The last echo of the fabled lost city of Ubar, Atlantis of the Sands
January 29, 2019 2:30 PM   Subscribe

Most people associate Atlantis with a sunken city or continent that is long gone and hidden beneath the waters. However, Arabia has its own legend of a lost city, the so-called "Atlantis of the Sands" (Wikipedia), which has been the source of debate among a number of historians, archaeologists and explorers. The existence of this legendary place remains a controversial subject to this day. Quest For Atlantis Of The Sands – Iram Of The Pillars – A Legendary Lost City (Ancient Pages) Ubar, Fabled Lost City, Found by L.A. Team (Los Angeles Times, 1992) NASA aided in finding the ancient Arab town, once the center of frankincense trade (Facts and Details dot com).

The Story of Frankincense (Middle East Institute) doesn't includ Ubar, but includes a lot of historical background for this valued commodity. Frankincense is still harvested in this region, though what may have been the hub of a major frankincense trading network is now gone.

Part of the complication of looking for Ubar comes from related and equally vague histories and tales, such as Iram of the Pillars (Wiki), which is a lost city, region or tribe mentioned in the Qur'an (Islamicity). In 1930, Bertram Thomas discovered "the road to Ubar," as he wrote in Arabia Felix, a travel story named after the Latin name for a portion of the Arabian peninsula. In Thomas's footsteps, expeditions sought the city in: Timeline from The road to Ubar : finding the Atlantis of the sands by Nicholas Clapp, published in 1999 (available to borrow from Clapp participated in a PBS Nova episode titled "Lost City of Arabia" (transcript; more from PBS circa 1996), which first aired in 1996. At that time, the focus was on Shisur (Shisr or Shis'r), the modern name of a location in southern Arabia.

But as noted on, if Shis'r is the mythical Ubar, "then the legends certainly made it much greater than it actually was." From modern archaeological findings, Shis'r was a small place, with a few huts, some defensive towers, and a well in the center, with "about 150 people would have lived within the fortress walls," as recounted on Nova. This looks more a trading outpost than a rich center of commerce.

Perhaps Ubar is in Rub' al-Khali, "The Empty Quarter" (which you can now visit relatively safely, per Trip Advisor reviews). Y Magazine, "the pulse of Oman" visited Shisr, and noted "archaeologists remain divided on whether it is indeed the ‘Atlantis of the Sands.’ Many have changed their opinion and now claim that Habarut (Google maps, unclear if this is the right location), across the border in Yemen, could be the site of Ubar." Clapp himself had other theories. When he "began researching the lost city in the library stacks at the University of California at Los Angeles, and began to wonder whether Ubar might be the city identified as Omanum Emporium on a map of Arabia drawn by the Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy (World Digital Library, zoom-able map) in the second century A.D." (New York Times book review, 1998).

If you want more rabbit-holes of theories and myths, some think that Atlantis is in the Sahara (thinking that the Richat Structure [Wikipedia/ Google Sightseeing; previously] in Mauritania was made by people), or perhaps in southern Algeria, which further complicates internet searches for "Atlantis of the Sands" in modern times.
posted by filthy light thief (14 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

Of course the L.A. team took an Ubar.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 2:36 PM on January 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

Brings to mind the story of the City of Brass.

Well done, there goes my evening (and thank you for noting NYT links - I'm running down on free reads this month.)
posted by BWA at 2:46 PM on January 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

Hey, that's where the crazy sexy Djinn from American Gods was from!
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 2:49 PM on January 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's bedtime here, but I'm looking so much forward to exploring this post tomorrow. My own house was moved twice because of the sands, so I can easily imagine buried cities.
posted by mumimor at 3:18 PM on January 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

This comment contains spoilers for a detective novel from 1952.

It sounds like the 1945 (b) link was an influence on Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands, the last book in her Inspector Grant series. Grant, whose detective work mostly consists of looking at people’s faces and deciding whether or not they’re murderers (most famously he clears Richard III of all charges in The Daughter of Time), falls in love with a dead guy’s eyebrows, goes to Scotland, and somehow it comes around to a pilot finding a lost city in the desert.
posted by betweenthebars at 3:35 PM on January 29, 2019 [8 favorites]

This is eerie, as it puts Nabonidus' oddball reign into perspective. He was the second-to-last emperor of the Neo-Babylonian Chaldean empire, which was oddball in and of itself. Imagine waking up tomorrow, and everyone is going to work in a toga while reading the news on their phones in Latin, because the governments everywhere completely failed, and the only ones together enough to keep everything going were no-kidding Romans who hid out in the Amazon somewhere. It's like that, only now everyone speaks Akkadian and they have scrolls.

Nabonidus put his son in charge and left to go scratch his antiquarian itch... he is sometimes described as the first archaeologist. His sister ran a religious school/temple/museum with his findings, and he resurfaced briefly to proclaim his findings far to the south, tying them into lore of famous sages from Mesopotamian legend.

Iram of the Pillars. This is the second time it's been discovered by history nerds.

Then Cyrus the Great happened, and the Persians and the Greeks would poke at each other from one empire or another for the next thousand years.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:35 PM on January 29, 2019 [8 favorites]

Hahdramaut is always worth a look, it is the most enchanting area, like Southern Utah, only with high rise clay buildings. It is a poor, besieged and absolutely breathtaking place. Google Earth led me there after reading Enheduanna's poetry, and after reading about the Queen of Sheba.

posted by Oyéah at 5:15 PM on January 29, 2019

Awesome post. The Road to Ubar is a fantastic read.
posted by not_the_water at 7:26 PM on January 29, 2019

I can only imagine the expeditions setting out a thousand years from now looking for the fabled cities of Emerald and Gotham. Could Themiscrya actualy have been in the Empty Quarter?
posted by happyroach at 8:35 PM on January 29, 2019

I took riding lessons with Nicholas Clapp's daughter.

His theory is that the community ran out of water.
posted by brujita at 9:19 PM on January 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's pretty much what happened, along with the Saharan slave empires running dry just shy of them encountering Carthage or Rome. Which is another completely nuts chapter of history unto itself.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:36 PM on January 29, 2019

I’m sympathetic to the idea, mentioned on Wikipedia, that “Ubar” was a region, the land of the Iobarites, and that 19th Century European explorers, addled on 1001 Nights, turned it into a glorious city in their minds.
posted by Kattullus at 2:37 AM on January 30, 2019

Isn't Ubar located somewhere between Tlön and Orbis Tertius? Or am I confused?
posted by jabah at 6:08 AM on January 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

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