Serious archaeology is more than shovels and a hunch. It is an exacting science. This is nowhere more apparent than in the current work of the TransArabia Expedition. This diverse ensemble utilizes clues from the Qu’ran, ancient documents and satellite images in order to focus its work. The expedition’s eclectic philosophy has paid off. The crew achieved international acclaim in 1992 with the discovery of a likely candidate for the ancient city of Ubar.
Ubar has mystified many. At its zenith it achieved fame and fabulous wealth according to tradition. Its demise, however, was assigned to a devastating scourge that “left nothing whatsoever”. Ubar, it seemed, was destined to oblivion. Yet, what sand did not conceal and sinkhole did not consume, stood fast until the 20th century. Today, a profile emerges as archaeologists loosen the desert’s gripping mantle.
The discovery is significant. Information from the site will supplement what scholars know of a trade that dates back at least 5000 years in the Near East. Ubar lies in the Dhofar Nejd (open desert) of south-western Ornan. The Nejd forms a barren fringe just south of the foreboding Rub al-Khali (empty quarter) desert of Saudi Arabia. The region was famous in antiquity for the production, processing and marketing of the aromatic gum-resin, frankincense.
The success of the TransArabia Expedition has generated a positive press, rather unusual for an achaelogical project. In the United States both Time and Discover magazines included the project among their most significant achievements for 1992. Nicholas Clapp is the Expedition’s founder and an Emmy awardwinning film maker, who lives in his apartments in london. He recently produced a television special in the United States on Ubar called “The Lost Tribe”. In 1992 another group member, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, published “The Search for the Lost City of Ubar”. Fiennes led the former British TransGlobe Expedition. However, the Ubar find is not some lucky, overnight sensation. Clapp and co-leader, George Hedges, a Los Angeles lawyer and classicist, have been considering the project for years.
Texts from the Islamic period also mentioned Ubar. According to one tradition, Shadded ibn Ad created a magnificent town in Arabia’s southern deserts. AlTabari wrote of a drought occurring at Ubar, whilst according to Al-Kisai a strong wind destroyed the city Of great interest to the TransArabia Expedition is the account given by the medieval Arab, Yakut. He portrayed kings in the region as living luxurious lifestyles made possible through extravagant wealth. He described Ubar’s boundaries as extending for 40 miles. The Qu’ran asserted that the Ad people possessed a city of greatness. In verses 6-8 of the 89th sura we find the following reference: “Seest thou not how the 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?” The term “Iram” may be a classical Arabic reference to the city of Ubar.
When expedition members reviewed this century’s ventures into Ornan, one entry held great promise. In 1929 the British traveller, Bertram Thomas, made notes of a “road to Ubar” which Arab The impulse to search for Ubar dates back to 1981. Clapp was examining a map produced by the 2nd century geographer, Claudius Ptolemy. The Alexandrian cartographer included references to frankincense and “inner” and “outer” myrrh-producing regions in Arabia Felix (south-western Arabia). In the Nejd he placed a site called the “Omanum”, believed to be a major market place. On the coast he placed ports in an area known as the Saffara Metrapolis. Ptolemy’s inclusion of a frankincense region in the Dhofar Nejd corresponded to the area where these trees still grow today. He also cited locations for an “lobaritae” people (Ubarites) living within this area.