“The Atlantis of the Sands

In the Rub ak Khali – Oman’s inhospitable Empty Quarter, lies an ancient city buried by sand and centuries of time. Destined to fade away into the pages of ancient history books, The Lost City of Ubar’s legend remained etched in the imaginations of explorers and adventurers, most notably T. E. Lawrence, who called  it, “The Atlantis of the Sands”.

Ubar, which archeologists thought to have existed between 2800 BC to 300 AD, was once at the centre of Southern Arabia’s thriving trade route, located at the crossroads of important caravan roads. Merchants came from India, China and Africa, to buy Ubar’s prized incense and trade pottery, spices and silks in exchange for high-grade silver frankincense – the backbone of Oman’s commerce and regional wealth. From Ubar, caravans were then assembled to transport shipments across the deserts.

A prosperous city, it was said that its riches also spawned a hedonistic lifestyle. So much so that, in the Quran, the wickedness of Ubar’s citizens led Allah to unleash his displeasure by destroying Ubar’s buildings and all the roads that travelled to the city. The shifting sands soon engulfed the last remnants of the city’s foundations.

“Though the site is still under excavation, Ubar is a place that would appeal to ancient history aficionados and travellers with a keen desire to embrace the legend of an ancient desert settlement while travelling through Oman’s Empty Quarter,” says Mona Tannous, Australian Director, Oman Ministry of Tourism. 

Located in the Shisr area, 85 kilometres north of Thumrayt, it is now believed that Ubar’s foundations was constructed on a limestone cavern, which eventually collapsed around 300 AD, causing the city to sink beneath the shifting sands. Though for thousands of years The Lost City remained buried and its actual location remained unknown, Ubar’s legend was kept alive by the Bedouins, who identified the ancient caravan tracks that lead to the mythical city.

Expeditions that were organised to locate Ubar (in 1930, 1947 and 1953) failed to unearth any evidence of its existence. Then, after an exhaustive 20-year search and using advanced N.A.S.A. satellite technology including radar and optical cameras carried by Challenger in October 1984 and later space shuttle Endeavour, British agent and explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, finally discovered what is believed to be Ubar’s site at Shisr and unearthed thick, outer walls of a massive octagonal fortress flanked by towering pillars.

Hundreds of pieces of pottery and other artifacts including frankincense burners were later excavated and identified to be thousands of years old. Other scientists similarly confirmed that Ubar was beneath Oman’s unremitting sands – most notably archeologist, Nicholas Clapp, who used an ancient map drawn by Greek-Egyptian scientist, Ptolemy, showing the site of another city in the region and the roads that led to what was believed to be Ubar. Later comparing the map with the N.A.S.A. satellite images, the caravan trails became visible and concurred with the markings highlighted on Ptolemy’s map.

“The most incredible aspect of The Lost City is how modern remote sensing technology was applied to the traditional science of archaeology to unearth its alleged foundations,” adds Ms. Tannous.

Visitors wanting to view Ubar can organise either a full day or overnight excursion commencing in Salalah.

Ubar Optical/Radar

This pair of images from space shows a portion of the southern Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula in the country of Oman. On the left is a radar image of the region around the site of the fabled Lost City of Ubar, discovered in 1992 with the aid of remote sensing data. On the right is an enhanced optical image taken by the shuttle astronauts. Ubar existed from about 2800 BC to about 300 AD. and was a remote desert outpost where caravans were assembled for the transport of frankincense across the desert. The actual site of the fortress of the Lost City of Ubar, currently under excavation, is too small to show in either image. However, tracks leading to the site, and surrounding tracks, show as prominent, but diffuse, reddish streaks in the radar image. Although used in modern times, field investigations show many of these tracks were in use in ancient times as well. Mapping of these tracks on regional remote sensing images provided by the Landsat satellite was a key to recognizing the site as Ubar. The prominent magenta colored area is a region of large sand dunes. The green areas are limestone rocks, which form a rocky desert floor. A major wadi, or dry stream bed, runs across the scene and appears as a white line. The radar images, and ongoing field investigations, will help shed light on an early civilization about which little in known. The radar image was taken by the Spaceborne Imaging Radar C/X-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR- C/X-SAR) and is centered at 18 degrees North latitude and 53 degrees East longitude. The image covers an area about 50 kilometers by 100 kilometers (31 miles by 62 miles). The colors in the image are assigned to different frequencies and polarizations of the radar as follows: red is L-band, horizontally transmitted, horizontally received; blue is C-band horizontally transmitted, horizontally received; green is L-band horizontally transmitted, vertically received. SIR-C/X-SAR, a joint mission of the German, Italian and the United States space agencies, is part of NASA's Mission to Planet Earth.