Lots of Legend and Lore ~ Little Reality in Ubar

Once upon a time there was a City of Towers in Shisr, Oman called Ubar. But what remains of this fabled paradise is simply a hole in the earth!


The legends surrounding the Lost City have been around for centuries. Ubar was mentioned in stories of “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.” Lawrence of Arabia called Ubar “the Atlantis of the Sands” and, in the Holy Quran, it is referred to as “the City of Towers.”


It is also said that Ubar became a hotbed of wickedness and its people became corrupted by its riches, just like the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. It was also believed that Ubar suffered the wrath of God and during the first century, Ubar was destroyed by cyclonic storms that swept away the buildings and sucked the kingdom into a deep hole.


However, in 1992, scientists, using high-tech satellite imagery, were able to “see” through the overlying sand and loose soil to pick out subsurface geological features that would tell a different story. They were able to distinguish the ancient trade routes that were packed down into hard surfaces by the passage of hundreds of thousands of camels. Junctions where the trade routes converged or branched were likely locations for the lost city.


Scientists also found that the city didn’t fall because of divine retribution for the wickedness of its people. In building his “imitation of paradise,” the King at the time unknowingly constructed the city over a large limestone cavern. Ultimately, heavy flooding dissolved the cavern and washed away the limestone; and the weight of the city caused the cavern to collapse in a massive sinkhole, destroying much of the city and causing the rest to be abandoned.


Not all destinations prove to be as advertised. In most cases it is the journey there that is the more important story to be remembered. And it was for us.

Our journey began in the port city of Salalah, Oman from which our caravan of eleven four-wheel drive Toyoto Land Cruisers carried us 220 kilometers north in our search of the Lost City of Ubar. The flat land was sprinkled with large mounds of earth along the way.


We were four to a car plus the driver and our travel mates were two former schoolteachers from Canada who were very congenial people with which to share our day.


Our guide was a young Omanian named Haman, 26 years old with a wife and 2-year-old son. In Oman the extended families are large and Haman has 7 brothers and 13 sisters. They have 100 camels, though personally, Haman just has 3. The houses we saw were large since many extended families live together in one home.


Camels roam free throughout Oman, and are often found along the roadside (sometimes with wild donkeys) and even in the median strip on the four lane super highways. We were glad the camels knew enough to stay within the yellow lines and not stray into lanes of oncoming traffic traveling at 60 miles per hour.


© Ruth Price (Victoria, BC, Canada)


© Ruth Price (Victoria, BC, Canada

After having driven approximately two hours on the highway through landscape of what Omanians call badiha, desert-like terrain of sand mixed with stones and other types of dirt, we reached the “real” desert of pure, deep sand along the sides of the “road.” To facilitate the 4 x 4’s ability to traverse the sand, the drivers flattened the tires.


Frequently, the deep snow-like sand would grab the wheels and whip the car into a direction not chosen by the driver as we sailed through the sands, slipping, sliding, and often almost colliding with other vehicles in our party.



Upon leaving our vehicles, we were quick to realize that what we were walking on was more like quicksand than snow as we sank into sand above our ankles and even higher. Because of the winds we saw ever interesting and changing patterns in the sands.



We encountered a number of signs that said


© Ruth Price (Victoria, BC, Canada)

We are here, in the middle of the desert with absolutely no water in sight, let alone water that is “at red.” We asked Haman to explain, which he did.


© Ruth Price (Victoria, BC, Canada)


Some distance after the warning sign there are a series of five poles (as shown above) and they are placed in areas where there are shallow wadi’s (dry river beds). Even though they have rain only about one month a year, when it does rain, it is heavy and since the earth is so sunbaked, the water does not soak in, but gathers in the wadi.

The center pole of the five is striped, with the lower portion painted white. If the water is above the white section, and into the red zone, then it is unsafe to pass through the water. And to get stranded in the desert this far out with engine trouble is not something you desire. Cellular coverage is spotty and help could be a long time to reach you.


The region surrounding the Lost City is still dotted with numerous groves of a small tree, the frankincense tree, whose resin was as valuable as gold in ancient times. Then and now the resin is used as a fragrance, for medicinal purposes, and for embalming.





3 Responses to “Lots of Legend and Lore ~ Little Reality in Ubar”

  1. Merciful Heavens !!! What a story … The history, the archeology, the modern day, current landscape is something else. I feel my skin drying up …

    It seems to me that your title of this episode (“Little Reality in Ubar”) is not really accurate — sounds to me as though there is a great deal of arid, desert sands reality,. Forgive me … teasing.

    I have laughed at myself, for when you originally told me of your plans to circle Africa (I guess you used that term or one that means the same — actually, you used “circumnavigate” — a splendid 50 cent word, for sure) . I ignored what you really said, and brought my typical concept/vision of Africa to mind (great deal of vegetation, jungle water holes, animals drinking thereon, safari in open trucks so as to catch the “game” in good shots).

    As a consequence, your reports and photos around the northern eastern (?) area took me by great surprise, and I had to go back to your message to get re-oriented. I am most thoroughly enjoying my arm chair, electronic trip with you … Your personal observation, critiques and assessments are really neat !

    Stay well, and Don’t get over your head in a sand pile, Sh

  2. Wow , yet another fabulous day spent exploring so many unknown places. Thank you so much for sharing. Loved the photos , especially of the camels, lost city, and the guide.
    Also the info on the Frankincense grove and pix so interesting.
    Can’t wait for your next report!

  3. rozzellmaryann@aol.com October 25, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    I am enjoying your trip so much! You dialogues are so interesting. I am following you on my NG world map. Mary Ann

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