Shisr is comprised of a little more than 15 stone structures — houses and buildings that were built several years back. Near the entrance of the town stands the mosque.
From afar, the town looked embattled. Under the hot, April sun, even the date palms are on their way to giving up.
A large giant board that says Shisr guard the entrance to the site. Beside the town board is a small store where a group of guys — workers at the site— were lounging.
A few steps away, one of the excavators’ offices shouts “Welcome to the Lost City of Ubar”. There were on-going construction and excavation everywhere but in a distance, stone walls rise from the sand.
A Bengali worker we would later get to know as Sarin would welcome us. In the little things we would come to understand from him, he asked us to follow him.
Sarin showed us a pit in the sand. It was easy to deduce that it was the sinkhole Oman Tourism website was describing. He asked us to follow him even more — down into a tunnel where stairs lead to darkness.
We descended down into where Sarin was asking us to go. It was big enough to fit the four of us. He asked us to flash our lights into the one side of the tunnel. As we turn around, there was a stair that goes even deeper.
He said the re-construction is still on-going and they are yet to see where it leads.
With bats flying and a large population of flies buzzing in our ears, the three of us — pretend explorers — were amazed. The light barely made it down to where we were but in the darkness, we can make out the walls. We can’t say how much of what was on there was a reconstruction but it was evident, considering all the things we’ve seen that it was a city where life thrived.
A reason to visit
According to Maugh’s report, Clapp’s team have to remove 2,000 tons of sand to explore the site fully.
While we check out the site corner by corner, stone after stone, I kept going back to Maugh’s description of the site. He said, “The fortress, they found, was ringed by eight walls, each about two feet thick, 10 to 12 feet high and about 60 feet long.”
He would add, “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.”
It was hard to imagine the ruins as that. From my inexperienced eyes, I see nothing more but stones rising from the sand. But in my mind’s eye, I imagined the city as it used to be.
I imagined how life would have thrived. I imagined the people coming from everywhere passing through this site — a place where water can be found in a place so barren that water is a necessity.
I imagined the noise, the smell, the laughter and the fights that would have broken out knowing passersby in this part of the Sultanate would have come from everywhere. I imagined the frankincense burning so strongly and I imagined the great effort that has to be made, travelling to this far-off place, just to get their hands on the treasured frankincense. For a brief instance, I imagined the Queen of Sheba and how it’s possible that this was part of her domain.
I imagined the great people of the past making their way to Ubar — this site that currently looks like a forgotten ruin in the middle of the desert.
And as I was lost in my thoughts, I wasn’t able to stop myself from hoping that the present generation of travelers will also find their way to Ubar, not just to see the ruins or the sinkhole and what it currently has — but to reimagine the bounty and the greatness of what it once was.
WHY IS NO ONE TALKING ABOUT THE LOST CITY OF UBAR?
When I did additional research, I discovered that people, at least a few of them talked about it. When it was discovered back in the early 1990’s, the world got excited and was clamoring to know more about it. The fact that it has been named as one of the greatest discoveries at that time and having made it to different global magazines is testament enough to people’s interest of the site.
But the excitement died down. There is a need for people to be reminded People should talk more about it. And the conversation and the promotion should begin with people from within the Sultanate.
Why is no one talking about the Lost City of Ubar? I discovered that the answer is because no one really pays it a visit.