28 September 2006

The discovery of Ubar (Iram)

UBAR- The Lost City of Iram of Pillars

Location: Shisr, off Route 31 from Thumrayt 
For more information: 800 777999; www.omantourism.gov.om

About The Lost City of Iram of Pillars : 
Ubar, a name of a region or a name of a people, was mentioned in ancient records, and was spoken of in folk tales as a trading center of the Rub Al-Kali desert in the southern part of the Arabian peninsula. It is estimated that it lasted from about 3000 BC to the 1st century AD. According to legends, it became fabulously wealthy from trade between the coastal regions and the population centers of the Arabic peninsula and Europe. The region became lost to modern history, and was thought to be only a figment of mythical tales. Some confusion exists about the word "Ubar". In classical texts and Arabic historical sources, Ubar refers to a region and a group of people, not to a specific town. Ptolemy's 2nd century map of the area shows "Iobaritae". It was only the late Medieval version of The One Thousand and One Nights, in the fourteenth or 15th century, that romanticized Ubar and turned it into a city, rather than a region or a people.

The Qur'an (1,400 years ago) mentions a certain city by the name of Iram (a city of pillars) [Qur'an: The Dawn 89:7], which was apparently not known in ancient history and non-existent as far as historians were concerned. But the December 1978 edition of the National Geographic Magazine records that in 1973, the city of Ebla was excavated in Syria. The city was discovered to be 4,300 years old. Researchers found in the library of Ebla a record of all of the cities with which Ebla had done business. On the list was the specific name of the city of "Iram" (and not the name of the general region of Ubar). The people of Ebla had apparently done business with the people of "Iram"


Certainly the myths surrounding Ubar were unparalleled - even by "lost city" standards. According to legend Ubar was a magnificent kingdom, rich beyond measure -the original city of "streets paved with gold." Indeed it is described in the Holy Quran as "the many-columned city whose like has not been built in the whole land."
It was here, archaeologists believe, that great caravans were assembled for the transport of frankincense across the desert. But it's great wealth built on the frankincense trade -also proved its downfall.
Corrupted by riches, Ubar was said to have become a hotbed of wickedness - and like Sodom and Gomorrah -suffered the wrath of God. Historians chronicle Ubar's destruction somewhere between the first and fourth centuries AD.
Thus Ubar was, quite literally, swallowed up by the desert - passing into legend as the Atlantis of the Sands and becoming the most fabled city in all Arabia. Over the centuries which followed, explorers and historians searched unsuccessfully for the lost city and doubts grew whether Ubar had ever really existed.
Clapp was no explorer. But, as a documentary filmmaker, he knew how to check facts. And the fact was that generations of "Ubar hunters" had been thrown off the track by a simple slip of the pen in the 15th century! In 1460 a monk had "misplaced" Ubar by hundreds of miles - baffling scholars and archaeologists for centuries thereafter:
Luckily, by the time Clapp became hooked in the legend of Ubar, there was more at his disposal than ancient manuscripts and the often-unreliable etchings of mediaeval monks.
But even he, at the beginning of his quest, could never have imagined that the Atlantis of Arabia, the buried city of Ubar, would be unearthed from Outer Space.


It may look like a weird and colorful painting to a layman but to the scientists this image taken from space is further confirmation of the site of the lost city of Ubar. It is a radar image of the region around the site of the lost city in southern Oman, originally discovered from space in 1992. This image was acquired on orbit 65 of the NASA Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1994 by imaging radar and covers an area about 50 by 100 kilometres of the Arabian Peninsula.The prominent magenta colored area is a region of large sand dunes. The prominent green areas are rough lime stone rocks that form a rocky desert floor. A major wadi, or dry streambed, runs across the middle and is shown largely in white. The fortress of the lost city of Ubar is near the wadi, close to the center of the image. The fortress is too small to be detected but tracks leading to the site appear as prominent reddish streaks. These tracks have been used in modern times but field investigation showed many were in use in ancient times as well

Evidence The Lost City of Iram of Pillars:

Recent discoveries have brought Iram out of the realm of fable and into history.

In the early 1980s a group of researchers interested in the history of Iram used NASA remote sensing satellites, ground penetrating radar,Landsat program data and images taken from the Space Shuttle Challenger as well as SPOT data to identify old camel train routes and points where they converged. These roads were used as frankincense trade routes around 2800 BC to 100 BC.

One area in the Dhofar province of Oman was identified as a possible location for an outpost of the lost civilization. A team including adventurer Ranulph Fiennes, archaeologist Juris Zarins, filmmaker Nicholas Clapp, and lawyer George Hedges, scouted the area on several trips, and stopped at a water well called Ash Shisar.[3] Near this oasis was located a site previously identified as the 16th century Shis'r fort. Excavations uncovered an older settlement, and artifacts traded from far and wide were found. This older fort was found to have been built on top of a large limestone cavern which would have served as the water source for the fort, making it an important oasis on the trade route to Iram. As the residents of the fort consumed the water from underground, the water table fell, leaving the limestone roof and walls of the cavern dry. Without the support of the water, the cavern would have been in danger of collapse, and it seems to have done so some time between 300-500 AD, destroying the oasis and covering over the water source.

Four subsequent excavations were conducted by Dr. Juris Zarins, tracing the historical presence by the people of 'Ad, the assumed ancestral builders of Iram

Atlantis of the Sands is the popular name given to a legendary city in southern Arabia believed to have been destroyed by a natural disaster or act of God.
The Holy QurĂ¢n's description of Ubar as 'asdhat ai-imad' - "city of lofty pillars" - was mirrored in the towers of the discovered city. And these towers guarded a water source that more than anything else in the surrounding 50,000 square miles qualified as the "great well of Wabar."
For all its isolation here was a place where, as in legend, people prospered and lived well, cooking and dining on the ware of classical civilizations.
Last, the legend of Ubar surfaced when the city sank into the sands. And this city collapsed into an underground cavern. Of all the sites in all the ancient world, Ubar came to a unique and peculiar end -an end identical in myth and now, it transpired, in reality.
There was no question. This was Ubar -the Atlantis of the Sands. As Clapp says: "Before the discovery, all that was known of Ubar was its myth and legend and that there was a road out in the desert that just might lead to the lost city.
"The lore of Ubar proved to be a striking match for its reality. Ubar was in the right place, it was of the right age, and it had been destroyed exactly as the myth had described."
But perhaps the single most amazing thing about the lost city of Ubar is the way it was found the technology of the future literally unearthing the secrets of the past.
As Blom put it following the discovery: "People have written about Ubar for thousands of years, and they hunted for it in the desert all through this century without any luck. And we cracked the case sitting here in Pasadena.

The above satellite photographs show a section of Oman in the south of the Arabian Peninsula. In the photographs of the city of Ubar, viewed from space by NASA in 1992, were identified traces of ancient desert tracks. The people of ‘Ad, revealed 1,400 years ago in the Qur’an, emerged as one of the miracles of the Qur’an through modern-day technology

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'.
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. .

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.

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

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