Revealed from outer space - Atlantis of the sands

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 Qur'an (89:6-9) as the City of Iram;  " the many-column city whose like has not been built in the whole land."

It wasn't quite "Can I hitch a ride on your spaceship?' But it was one of the strangest phone calls that the NASA space agency had received …

A hesitant voice on the end of the line said: "I would like to talk to someone about using the Space Shuttle to look for a lost city."

With these few words, began one of the most extraordinary quests of the 2Oth century. A quest to solve a mystery which had baffled scientists and explorers for a thousand years.

A legendary ancient kingdom, known as Ubar, was said to have existed in one of the most inhospitable places on earth -a vast and forbidding desert in southern Oman, appropriately known as the Empty Quarter.

According to myth, the desert swallowed up Ubar. Quite literally, it sank without trace -becoming the fabled "Atlantis of the Sands."

That was just about all Nicholas Clapp knew when he made that -fateful phone call to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California back in 1983. "It was a little nutty, a little eccentric," he reflected years later. "But as an amateur you can do things the professionals can't." What Clapp didn't know then was that he was about to embark on a 10-year odyssey. And that his "amateur" efforts would culminate in what Time magazine heralded as "one of the three major scientific events" of the 1990s.

Clapp found Ubar. His revelation that the city had indeed collapsed into an underground cavity also proved that ancient "myths" are often founded on sound historical fact.


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.


One day, while leafing through a newspaper, Clapp came across a story about how an aerial radar system had located Mayan ruins buried beneath a dense jungle in Central America.

It was as if he had been struck by lightning: if modern satellite technology could do this, could it locate caravan routes buried under a thousand years of drifting sands? Could the technology of the future fast-forward him to the past? Could it find Ubar?

The questions had barely formed themselves when Clapp decided to call the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA to find the answers. "I knew how crazy a request like that would sound to real scientists," he recalled. "So I really had to work myself up to it. For a while I just stared at the 'phone and asked myself: am I really going to do something this stupid."

Unknown to Clapp, the scientist he would be speaking to moments later had a motto above his computer terminal which implored: DARE TO BE STUPID!

From that moment, an alliance was formed between Clapp and research geologist Dr. Ron Blom. Although it would be another 10 years before Ubar was found, that first nervous phone call in 1983, was to prove a pivotal moment.


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.

The mapping of these tracks on remote sensing images was the key to discovery of Ubar, shedding light on a little known early civilization.

On that very day the two had lunch and the affable Dr. Blom introduced Clapp to SIR B -the Shuttle Imaging Radar system. Its potential had only been realized a year earlier when the first version, SIR A, produced results that astounded even NASA.

Installed aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, SIR's mission was to provide images of a completely flat desert area in Africa's northern Sudan. But when the images were examined, it was as if nature had decided to play a hoax on science. For this was no desert flatbed, but rich and varied landscape.


The radar had seen right through the sand as if it were a sheet of glass to reveal streams, riverbeds and formations of a bygone age. SIR had photographed a vanished land.

Eighteen months later the Space Shuttle Challenger was launched with the southern Arabian Peninsula programmed in its flight- path. But technical problems beset the flight and it seemed that the hoped for images of Oman were among the scientific projects that had been scuppered. But not entirely. It took more than a year for NASA to examine all the radar images sent back by Challenger -and there, among them, were images of the South Arabian desert. Except it wasn't a desert. It was a vast savanna -with a lakebed more than 20 kilometres long. Once again, SIR B had washed away the sands of time to reveal the past.

What followed was a laborious microscopic analysis of the Shuttle film -plus infrared images from French and American satellites. And all the while Clapp was researching ancient trade routes and searching for other historical clues.

This combination of painstaking research and space age technology narrowed down the search area to Dhofar in Oman; then to the Empty Quarter; and finally under the sand dunes to a wide ancient road which could have only been created by centuries of commerce.

But where did the road lead? To Arabia's oldest incense trading marketplace of yore? Or to an archaeological dead end in the desert?


Eventually, after the endless hours in dusty libraries, after the science, after the planning; after the dreaming, it comes down to hairy knees in khaki shorts sweating their way through the desert. Such is the glamour of the lost-city business.

The "hairy knees" of the Ubar Search Team had particularly distinguished owners. British polar explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes; Dr Juris Zarins, a celebrated professor of anthropology; George Hedges, a noted Los Angeles attorney with a passion for archaeology, Blom and Clapp.

In the summer of 1990, the team embarked on their first mission to Oman. They were able to determine that ancient roads identified from space were indeed the paths made by caravan traders on long overland treks. The team also succeeded in narrowing down the possible Ubar sites to five.

One of them was located around the small village of Shisur. But it was further south-east than the exploration team thought Ubar should be. The team left Shisur and continued deeper into the Empty Quarter. But after two weeks in the desert Ubar still eluded them. The lost city would have to remain lost a little longer.

Clapp planned to return to Oman later that year but the Gulf War intervened. It proved to be a blessing in disguise. For in the interim, more images from space were ordered -this time concentrating on the region around previously dismissed Shisur.

"We put them on the computer," said Blom, "and what we saw were old, old roads all over the place - and all converging on Shisur. And they came from everywhere."

The village resembled the hub of a wheel with spokes pointing out in all directions.

In November 1991 the Expedition Team returned to Oman and set out into the desert in their Land Rovers. On reaching Shisur, a subsurface radar system was used to aid site investigations. The instrument duly measured and indicated probable ruins - but very deep below.


Excavations began the following month. After many false starts, dead ends and weeks of digging, 1991 became 1992 and the work went on. But slowly, evidence began to emerge of an octagonal fortified city with 30-foot towers and thick walls. Inside, were many buildings including storerooms. Frankincense burners and pottery shards from various regions were found dating back to about 2000BC.

But the biggest clue was that the walls of the settlement had been built over a huge limestone cavern that had collapsed - burying the city beneath the sands. Archaeology seldom involves "Eureka" moments. It involves building up clues from the edges and working inwards slowly - rather like assembling a jigsaw. It is a gradual process - and when the final piece is slotted in, the whole picture emerges.

So what were the key pieces to the Ubar jigsaw? First, the site was where it had long been fabled to be. An impressive fortress guarding a city in a sea of desolation.? Then it's age. In myth, Noah's grandson founded Ubar. What the expedition uncovered was an ancient site dating back to precisely the correct era.

The Holy Qurân'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."

More info at : NASA's Observatorium Education - Ubar

Gripping Read: Nicholas Clapp's personal account of a brilliant piece of archaeological detective work, and a gripping read in its own right; is called "The Road to Ubar: Finding the Atlantis of the Sands." His book was re-issued in paperback earlier in the Year 2000 by Souvenir Press Ltd. (ISBN 0285 63544 1).


        CREDITS: VISA Life