Ubar

Archaeological Site in Shisr

Ubar is an archaeological site of potentially great importance. Lost to history for more than 1000 years, the rediscovery of the remains of this once important trading post on the frankincense route caused great archaeological excitement in the 1990s. It may be hard for the ordinary mortal to appreciate what all the fuss is about as there is little to see.

A small, dusty museum (currently being rehoused in a much more recent fort tower) will eventually show the limited finds from the digs but you can wander around the unearthed settlement walls and get a feeling for the old walled community. The fabled golden pillars of antiquity, however, are probably just that: a fable elaborated from Bedouin tales. The route from Thumrait is now paved and signposted from the main road.

In early 1992 the British explorer Ranulph Fiennes, together with a group of US researchers led by Nicholas Clapp, announced that they had found, with the use of satellite imagery, the remains of Ubar, one of the great lost cities of Arabia. According to legend, Ubar, otherwise known as the Atlantis of the Sands, was the crossroads of the ancient frankincense trail. Scholars are fairly certain that the place existed, that it controlled the frankincense trade and was highly prosperous as a result, but therein lies the end of the certainties.

The Quran states that God destroyed Ubar because the people of Ad were decadent and had turned away from religion, but archaeologists are more inclined to believe that it fell into a collapsed limestone cavern or sink hole. The site of this calamity is easy to see today, the remains shored up rather unsympathetically in concrete.

Predictably, there are many who dispute the rediscovery of Ubar. Excavations at the site have shown nothing of sufficient age to verify the claims and some chess pieces suggest a much later inhabitation. So is it worth the effort of bouncing along a graded track into the middle of nowhere to see not very much? For the historian, the romantic, or the plain curious, the site, in the middle of a great stony plain, offers the chance to peer through a hole in the desert at a legend laid bare.

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