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Wednesday, February 5, 1992


On the Trail From the Sky: Roads Point to a Lost City


Guided by ancient maps and sharp-eyed surveys from space, archeologists and explorers have discovered a lost city deep in the sands of Arabia, and they are virtually sure it is Ubar, the fabled entrept of the rich frankincense trade thousands of years ago. Leaders of the expedition reported that excavations so far have uncovered 'the ruins of eight towers and adjoining walls and deposits of pottery dating to Roman times and as far back as 2,000 B.C., perhaps earlier. They said the location and size of the site and evidence of a violent destruction appeared to match historical accounts of Ubar's rise and fall. The discovery, made in November, comes after decades of exploration and study of historical documents. Much research has tied Ubar to the city Iram in the Koran and to Omanum Emporium on the maps of Claudius Ptolemy, the Alexandrian geographer of the second century A.D. He referred to the people of the region as Ubarites.

The ruins of one of the eight towers archeologists have discovered at an Arabian Peninsula site thought to be the fabled city of Ubar.

Empty Quarter Ruins

Site unearthed in Oman May be Fabled Source of Frankincense

But it was not until scientists began painstaking analysis of satellite images that they spotted geological traces that led them to the site. Images made with invisible, near-infrared light showed evidence of ancient caravan routes, undetectable on the ground, leading to and from one particular area. The archeologists now believe these tracks are the routes camels once traversed carrying frankincense across the burning sands to Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, thence to markets in Alexandria and Rome. They could even be the tracks followed by the Wise Men on their way to the manger in Bethlehem with gifts, according to tradition of gold, frankincense and myrrh. "After four days of digging, it was clear we had hit pay dirt," said George R. Hedges, a Los Angeles lawyer with a background in classical archeology, who helped organize the expedition. Only after further excavation and investigation did members of the expedition disclose their find in interviews over the last few days. The ruins are on the edge of the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula in the Dhofar region of Southern Oman. They surround the water well now known as Ash Shisar. That is near the Qara Mountains, where grew - and still grow - the trees that were a major source of the aromatic resin for the frankincense so prized in ancient times as a symbol of wealth and holiness and a substance used in embalming and fumigation. Myrrh is also a gum resin used in making incense. "There doesn't seem to be much question that we have discovered Omanum Emporium, said Dr. Juris Zarins, the expedition's chief archeologist. "This site is very rich, no doubt about it." 'A Major Find' But Dr. Donald Whitcomb, an archeologist at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, said some scholars suspect that Iram would be found not in Southeast Arabia but in the Northwest, perhaps near the Jordan-Saudia Arabia border. But he praised the discovery while reserving judgment on its interpretation. Dr. Ronald G. Blom, a geologist and specialist in spacecraft remote sensing at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said: "It's a major find. If this is not Ubar, it certainly was a very important place in ancient times." The idea of searching for the lost city of Ubar was conceived in 1981 by Nicholas Clapp, a Los Angeles filmmaker and adventurer. He was attracted to the mystery and romance of ancient Arabia that was rooted in the frankincense trade and especially intrigued to find that "virtually nothing is known of the trade at its source" there in the region of Ubar. When he learned of experiments demonstrating the application of space remote sensing to archeological exploration, Mr. Clapp got busy and, with the help of Mr. Hedges, recruited a team of experts in several fields. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a British polar explorer with close ties to the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos ibn Said, directed logistics for the expedition and helped arrange financing from Omani backers. Using high-tech means to find the Atlantis of the sand. Alan Jutzi, curator of rare books at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., assisted with archival research. Dr, Zarins, a professor at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield and a specialist in Arabian archeology, is still at the site directing the excavations. Analysis of the space images was directed by Dr. Charles Elachi, an assistant director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who developed an imaging radar system that has been flown on space shuttle missions. Working with him were Dr. Blom and Dr. Robert E. Crippen, also of the laboratory, which is operated by the California Institute of Technology for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The literature of Ubar was alluring, if not as informative as the team would have liked. Built by the legendary Shaddad ibn Ad as an "imitation of Paradise," the city was renowned for its imposing architecture, vast groves of fruit trees and fabulous wealth. The historian, Al-Hamdani, writing in the sixth century A.D., hailed Ubar as first among the treasures of ancient Arabia. Tracing fables to the source of frankincense Dr. Blom explained that the space imagery has three important advantages for such exploration. First, the images are obtained in digital form and so can be manipulated by computers to bring out subtle detail. Second, a single image can cover a vast area, revealing regional patterns that might not be obvious in close-up pictures. Octagon With Towers Third, the images in nonvisible wavelengths exposed in detail disturbances in the surface geology. Soil along the caravan routes, for example, has been beaten down to finer-grain particles than on the surrounding rocky surface. The difference often does not show up in regular photography. Even on the ground, Dr. Blom said, only an experienced camel driver might be able to make out the track. From this combination of space imagery, the analysts mapped a network of caravan trails converging on Ash Shisar. The first ground reconnaissance, conducted in the summer of 1990, uncovered artifacts along the tracks indicating that this had been part of the frankincense trade route. Several other possible sites for Ubar in the vicinity were ruled out.

