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Lost Cities: Atlantis of the Sands


Far in the Arabian Peninsula and possibly buried deep beneath the rolling sand dunes of the desert Rub' al Khali is an enigmatic city spoken off in the Quran texts from over 1,400 years ago.

Since the 1930s, Iram of the Pillars also known as Wabar or Ubar have captivated the interest of the archaeological community.

Presumably destroyed by a natural disaster, this fabled lost city was assumed to have been the centre of the incense trade before its fateful end.

The ancient Arabian texts tell of King Shaddad and how he and most of his people had defied the warnings of the prophet Hud against practicing occultism and the worship of stone idols.

As punishment of this defiance, God destroyed the city and drove it beneath the sands never to be seen again.

Did the Quran intend for the text to serve as a warning against defying God or was it a retelling of the events that toppled mighty Iram from its famed pillars?

In 1930, Bertram Thomas on his quest to be the first European to cross this great expanse of desert came to hear of this legendary city from his escorts. They told him of a city that was so wicked it attracted the ire of God.

He knew then that he had to search for it.


Yet Thomas found nothing in his search and instead regaled T.E Lawrence with this story. Lawrence, known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia was a British officer involved then with the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks in 1916 to 1918.

It was Lawrence who gave this lost city a new name; a name that has gone on to capture the imagination of all peoples over the decades.

Atlantis of the Sands.

The search for this city intensified only as its mystery deepened. Nicholas Clapp, another intrepid explorer and filmmaker went on to ascertain a different location in the desert- Shisr- as the new possible burial ground for this ‘Atlantis of the Sands'.

His quest took him as far as Dhofar.

But no matter where they explored, Clapp and his team always ended up back in Shisr.

It was there that they eventually unearthed the wall and towers of a fortress that dated back 2,000 years.

It was a convincing match but was it Iram, the city with ‘lofty pillars'?

Zarins, the man whom led the excavation with Clapp's team went on to conclude that what they found did not represent the city of Iram, whom they took to calling Ubar.


He said that the ancient and classical Arab texts were specific in that Ubar was referred to as a region of people and not a city.

Apparently the medieval story, ‘The One Thousand and One Nights' was what glamorized it into a city.

This hypothesis may have rung the truest after being combined with the consistent failure at uncovering authentic evidence of this fabled city.

Yet, archaeologists and explorers refused to give up.

It was not till several decades later that H. Stewart Edgell determined it was impossible for a city to have existed in the Rub' al Khalil, also known as the Empty Quarter.

Edgell asserts that as evidence suggested for the past 6,000 years the entire place was continuously a desert and therefore, a hostile environment, it would have been impossible for a city with a bustling population to have existed anywhere in its expanse. He supports this with satellite imagery, showing an isolated waterhole instead of a town.

He insists that the city detailed in the ancient texts was strictly mythical.

Yet, texts are often interpreted differently by different people. Our perceptions differ and we understand things based on our own education and experiences.

Lots of archaeological evidence comes from hours of pouring over maps, books and ancient texts as much as excavations and studying ruins. Where there are gaps, informed guesses are made to bridge them.

Is it probable that Zarins was right about Ubar not being mythical Iram but instead an entire region of people? Yes.

But is it also probable that as Ubar may be the region, that Iram of the Pillars could be its capital city in a time where it ruled as the incense trade centre of the world? Is there a chance that buried beneath the sands is a preserved network of undiscovered real estate? Absolutely.


Coherence of the subject matter may have deteriorated over the centuries but sometimes the answers to those questions lie on paths we are unwilling to take.

Like the Tower of Babel and even Atlantis itself, whom according to Plato, in one day and night "was swallowed up by the sea and vanished", these stories of wondrous kingdoms in their prime felled by something as commonplace and yet powerful like nature serve as a powerful reminder of the frailty of our civilization. 

Perhaps in the religious texts, we are reminded of our mortality and that no matter how high we climb or how perfect a society we create, we are but dust in the wind to be scattered on the whims of fate.

Maybe it is a warning; for a city to have been struck so harshly by God, that it would be better for it to remain hidden from prying eyes for eternity.

Who knows what horrors of history we might unlock should we uncover the secrets to its unfathomable truths.

Written by: Christopher Chitty

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