The 'Atlantis Of The Sands'

The Koran describes how the earth swallowed up a sumptuous but decadent "city of towers" called Iram. In the second century, the Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy wrote about Omanum Emporium-The Omani Marketplace-which he said lay in the Arabian Peninsula's Empty Quarter. The Arabian Nights gives specific clues to the site of a vast entrepot called Ubar that thrived on the ancient trade in frankincense. Were they the same city-an "Atlantis of the sands," as T. E. Lawrence put it? A British explorer, Bertram Thomas, once was told by an Omani Bedouin: "Look, sahib, the road to Ubar," but he never found the lost city. In 1981, a California dreamer happened on the reference in Thomas's 1932 memoir, "Arabia Felix." Filmmaker Nicholas Clapp combed the texts, enlisted satellite experts in the search, teamed up with British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and finally embarked on a three-month expedition. The team may have cracked the riddle.

When digging finally began late last year, the first finds were astonishing. An octagonal, walled fortress emerged from the desert. Outside the walls archeologists found more than 40 campsites-- consistent with classical accounts of vast camel caravans assembled at Ubar. The first artifacts from the site include Roman, Greek, Chinese, Egyptian and Syrian pottery shards, the latter dating from 2800 B.C. "Eight towers once guarded a complex of storerooms, living areas, an administrative center, and possibly the majlis [assembly room] of Shaddad ibn Ad ... who built Ubar as an 'imitation of paradise'," says Clapp. "We started with this hopeless myth and then found seeds of truth and then ultimately found the reality behind the myth."

Some experts aren't convinced. "We're talking about preliterate mythologies of Arabs," says Donald Whitcomb, a University of Chicago archeologist. "There's probably a grain of truth to them. But Ubar is described as a place with the walls all made of gold and there are rubies and emeralds." He also notes that both Iram and Ubar were destroyed, according to myth, and that it's uncertain whether the ancient accounts refer to the same place. "I don't know whether they discovered Ubar mainly because I'm not sure whether Ubar really existed," he says.

Still, no one doubts the find is significant. And the saga already illustrates how technological advances have opened up new vistas for exploration. In 1984, at Clapp's urging, two NASA scientists scanned the region with sand-penetrating SIR-B radar mounted on the space shuttle Challenger. They cross-checked the findings with images from U.S. and French satellites. That produced a remarkable map of the Empty Quarter, including ancient caravan routes and aquifers. Fiennes, who once served in the Omani army, then received permission from the Sultan of Oman to lead an expedition-and raised the needed funds from British and Omani firms. Fiennes and Clapp began digging near where the caravan route discovered by Thomas crosses an aquifer revealed by satellite. The sultan, he says, "is very excited."

So is Clapp, who documented the find on film. He says diggers can already see that the city center collapsed-as told in the Koran-because it was built over a limestone cavern used to store water. That "would have taken down intact rooms full of stuff," he says. Excavation could take 40 workers five years, but the payoff may be a trove of artifacts on a par with Pompeii.