Archeologists and a film crew at work on one of the eight towers that have been discovered in Oman at a site believed to be Ubar, the fabled intrepot of the rich frankincense trade thousands of years ago. In the Koran, Iram, possibly Ubar, is described as the "many columned city...whose like has not been built in the entire land. But it came to have a reputation and fate not unlike that of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible. Condemned for their sinful and unrepentant lives, the Koran relates, the people in Iram were destroyed by Allah. Fall Into a Cavern Ubar's cataclysmic destruction, recounted also in the "Arabian Nights," must have occurred toward the end of the Roman period, historians say. At any rate, the expedition found evidence of its cause. The site's buildings were built over a large limestone cavern, which at some point in the distant past collapsed, plunging much of the city into a gaping hole. The ruins were eventually buried in drifting sand. Lost but not forgotten, Ubar was called "the Atlantis of the sands" by T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, who had planned to look for the site before his death. Sixty years ago, another British explorer, Bertram Thomas, apparently came close in his traverse of the Empty Quarter. He came upon a wide

caravan track that his Bedouin companions spoke of as the "road to Ubar." He visited the Ash Shisar water hole, where he noted the ruins of a "rude fort," but he took it to be no more than a few hundred years old. That account and Ptolemy's map coordinates were about all Mr. Clapp had to go on when he turned for help to the computer-enhanced images from both satellites and a radar system flown on the shuttle. On its first test in 1981, the shuttle imaging radar detected previously unknown riverbeds beneath the sands of Egypt. As Dr. Blom recalled, Mr. Clapp telephoned and said, "If a city was buried in the desert, could you see it by this radar?" Once satisfied this was no crank call, Dr. Blom and others joined the effort, and arranged for the next shuttle radar flight, in 1984, to take aim on the region described in the Thomas account. Detecting Ancient Tracks Despite some malfunctions, the radar did record a broad swath of the Empty Quarter. No buried ruins could be detected, but there were tracks of caravan routes. Many of them ran for miles, disappeared under a vast sand dune, and then emerged from the other side. These, it was concluded must be extremely ancient. "I was surprised to find that we were able to readily detect ancient tracks in the enhanced images," Dr. Blom said. Then the J.P.L. scientists obtained and processed images from the American Landsat spacecraft and the French SPOT satellite. The black-and-white SPOT photography is the most detailed available to civilian users. The Landsat mapping images record terrain in visible light and otherwise invisible near infrared wavelengths, which geologists find to be revealing of rock and soil conditions. Last November, the full team of explorers, archeologists and geologists returned and, using satellite navigation equipment, found their way to the tracks leading to the well at Ash Shisar. Thomas had been wrong to think nothing more than a "rude fort" had once stood there. After weeks of digging, Dr. Zarins said: "This site, the structure of the thing, is quite remarkable. It is octagonal in shape with eight identifiable towers, each of which can be estimated to have once been some 30 feet high, with adjoining walls and interior rooms. Nicely plastered facing as been found on one of the towers." Dr. Zarins said the remains appear to predate every known site in southern Arabia associated with the frankincense trade. Roman, Greek and Syrian pottery has been excavated, with some of the Syrian material dating back more than 4,000 years. The expedition is still waiting the results of tests to date the pottery more precisely. The archeologist said it was difficult to determine now when the city sank into the sands. But he said the structures were built around a water reservoir in a limestone cavern and collapsed from their own weight. Enough has been revealed, expedition leaders said, to imagine the splendor of this major city on the frankincense route, probably the "imitation of paradise" that was Ubar. "It must have really been a splendid sight out in the desert six or eight days from the last water," Mr. Hedges said. "You can see how it took on a mythic quality."