UbarUbar was a near-legendary trading city that thrived on the frankincense trade hundreds of years before the time of Christ, at the edge of the Rub'al Khali desert of Arabia. It may have been the same as the legendary city of Irem. In the district of Ubar (condensed to a single city in myth), the caravan trails that led from the valleys in the Dhofar valley of the Hadramaut, the coastal region of Arabia where the frankincense trees grew, diverged at a series of fortified waterholes, to make their way across the desert and eventually to find markets in the Mediterranean world. Thought to have been lost in desert storms around 300 AD, the 'city' of Ubar became mythologized as the quintessential opulently rich trade city, for instance, in the writings of historian Rashad al-Din in the 1200s. It is said that the city was swallowed up in a storm as punishment for prideful impiety to God. Afterwards, it is said to have been the home of beastly, malformed creatures with only a single eye, arm and leg each. To travel to Ubar led only to madness.
English adventurers in the last century made a vocation of entering the desert to try and scout out the location of this 'Atlantis of the sands', including Bertram Thomas and later his friend, the infamous T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). The discovery sadly eluded them both. Later an American archeologist, Wendell Phillips searched along present-day camel caravan routes in the Rub al Khali desert, but as well met with failure.
Then, in the early 1980s, archaeological enthusiast Nicholas Clapp used ancient maps, literature, and records to arrive at a general location for Ubar in southern Oman. Clapp contacted Dr. Ronald Blom of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for help. Images taken from the Space Shuttle Challenger in October of 1986 turned out to show distinct tracks through the desert, identified as old caravan routes, converging at Ash Shisr. Two expeditions to Oman were mounted in 1990 and 1991. The expedition team included Clapp, Blom, archaeologist Dr. Juris Zarins, and British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who had been on previous Ubar searches. The team investigated the area around Ash Shisr, and began excavation.
The excavations uncovered a large octagonal fortress with thick walls ten feet high and eight tall towers at the corners. The archaeologists also found Greek, Roman, and Syrian pottery, the oldest of which was dated at more than 4,000 years old. The discovery of these types of artifacts, including pottery that showed influence of the Parthians of Iran and other faraway places indicated that this was indeed a major center for trade, and likely the fabled Ubar. Crystallized frankincense was also found at the site.
One startling result of the excavation was that it appears that Ubar did meet with a catastrophic end as the legends describe. The excavation revealed a giant limestone cavern beneath the fortress. It is believed that Ubar may have been destroyed when a large portion of it collapsed into the cavern.